Shopping cart theory and practice

The next time you go to the grocery store, think of the regular shopping cart as something more than a rattling cart blocking your parking space.

In the 1930s, an American grocer by the name of Sylvan Goldman invented the forerunner of the modern shopping cart, using a foldable frame attached to a set of wheels. He hoped people would buy more groceries if they didn’t have to carry heavy baskets while they browsed.

And they did.

But over the decades, the shopping cart has evolved from its mundane existence as the centerpiece of every grocery store.

Like the Campbell’s Soup can, it has become an unlikely icon in a subculture that celebrates the common object.

Caddies have been at the center of books and films, and their use discussed in magazine columns and classrooms as tools for explaining how humans behave in public. They found a questionable niche on the internet as stars of a YouTube show, followed by half a million people. They have even inspired musicians: the steady clicking of a cart driving down a street inspired both the sound and the words of Neil Young’s 1994 song “Safeway Cart”.

They are also a nuisance. Lawmakers and store owners across the United States have struggled to keep carts from being stolen, left in disabled parking spots, thrown on sidewalks, left at bus stops, or dumped in streams .

In 2005, a cart infiltrated the British Museum, when artist Banksy paired one with a caveman on a fake prehistoric rock art work – then secretly set the rock in a gallery, undetected for days.

Another Banksy creation, the painting “Show me the Monet”, incorporated discarded carts in nature. It sold at auction for about $ 10 million in December.

John H. Lienhard, professor of history of technology at the University of Houston, described shopping carts as a “flash of genius” that changed American life over the course of a episode from his public radio show, “The Engines of Our Ingenuity”.

Decades after that 1995 show, Dr Lienhard is still trying to explain how the utilitarian origins of shopping carts expanded into cultural appeal.

“They reflect us,” he said in an interview. “We want to walk. We want to wear. And now we are helping to walk and carry. And then our walk and our transport become mentally associated with the wheel.

“This means that the technology of the commonplace is terribly important,” he said.

The 2009 film “CartIllustrates what Dr. Lienhard called the “symbiotic relationship” between humans and shopping carts.

In the film, a shopping cart is invested with a mind of its own, navigating the perils of the city streets in search of a boy who left his blanket in the basket. The cart then saves the boy’s life by blocking an oncoming car.

Jesse rosten, the director, said the idea was born when he and a friend spotted an overturned cart in a parking lot. A sad song was on the radio as they walked past, adding to the potential for cinematic melancholy.

“We laughed all the way back, imagining stories for this ramshackle cart battling the world,” he said. “We’ve all seen abandoned carts around the world, and the movie is a glimpse of how carts end up where they are.”

Portraits of carts in the wild are also captured in the 2006 book “The Lost Caddies of Eastern North America: A Field Identification Guide. “

The Buffalo artist behind the book, Julian Montague, has spent seven years photographing carts in dumpsters, in back alleys, on lawns, wherever they are. “It’s a strange object,” he said.

“Someone can take it somewhere and cut the wheels, or take the laundry to the basement,” he said. “Unlike a plastic bag, it has several lives. “

Some people steal them. Others leave them where they want.

Private companies have gotten creative. In California, stray carts are signaled on hotlines companies specializing in their repatriation to their store lots.

At the supermarket chain ALDI, shoppers unlock the carts with a quarter, which is returned when the carts are out. Some customers leave the shift in the cart for the next person to use.

“We are always amazed by the ‘pay-it-forward’ spirit that reigns in our parking lots,” said Kate Kirkpatrick, Director of Communications at ALDI. “As a result, we rarely run into problems with the carts that are not returned. “

Several days, Seth Sanders, 20, an employee at Safeway in Bellingham, Wash., Can be found dodging cars as he collects carts that people have left in parking spaces or pushed aside in the ‘huge field.

About a quarter of customers don’t bother to return their carts, he estimated, which means he spends a lot of time doing it for them, between packing groceries, cleaning and researching. items for customers.

Mr. Sanders fought over wagons in the cold, in the rain, and in the smoke of wildfires. A customer, in a hurry, pushed a cart in his direction with such force that it hurt his leg.

“I mean it’s almost a little selfish,” he said. “It’s kind of a character test. It’s our job to pick people up, but if it’s the smallest thing you can do to help, I feel like it’s not a lot to help a little. “

Of course, caddy slackers have their reasons.

In a 2017 column in Scientific American, anthropologist Krystal D’Costa explored why people don’t return carts. This “hit a nerve”She wrote in a follow-up.

In more than 2000 comments on the magazine’s Facebook page, some said they were afraid of leaving children unattended, or struggling with a disability, or worried about making someone’s job obsolete. Over the past year, the so-called The shopping cart theory has become an article of faith on Reddit and other social media sites. The theory postulates that the decision to return a cart is the ultimate test of moral character and a person’s ability to be self-reliant.

This is a theory fully adopted by video vigilantes known as The Narcs trolley, self-proclaimed agents who confront shoppers trying to leave without returning their carts. The series has approximately 500,000 subscribers on Facebook and YouTube.

The shopping cart theory has even reached academia – if college counts as academia. Students at Lausanne Collegiate School in Tennessee were recently invited by Greg Graber, the school’s director of social and emotional learning, to analyze it in a critical thinking course.

One student said anyone who noticed a misplaced cart should simply turn it over. Another warned against rushing judgment. Mr. Graber agreed.

“It seems to be a popular belief now that people who leave their shopping cart in places lack values ​​and morals,” he said. But this belief “does not allow growth or grace”.

In April, the shopping cart theory was cited in blanket of a state bill that would fine buyers who fail to return their carts.

Paul Aronsohn, a New Jersey disability ombudsperson, had approached State Senator Kristin Corrado with the idea. He said the state must deter shoppers who abandon carts in large spaces reserved for people with disabilities.

Senator Corrado presented Senate Bill No. 3705, which would impose a fine of $ 250 for that.

“Apparently it’s a pet peeve for a lot of people,” she said.

One person who would benefit is Kelly Boyd, 41, of Hamilton Township, NJ, who has been using a wheelchair since the age of 9. When she drives her van to the store and pulls down a ramp to get into her power chair, she often finds a cart blocking her path.

So, Ms Boyd said she had to move her away with her van or go to a remote part of the lot where she could use two spaces to get out. This led to anger notes left on his car and confrontations with other drivers.

“Everything I do as a person with a disability takes more time and then having to deal with it is more frustrating,” Ms. Boyd said. “It’s surprising how some people don’t care.”

It is not the only state legislation to combat nuisance related to shopping carts. Some places, like Los Angeles and Clark County, Nevada, require wheels that lock when a cart is taken away from a store. Some cities in Washington impose fines on stores for capricious carts, and other cities take note.

Last year, the Fairfax County Board of Directors in Virginia met to discuss “visual clutter “ of misplaced carts with a proposal to impose fines of $ 500 on the people who remove them from the property of the store.

“It’s a real problem,” Jeffrey C. McKay told his fellow supervisors during the session. But other board members argued it would penalize people who are struggling economically and use the carts to take food home or transport their belongings.

One of the supervisors, Dalia A. Palchik, said it was her childhood experience.

As immigrants from Argentina in 1989, Ms Palchik said, she and her three siblings would often accompany their mother to the store, then push the cart to their rental home on the outskirts of Fairfax City. They did not have a car available.

The memory came back afloat during the discussion. “It was one of those things I was ashamed of as a kid,” she said in an interview. “Why do we criminalize people who try to get to the grocery store? “

The order is still under review.

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Peggy P. Gilmore

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