The ubiquitous shopping cart literally carries the weight of supermarket sales, and today's carts are evolving with the industry.
Since self-service grocer Sylvan Goldman conceived the shopping cart in 1937, its use has grown to the point that there are now an average of 200 to 250 shopping carts in the approximately 100,000 grocery stores in the United States.
Terry Swanson, president of Omaha, Neb.-based Americana Cos. Inc., which manufactures wire and plastic carts for retailers such as Hy-Vee, Save-A-Lot and United Supermarkets, says there's a grand total of 20 million to 25 million sets of wheels on retail sales floors at any given time.
The normal annual market for shopping carts is about 2 million, according to Diane Strong, VP of sales at Nestaway, a Leggett & Platt company in Valley View, Ohio, whose retail customers include Giant Eagle, Winn-Dixie, Redner's Markets and Piggly Wiggly. But according to Strong, based on current economic conditions, Nestaway's market research estimates that there are now about 1.4 million new shopping carts being sold a year. Other industry observers put the figure as high as 3 million.
Estimates of shopping cart life vary, too. "Most shopping carts last four to six years in high-volume stores," says Craig Smith, owner of Premier Carts, a resale distributor of shopping carts in Leawood, Kan. "They can last longer if they are kept inside and taken care of."
Jesse Roche, sales and marketing director at Jimco Maintenance Inc. in Venice, Fla., says that carts will last eight years with Jimco's preventive maintenance program, while carts on a reactive maintenance program will last four years, and carts with no maintenance will last two years.
Phil Goodell, president of La Vergne, Tenn.-based shopping cart distributor Good L Corp., says depending on the location, "Shopping carts should be inspected and repaired at least annually. If the location is not a tough, urban one, then carts should last over five years."
Swanson of Americana says that "you want to start repairing carts after 12 to 18 months to avoid excessive repair costs. Most carts will last at least five years in high-volume stores and seven to 10 years in medium-volume stores if they are kept in good working condition."
Dennis Curtin, director of public relations at Sunbury, Pa.-based Weis Markets, says that the supermarket chain's average cart costs about $90.
"The carts last an average of seven years. The plastic ones cannot be recycled," Curtin says. "While we still have plastic carts, today we are buying metal carts, which are easier to replace."
Since Goldman's first prototype, constructed from a folding chair and two wire hand baskets, shopping carts have evolved to the myriad choices available today, and the technology involved in their production has become increasingly sophisticated.
Ken Bush, president of cart manufacturer Unarco Industries LLC in Wagoner, Okla., gives a rundown of what he sees as the major break-throughs in shopping cart history: "Child seats in 1947, sealed wheel bearings and non-marking rubber wheels and swivel casters in the '50s and '60s, the introduction of plastic basket carts in the eighties, and a transition in the United States away from plated carts to ecoat/powder coating finishes in the '90s."
Moving into this millennium, Newton, N.C.-based Technibilt Ltd. currently produces 35 to 40 basic shopping cart models for customers such as Loews Foods, Food Lion, Harris Teeter, A&P, Publix, Supervalu, Publix, Winn-Dixie and Trader Joe's, according to Sales and Marketing Coordinator Alice Little.
Technibilt, which Little says produces 1 million carts a year, has an exclusive, patented protective coating known as Tech-Seal, which extends cart life and is environmentally friendly.
A zinc phosphate coating is applied to the whole surface of the product, followed by a coating of cathodic primer. Designed to improve corrosion resistance, especially in difficult-to-reach areas and joints, the process concludes with a top coating of polyester and Teflon, ensuring resistance to water, humidity, salt and UV rays, as well as to extreme ambient temperatures.
Another Technibilt innovation is Sof-Runner, a wheel system that provides side-impact resistance, greater stability, and a smooth, durable roll. Sof-Runner features steel precision bearings, a polyurethane tread, a polypropylene hub, thread guards and a five-year warranty, pro-rated 20 percent per year against normal wear and tear. The wheel hub has been redesigned with a curved slope to give improved resistance to side-impact thrusts by "bouncing back." The super-soft wheel tread creates a quiet ride, and lateral movement and high impact have no effect on wear, extending caster and cart life up to five times longer than normal, according to Little.
She adds that Technibilt's most popular model is the most basic, medium-size unit, and that "we have two very popular carts that are in a small, convenient size that customers really love. We also produce a uniquely designed metal and plastic shopping cart called the Renaissance." This model features a one-piece replaceable basket that's attached without the use of rivets to ensure longevity. There are three logo panels for optional printing, and the basket is made of FDA-approved resin. A basket cup holder and basket divider can be added, and the model is available in black, gray, red, blue and green.
Nestaway, a newer shopping cart manufacturer, has been in production since March of last year and currently makes six models. Sales VP Diane Strong says that the company's latest technology is the Nestaglide cart with Silver Shell.
"The entire cart has medical-grade micro silver imbedded in the raw materials," she notes. "Due to the fact that the baskets are fluidized bed nylon and the plastic parts are HDPE (high-density polypropylene), just enough air and moisture get in the finish, and the micro silver continues to regenerate its antimicrobial properties. It is the equivalent of washing your cart twice a day. We have brought carts back from the field that have been used for one year, and they still test [at] 99.99 percent efficacy. The fluidized bed nylon is also NSF- and FDA-approved, and is a very hard and flexible finish, so you get a longer life out of your shopping cart."
Strong says that Nestaway's two-tier express cart is popular with the older demographic, but overall, the most popular model is the NX400, a medium-sized cart. "Convenience features will continue to evolve as retailers strive to keep customers in the store," she says. "Bag holders are now becoming popular due to the increased use of reusable 'green' shopping bags."
Americana's Swanson says that a shopping cart breakthrough has been the transition from an all-wire, chrome-plated cart to plastic carts with power-coated metal components. Of Americana's 17 plastic and wire models, he says the most popular is the plastic AMP-17, produced with a one-piece steel frame and a one-piece plastic basket. "Our coating process allows us to give an extended warranty beyond the one year most of our competitors allow, and in some cases, our carts will not rust for up to five years."
Swanson notes that programs are available now that weren't in what he calls "the old days." He continues that "we have a trade-out program for retailers' old, rusted carts. When you purchase a new cart from us, we pick up the old cart upon delivery of the new one. Included at no extra cost is a five-year warranty on all parts and labor."
Americana's mobile maintenance service teams come to store locations and perform a warranty inspection and cart service for one year at no charge.
"Most stores don't budget for this ongoing expense to keep carts safe, clean and with good working wheels," Swanson points out. "This added-value program will save the retailer thousands — if not millions —of dollars in expenses, which we know because we are one of the largest cart cleaning and repair companies in North America. In 2010, we traded or recycled over 50,000 old carts, which is equivalent to about 200 truckloads of waste saved from heading to landfills."
Recognizing that cart loss is an ongoing problem for retailers, Irvine, Calif.-based Gatekeeper Systems Inc.'s CartControl systems combine a digitally encoded radio frequency (RF) locking signal, embedded perimeter antenna and the company's patented self-braking wheel to provide an invisible barrier against theft. The standard-size wheel fits virtually any cart and can be installed in the field or at the factory by the cart manufacturer. Gatekeeper also has a system to prevent shoplifting using grocery carts.
So, no matter what the economic climate, shopping carts are one aspect of the supermarket industry that will always be on a roll.
"While we still have plastic carts, today we are buying metal carts, which are easier to replace." —Dennis Curtin, Weis Markets
Child Safety First
More than an estimated 20,000 children younger than age 5 are injured by shopping carts each year, according to a fact sheet from Safe-Strap Co. Inc., the Wharton, NJ.-based company that in 1983 invented the shopping cart seat belt, without which the child injury figure would doubtless be higher.
Paul Giampavolo, president of Safe-Strap, recalls working in a grocery store and witnessing children standing up and trying to climb out of grocery carts. "It was later that I came upon a news story, back in the early '80s," he notes, "that announced that thousands of children were injured each year as a result of falling from shopping carts."
Giampavolo says that's what led to the design and development of the shopping cart seat belt at a time when all children's products that had a child seat, except for shopping carts, had required restraints. At the time, he says, it was advertising and marketing professionals at grocery chains who pioneered shopping cart seat belt use.
"This was because it was found to be important to customers who shopped with small children," Giampavolo says. "At that time, it became apparent that from market research, PR and the outpouring of positive reaction from people that this simple device was one of the most important factors in a customer's shopping experience. In fact, numerous grocery retailers ran television commercials and full-page advertisements devoted solely to communicating that seat belts for shopping carts were available at their stores."
Today, Safe-Strap counts Walmart, Target, Kroger, Safeway and Supervalu among its customers for the company's three seat belt series, which incorporate such innovations as child-resistant buckles, unbreakable commercial-grade hardware, customized belt printing, easy installation with no tools required, and American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (CPSIA) compliance.
Giampavolo, who is chairman of ASTM International, notes that a standard published in January 2011 by the West Conshohocken, Pa.-based organization recommends adding warnings to shopping carts telling consumers not to place their personal infant carriers or infant car seats on shopping carts. Part of the impetus for the new standard was the death last November of a Georgia infant whose carrier fell from a shopping cart in a supermarket parking lot.
"As long as shopping carts will accommodate children as occupant passengers," concludes Giampavolo, "there will be a need to restrain children in shopping carts."
"Convenience features will continue to evolve as retailers strive to keep customers in the store." —Diane Strong, Nestaway
"In 2010, we traded or recycled over 50,000 old carts, which is equivalent to about 200 truckloads of waste saved from heading to landfills." —Terry Swanson, Americana Cos. Inc.
Back to the Shopping Cart Future
The work of Ideo, a global innovation and design firm based in Palo Alto, Calif., this space-age shopping cart is the result of a four-day process that went from an idea to a working appearance model for a "Nightline" segment in 1999.
The nestable steel frame lacks sides and a bottom to deter theft, and holds removable plastic baskets to increase shopper flexibility, help protect goods and provide a way to promote brand awareness. A dual-child seat uses a swing-up tray for a play surface, and a hole provides a secure spot for a cup of coffee or a bunch of flowers.
According to Ideo: "One of the unique — and potentially patent-able — features of the cart is the design of its steerable back wheels. Normally fixed straight for stability and familiarity, an easy sideways effort allows the wheels to turn left or right. Pushing the cart forward puts the wheels straight again."