Friday, July 6, 2007

Trolley Dolley

Thoughts on the 40th Anniversary of the Shopping Trolley

There are three things that everyone knows about shopping trolleys. One, a strangely large number of them end up in canals. Two, they are virtually impossible to steer. And three, people like to push each other around in them whilst drunk. None of these has anything to do with shopping.

The supermarket trolley was invented by Sylvan Goldman, owner of the Piggly-Wiggly supermarket in Oklahoma as a way of getting people to buy more food. And its true, they do. According to someone who found this out customers will buy an average of 7.2 items with a trolley for every 6. 2 they do with a basket, and they double sales of large items.

Goldman came up with the idea in June 1937, making the trolley 40 years old this month. That’s officially middle-aged. Unlike most middle-aged things though, they look pretty much the same as when they started out. The basic layout is ubiquitous and unchanging. There is a big basket on wheels. The basket is instantly recognisable for the graph like visual spacing of its metal bars, able to hold anything from a bar-b-q to a single tomato. There is a fold down plastic seat in which you can imprison a small child so that it looks like a particularly unwieldy purchase. The basket has a tubular plastic handle for pushing which you can also use to lean on when waiting to get clear access to the bread counter. The handle forms the single point of store branding. Otherwise they all look the same. When stored in the snake like chain gang of interlocked trolleys at the supermarket entrance, the repeated store logos form a strange nightmarish vision of shopping trips yet to come. The trolley is designed specifically for the task of navigating the serpentine route of supermarket aisles. The fact that the wheels all point in different directions reflects perfectly the fact that no one knows which way they want to go.

While other prosaic products like washing powder or biscuits go through almost constant minor and largely pointless innovations, developing ever more baroque permutations, the shopping trolley continues in its clattery, crude, hard to steer form. The reason for this flat development curve is that nobody actually buys them. As a product with no consumer purchase potential there is virtually no point in re-invention. These days, the desire for new markets is the only reason anyone does anything at all. Everyone owns a mobile phone or a razor. The only way to get us to buy another one is to improve it. Offer new functions, more blades, better deals, 3 mega-pixel cameras, improved smoothness, celebrity endorsement. No one ever buys a shopping trolley so what’s the point?

The shopping trolley is an utterly generic form of design, barely existing on our visual horizon. It has proved strangely fixed as a design statement, seemingly un-improvable and immune to the vagaries of fashion or style. I can only think of two innovations: One is the shallow, half depth model. This is apparently to attract male shoppers who generally shun trolleys, preferring instead the unmistakably macho appeal of the hand basket. The other is the electronic front wheel that locks when you try to escape the perimeter of the store car-park.

Without anyone working feverishly to try and sell us a new one, shopping trolleys will languish forever with their ugly styling and wheels that point the wrong way. If supermarkets stopped offering them to us and we had to buy our own, we would be immediately deluged by a baffling variety of new styles and credit opportunities to pay for them. So, perhaps, in a world gone consumption crazy, we should cherish a product immune from marketing. Immune, in a way, from design.

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