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A Brief History—and Future—of the Shopping Cart

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They're everywhere - in almost every grocery store, department store, and bulk item superstore. Depending on where you live in the world, you might call them carts, trolleys, carriages, buggies, or wagons. The guys from MTV's Jackass practically built their careers on them. Yet most of us have never really considered just where the ubiquitous shopping cart came from. Come along as we take a trip through the fascinating history – and possible future – of the common grocery cart.

Let's Get Rolling
Sylvan Goldman had a problem. As was customary for grocery stores in 1936, his Standard/Piggly Wiggly locations in Oklahoma City supplied shoppers with a small wooden or wire basket for them to carry as they wandered up and down the aisles. Once the basket got too heavy, though, customers headed for the check-out line, a situation Goldman wanted to avoid. To keep them buying, Goldman was determined to figure out a way to make heavy baskets more manageable.

One night, he happened to look at a wooden folding chair and inspiration struck.

He placed one shopping basket on the seat and another under the chair, then envisioned wheels on the legs, and a handle on the back. He was on to something. It took a few months of tinkering, but Goldman eventually settled on a design that was convenient and flexible. To use a cart, you took a folded-up frame from a row of them stacked side-by-side. In their folded form, they were only about 5” wide, so storage space was minimal — a factor Goldman knew would come into play for his invention to be accepted in other stores. Once unfolded, the shopper would grab two baskets and place them in two holders on the frame - one above and one below. When they were done shopping, the check-out girl simply put both baskets on the counter and rang everything up.

Unfortunately, the big debut of his big invention was a great big flop. Despite having a pretty young woman at the entrance to help customers set up the carts, the only people interested in using them were the elderly. Men were too proud to admit they needed help carrying a basket, and some younger women said they had pushed enough baby buggies that they weren't going to use one for shopping, too. Distraught, Goldman hatched another plan – he hired attractive men and women to push carts around inside the store and pretend to shop. When real customers came through the doors and refused the cart, the young woman at the entrance looked back into the store and said, “Why? Everyone else is using them.” Never underestimate the power of peer pressure.

By 1940, only three years after they were introduced, carts had become so popular, entire grocery stores were being designed around them with wider aisles and larger check-out counters to hold all the food people were buying.

Ch-ch-ch-changes
Goldman's cart was a great jumping off point for more inventors to have a go at their own shopping cart designs. The first big innovator was Orla Watson, who, in 1947, made the baskets permanently attached to the cart, and redesigned them to have a hinged back, allowing each basket to nest inside another one like spoons for easy storage. The carts were a hit with shoppers, but a pain in the back for check-out girls who had to bend over and dig food out of the bottom basket for hours on end. So Watson made the top basket fold up and out of the way, while a hydraulic platform at the check-out counter would lift the bottom basket up to counter height at the push of a button.

The shopping cart we all know - with one big basket – was first introduced in the 1950s. Aside from a few tweaks here and there, like the baby seat, drink holders, the plastic handle, even bigger baskets, and upgraded wheels, the shopping cart's basic design hasn't changed much since then. But that doesn't mean that shopping cart technology has grown stagnant. Great minds out there are working on new ideas to take the shopping cart into the future.

One company, Springboard/Mercatus, has developed the Concierge system - a small LCD touchscreen attached to the handle that can make your shopping trip just a little bit easier. The screen not only shows you a map of the store, including where items are located in each aisle, but will also track where you are within the store to tell you what items are on sale in the aisle you're currently walking down. If you have a membership card for a store, you could swipe your card on the cart and it will tell you what items you've purchased before that are on sale this week. While you do your shopping, you can scan the barcodes of items as you place them in the cart and they'll automatically be added to your card number (and removed from the store's inventory). When you're finished, you simply hand the check-out person your membership card, they swipe it, and you swipe your debit card to pay for everything in your cart.

As the size of big-box stores approaches 250,000 square feet, many designers are looking for better ways for shoppers to get around. One possible idea is the UNIT shopping cart by Liubov Kurzanova. The cart features a retractable platform for the shopper to stand on while they use the steering wheel to scoot around the store on a rechargeable electric motor. The control panel also features an LCD screen to, among other things, help shoppers find items within the store. But the really big innovation of the UNIT is the barrel-shaped body with a flexible nylon net inside. When a shopper adds items to the net, it starts to droop further into the barrel. Once they get to the check-out and start removing items, the net starts to retract and come closer to the cart's opening, meaning the shopper never has to bend over to retrieve their purchases.

Fetch, Cart, Fetch!
How does a blind person shop at the grocery store? A canine assistant can't tell where the salsa is on the shelf, and most stores don't have braille on every price tag. It's one of the few things a blind person can't do for themselves nowadays. But soon, even this impossible task could be accomplished thanks to the RobotCart produced by Vladimir Kulyukin and students at Utah State University. On the cart's handle is a braille listing of all of the items in the store, each with its own code number. The shopper can punch in the number of the product on a keypad and, thanks to Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tags hanging on the shelves, the robot will automatically start rolling towards the item in the store, giving voice instructions along the way to help the shopper follow along. To avoid obstacles – like a new store display or another shopper – the cart uses laser range finders to help it “see” the path ahead and adjust its route accordingly.

Stop, Thief!
Carts generally cost between $100 - $150 each, so losing them to thieves is not something a store can ignore. Almost every major city has one or more companies whose sole business is to retrieve and return abandoned carts to their rightful owners for a small fee. But many stores have taken steps to keep carts from disappearing in the first place with the installation of a system by Carttronics, a company out of San Diego. Their Cart Anti-theft Protection System (CAPS) is a plastic cap that slams down over one of the front wheels whenever a cart crosses over a magnetic barrier in the parking lot, essentially stopping it cold. An employee can unlock the wheel remotely or with a special electronic key.

The Dangers of Shopping
Shopping carts are pretty dangerous. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reported that 20,700 kids under 5 years old were treated in hospital emergency rooms for shopping cart-related accidents in 2005. About 75% of these injuries were to the head or neck with about 85% occurring after a kid fell out of the cart or caused the cart to tip over. Current restraint systems are inadequate for proper protection once a kid gets too old, so the AAP recommends putting your kids in carts that look like race cars or fire trucks. They're less likely to fall out and if they do, they don't have very far to go. Their best advice to help avoid shopping cart accidents – leave your kids with a caretaker while you go to the store by yourself.

Shopping carts are also pretty gross.  A 2007 study by the University of Arizona found that human saliva, mucus, urine, fecal matter, as well as the blood and juices from raw meat, were found on the handles and child seats of 36 grocery carts in San Francisco, Chicago, Tucson, and Tampa.  The carts ranked third on the list of nastiest public items to touch, with only playground equipment and the armrests on public transportation producing more germ-laden results.  

Because of this, many states have asked stores to provide sanitary wipes for customers, or to provide regular sanitation measures. Some of these measures include the PureCart cleaning system, which operates like a miniature car wash to spray carts with FDA- and EPA-approved chemicals that eliminate 99% of the nasties found on a typical shopping cart. A similar system, the Germ Terminator, created by Fleet Cleaning Systems, uses harmless UV-C ultraviolet light to destroy 99.9% of bacteria without chemicals. Both are incredibly economical – the PureCart costs about 1 cent per cart and the Germ Terminator is only about $3 per month to operate – which is generally cheaper and more effective than a container of wet wipes at the door.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 


PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios

"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole

How Apple's '1984' Super Bowl Ad Was Almost Canceled

More than 30 years ago, Apple defined the Super Bowl commercial as a cultural phenomenon. Prior to Super Bowl XVIII, nobody watched the game "just for the commercials"—but one epic TV spot, directed by sci-fi legend Ridley Scott, changed all that. Read on for the inside story of the commercial that rocked the world of advertising, even though Apple's Board of Directors didn't want to run it at all.

THE AD

If you haven't seen it, here's a fuzzy YouTube version:

"WHY 1984 WON'T BE LIKE 1984"

The tagline "Why 1984 Won't Be Like '1984'" references George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984, which envisioned a dystopian future, controlled by a televised "Big Brother." The tagline was written by Brent Thomas and Steve Hayden of the ad firm Chiat\Day in 1982, and the pair tried to sell it to various companies (including Apple, for the Apple II computer) but were turned down repeatedly. When Steve Jobs heard the pitch in 1983, he was sold—he saw the Macintosh as a "revolutionary" product, and wanted advertising to match. Jobs saw IBM as Big Brother, and wanted to position Apple as the world's last chance to escape IBM's domination of the personal computer industry. The Mac was scheduled to launch in late January of 1984, a week after the Super Bowl. IBM already held the nickname "Big Blue," so the parallels, at least to Jobs, were too delicious to miss.

Thomas and Hayden wrote up the story of the ad: we see a world of mind-controlled, shuffling men all in gray, staring at a video screen showing the face of Big Brother droning on about "information purification directives." A lone woman clad in vibrant red shorts and a white tank-top (bearing a Mac logo) runs from riot police, dashing up an aisle towards Big Brother. Just before being snatched by the police, she flings a sledgehammer at Big Brother's screen, smashing him just after he intones "We shall prevail!" Big Brother's destruction frees the minds of the throng, who quite literally see the light, flooding their faces now that the screen is gone. A mere eight seconds before the one-minute ad concludes, a narrator briefly mentions the word "Macintosh," in a restatement of that original tagline: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984.'" An Apple logo is shown, and then we're out—back to the game.

In 1983, in a presentation about the Mac, Jobs introduced the ad to a cheering audience of Apple employees:

"... It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers, initially welcoming IBM with open arms, now fear an IBM-dominated and -controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"

After seeing the ad for the first time, the Apple audience totally freaked out (jump to about the 5-minute mark to witness the riotous cheering).

SKINHEADS, A DISCUS THROWER, AND A SCI-FI DIRECTOR

Chiat\Day hired Ridley Scott, whose 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner had the dystopian tone they were looking for (and Alien wasn't so bad either). Scott filmed the ad in London, using actual skinheads playing the mute bald men—they were paid $125 a day to sit and stare at Big Brother; those who still had hair were paid to shave their heads for the shoot. Anya Major, a discus thrower and actress, was cast as the woman with the sledgehammer largely because she was actually capable of wielding the thing.

Mac programmer Andy Hertzfeld wrote an Apple II program "to flash impressive looking numbers and graphs on [Big Brother's] screen," but it's unclear whether his program was used for the final film. The ad cost a shocking $900,000 to film, plus Apple booked two premium slots during the Super Bowl to air it—carrying an airtime cost of more than $1 million.

WHAT EXECUTIVES AT APPLE THOUGHT

Although Jobs and his marketing team (plus the assembled throng at his 1983 internal presentation) loved the ad, Apple's Board of Directors hated it. After seeing the ad for the first time, board member Mike Markkula suggested that Chiat\Day be fired, and the remainder of the board were similarly unimpressed. Then-CEO John Sculley recalled the reaction after the ad was screened for the group: "The others just looked at each other, dazed expressions on their faces ... Most of them felt it was the worst commercial they had ever seen. Not a single outside board member liked it." Sculley instructed Chiat\Day to sell off the Super Bowl airtime they had purchased, but Chiat\Day principal Jay Chiat quietly resisted. Chiat had purchased two slots—a 60-second slot in the third quarter to show the full ad, plus a 30-second slot later on to repeat an edited-down version. Chiat sold only the 30-second slot and claimed it was too late to sell the longer one. By disobeying his client's instructions, Chiat cemented Apple's place in advertising history.

When Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak heard that the ad was in trouble, he offered to pony up half the airtime costs himself, saying, "I asked how much it was going to cost, and [Steve Jobs] told me $800,000. I said, 'Well, I'll pay half of it if you will.' I figured it was a problem with the company justifying the expenditure. I thought an ad that was so great a piece of science fiction should have its chance to be seen."

But Woz didn't have to shell out the money; the executive team finally decided to run a 100-day advertising extravaganza for the Mac's launch, starting with the Super Bowl ad—after all, they had already paid to shoot it and were stuck with the airtime.

1984 - Big Brother

WHAT EVERYBODY ELSE THOUGHT

When the ad aired, controversy erupted—viewers either loved or hated the ad, and it spurred a wave of media coverage that involved news shows replaying the ad as part of covering it, leading to estimates of an additional $5 million in "free" airtime for the ad. All three national networks, plus countless local markets, ran news stories about the ad. "1984" become a cultural event, and served as a blueprint for future Apple product launches. The marketing logic was brilliantly simple: create an ad campaign that sparked controversy (for example, by insinuating that IBM was like Big Brother), and the media will cover your launch for free, amplifying the message.

The full ad famously ran once during the Super Bowl XVIII (on January 22, 1984), but it also ran the month prior—on December 31, 1983, TV station operator Tom Frank ran the ad on KMVT at the last possible time slot before midnight, in order to qualify for 1983's advertising awards.* (Any awards the ad won would mean more media coverage.) Apple paid to screen the ad in movie theaters before movie trailers, further heightening anticipation for the Mac launch. In addition to all that, the 30-second version was aired across the country after its debut on the Super Bowl.

Chiat\Day adman Steve Hayden recalled: "We ran a 30- second version of '1984' in the top 10 U.S. markets, plus, in an admittedly childish move, in an 11th market—Boca Raton, Florida, headquarters for IBM's PC division." Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld ended his remembrance of the ad by saying:

"A week after the Macintosh launch, Apple held its January board meeting. The Macintosh executive staff was invited to attend, not knowing what to expect. When the Mac people entered the room, everyone on the board rose and gave them a standing ovation, acknowledging that they were wrong about the commercial and congratulating the team for pulling off a fantastic launch.

Chiat\Day wanted the commercial to qualify for upcoming advertising awards, so they ran it once at 1 AM at a small television station in Twin Falls, Idaho, KMVT, on December 15, 1983 [incorrect; see below for an update on this -ed]. And sure enough it won just about every possible award, including best commercial of the decade. Twenty years later it's considered one of the most memorable television commercials ever made."

THE AWFUL 1985 FOLLOW-UP

A year later, Apple again employed Chiat\Day to make a blockbuster ad for their Macintosh Office product line, which was basically a file server, networking gear, and a laser printer. Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony, the new ad was called "Lemmings," and featured blindfolded businesspeople whistling an out-of-tune version of Snow White's "Heigh-Ho" as they followed each other off a cliff (referencing the myth of lemming suicide).

Jobs and Sculley didn't like the ad, but Chiat\Day convinced them to run it, pointing out that the board hadn't liked the last ad either. But unlike the rousing, empowering message of the "1984" ad, "Lemmings" directly insulted business customers who had already bought IBM computers. It was also weirdly boring—when it was aired at the Super Bowl (with Jobs and Sculley in attendance), nobody really reacted. The ad was a flop, and Apple even proposed running a printed apology in The Wall Street Journal. Jay Chiat shot back, saying that if Apple apologized, Chiat would buy an ad on the next page, apologizing for the apology. It was a mess:

20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY

In 2004, the ad was updated for the launch of the iPod. The only change was that the woman with the hammer was now listening to an iPod, which remained clipped to her belt as she ran. You can watch that version too:

FURTHER READING

Chiat\Day adman Lee Clow gave an interview about the ad, covering some of this material.

Check out Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld's excellent first-person account of the ad. A similar account (but with more from Jobs's point of view) can found in the Steve Jobs biography, and an even more in-depth account is in The Mac Bathroom Reader. The Mac Bathroom Reader is out of print; you can read an excerpt online, including QuickTime movies of the two versions of the ad, plus a behind-the-scenes video. Finally, you might enjoy this 2004 USA Today article about the ad, pointing out that ads for other computers (including Atari, Radio Shack, and IBM's new PCjr) also ran during that Super Bowl.

* = A Note on the Airing in 1983

Update: Thanks to Tom Frank for writing in to correct my earlier mis-statement about the first air date of this commercial. As you can see in his comment below, Hertzfeld's comments above (and the dates cited in other accounts I've seen) are incorrect. Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Frank, in which we discuss what it was like running both "1984" and "Lemmings" before they were on the Super Bowl!

Update 2: You can read the story behind this post in Chris's book The Blogger Abides.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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