While waiting in line to pay for my groceries today, I started thinking about what an amazing thing the shopping cart is. It's not a technological marvel, admittedly, but it is really, really convenient for buying groceries. Imagine if you had to put all your groceries in a hand basket. You would probably be more inclined to make more frequent, smaller shopping trips, as is still common in Europe, especially where people use public transportation rather than driving to the store. I only go once a week unless I forget something, and even weekly shopping is more than I want to do. I would go once a month if I had a big enough refrigerator and freezer, making only small trips to get produce and milk that don't last that long.
I was looking down through the bars on a shopping cart. Not making the cart's bottom and sides solid is an obvious benefit for the store. If they were, the corners would be impossible to keep clean of bacteria and mold, and anything that spilled or leaked would be a bother to clean. As it is, they only have to spray the carts down to clean them.
The metal frame seems virtually indestructible, and there is no paint to chip off. Only the handle, the children's seat, and sometimes plastic covering for the corners are vulnerable to chipping off. The weakest point is definitely at the wheels, which always seem to be getting stuck. I think that is more a consequence of the environment where they operate than the wheels themselves, however: grocery stores inevitably have things on them that can get up in the wheels, and the carts also go outside. If someone could come up with an inexpensive solution for a wheel that somehow won't get jammed easily by dirt and debris, it would be a great invention.
A quick visit to Wikipedia tells me that shopping carts were invented in 1937 by Sylvan Goodman. That's about what I expected, since there would need to be a sizeable number of customers with cars to make the extra amount of goods worth carrying. I also learn that the only major change was patented in 1949 by Orla Watson, who came up with the idea for a hinged back wall so the carts could be pushed into one another in a "telescoping" fashion to save space. The success of this design is evident from the fact that shopping carts at almost every store use it. You don't see a lot of innovation in shopping carts. The one different kind I have seen is a short one with two small baskets, one on top and one below. I personally avoid these because I don't like having to bend down to access to bottom cart (bad back), and if I only need the top basket, I just carry a hand basket. Although, now that I think of it, I have started shopping with a hand basket and ended up with a gallon of milk or a 12-pack of sodas that made me regret my choice.
In America, it is common for stores to place stalls or "corrals" in the parking lot for customers to leave their carts. In other countries, it seems to be common to force customers to return their carts next to the store into order to get their small deposit back. I have only seen this system in the U.S. at Aldi. It is sad for me to go to stores and see carts left all over the place: pushed up on an island curb, or randomly stacked together in the middle of a few parking spaces, with a corral only a few feet away. I am glad that this is not more common where I live now, but I have lived in places where it is the norm. I feel like I can see the shredding of society's fabric by the number of shopping carts not put away. Obviously, this is not a major issue facing the country, but it does seem to be a symptom of growing numbers of people deciding that it is not worth their trouble to perform even this common courtesy at such minimal effort on their own part. (I vaguely seem to recall a time without corrals in the parking lot, but I'm not sure if it's a real memory or not. They had to be created at some point, I guess, so I wonder whether they were a response to loose carts or whether they were added as a convenience for customers.)
Like so many common items in America, shopping carts go by different names in different regions. I'm pretty sure I grew up in Virginia calling them "shopping baskets," but I have been saying "shopping carts" for so long now that I'm not positive. I remember moving to Illinois -- my first time out of my home town -- and finding it quaint how everyone there called them buggies. "Buggies" to me meant the things pulled by horses or else dune buggies, and neither seemed especially close to what a cart was. Apparently they get called "carriages" or "wagons" in some places in the Northeast, which seems close to buggy, and "trolleys" in the U.K. and some former colonies. Whatever you call them, you have to admit that grocery shopping would be a bother without them.