History of Shopping Trolley | Blog | Phil Hesketh | MFL

The fascinating history of the shopping trolley


Sylvan Goldman

They thought he was a basket case but he was far from off his trolley.
The supermarket shopping trolley.

I seem to always choose the one with the wonky wheels at my local Waitrose. It’s not like it gives you a clue when you’re heading into the store. It seems to me it’s only when you’ve weighed it down with two cases of premium lager that it suddenly tries to manoeuvre you towards the fresh fruit and veg. It’s nothing short of outrageous.

So who invented this contraption you’ll no doubt be using over the next couple of weeks? Well, it was in 1937 that Sylvan Goldman of Oklahoma first hit upon the idea whilst sitting on a wall outside one of his Humpty Dumpty supermarkets.

I am not making that up.

Humpty Dumpty supermarkets was its name.

Such was the euphoria of the moment that Sylvan lost his balance, had a great fall and bumped his head. The cavalry turned up to help but frankly couldn’t do very much. However, on the plus side, financial backers got wind of his brilliant idea and agreed to bankroll him.

You see, Sylvan had noticed that customers struggled to do all their shopping using the small, hand-held baskets. So he had a bigger basket made and put it on wheels. This not only encouraged shoppers to buy more product, but also netted him a small fortune when his revolutionary idea went global. In fact, Goldman’s invention was hailed as the greatest development in the history of merchandising and one of the driving forces behind American capitalism. And you didn’t even need a licence to drive one.

However, it very nearly didn’t catch on. You see, back in the 1930’s, men thought that pushing a shopping trolley was effeminate and women complained that it reminded them of pushing a pram – something many independent American women had had enough of.

Undeterred, Goldman took out full-page ads in newspapers to promote the trolley. “Can you imagine winding your way through a spacious food market without having to carry a cumbersome shopping basket on your arm?” read one. Needless to say, they were ineffective. I mean, even the headlines were cumbersome.

So Goldman took a different tack. He hired attractive men and women to walk around his stores pushing the shopping carts – a move that proved to be a stroke of genius. Once they were deemed fashionable enough, the carts soon took off. Sometimes on their own. Not only did Goldman’s business go through the roof, he began selling his creation to other supermarket chains and by 1940 he had a seven-year waiting list.

Fast forward to 1984 when Goldman died and his retail empire was worth a cool half a billion dollars. And you’ll never guess what he asked to buried in.

No, not a trolley.

Today, the larger, single basket successor to Goldman’s initial design is still in use in many supermarkets.

So, next time you fight your way through the crowds at your local supermarket, you can impress your fellow shoppers by sharing with them just how the big basket on wheels came to be celebrating its 80th anniversary.

By Phil Hesketh