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The Flat Cap on ... Shopping Trolleys

Yesterday The Flat cap went to do his weekly food shop at one of those big supermarkets where you can buy lots of other things as well as foodstuffs. Some of them even have lottery terminals and a decent selection of electrical items and other household goods. This means you don’t have to spend time going from one shop to another if say your television packs up, or you need some new tea towels. The Flat Cap quite likes superstores but without a proper list he usually ends up buying things he doesn’t need. Because he is so profligate he often has to get a shopping trolley. It was whilst pushing his trolley round a nearby superstore that he began to think about its origins and he resolved to find out more.

Shopping trolleys as we know them didn’t exist until the 1930s. Before then people would load up any large items of shopping onto a wooden cart, or hire a donkey from a local farmer to move their purchases. This wasn’t very convenient, or cost effective; especially if the cart had a wobbly wheel or the donkey was a bit old or lazy. It could take several hours to get all your comestibles home and it also risked damaging them. Furthermore if you lived at the end of a cobbled street your more fragile items were in real danger of perishing before you got them through your front door. This is one of the reasons there were so many milkmen in post war Britain. Milkmen would deliver glass bottles of milk and cartons of eggs – both of which are easily breakable. It wasn’t until roads improved and people started buying cars that doorstep milk deliveries began to wane, and people were able to put the contents of their shopping trolley (including fragile food items) into the boot of their car.

The other problem inside the stores was that consumers tended to stop shopping once their baskets got too heavy to carry. It took Oklahoma supermarket owner Sylvan Goldman to notice this and he decided to invent the shopping trolley. Being American he called it a shopping cart; but it’s the same thing. Initially people spurned his invention so Goldman hired actors with model looks to pose as shoppers and push his carts around the supermarket. Seeing attractive people shopping this way encouraged his more ugly customers to do the same and within a few years grocery stores were being designed to accommodate the trolleys. Nowadays ugly and attractive people alike use them. In 2001 handsome Dale Winton, the former host of television game show Supermarket Sweep, was presented with a gold plated supermarket trolley for his services to light entertainment. It now forms part of a permanent display in Nottingham Industrial Museum, the city in which the actor and presenter was born.

In the wrong hands a shopping trolley can be a dangerous item. Last February The Flat Cap got a bruised ankle when a young mother pushed her trolley into him. Distracted by her three year old, who was trying to steal some sweets off one of the shelves, she hadn’t noticed other shoppers around her and had ploughed into him. Fortunately it was only a graze and The Flat Cap’s thick winter socks helped absorb much of the blow. Had she collided with a pensioner or a haemophiliac the incident could have been considerably worse. The other issue with shopping trolleys is that sometimes you get one with a ‘rogue’ wheel. This makes manoeuvring them quite difficult and can lead its driver to plough into one of the displays. In 2013 shopping trolleys colliding into merchandise cost the UK retail industry over £700 million.

At the checkout of his local supermarket The Flat Cap met fellow shopper Tracy whose boyfriend used to work in a branch of Lidl and she shared the following supermarket trolley facts:

  • Although shopping trolleys were invented in 1937 it wasn’t until 1950 that they arrived in Britain. The first UK supermarket to use them was Sainsburys in Croydon. Within a fortnight the first of these had found its way into the local canal

  • Under EU health and safety legislation only shops with aisles wider than one metre are allowed to provide trolleys

  • An average sized supermarket has a pool of 250 trolleys, although this can rise to 600 at the biggest superstores

  • In 2011 a couple from Middlesbrough were married to each other whilst sitting in shopping trolleys. The ceremony was conducted in their local supermarket car park, which is where they first met

  • Shopping trolley injuries hospitalise more than 12,000 people every year

  • There is a smartphone app that allows people to report abandoned trolleys so that they can be reunited with the supermarket chain they originated from

  • A U.S. study revealed that shopping trolleys contained more bacteria than the average public toilet, as unlike the latter the trolleys were never cleaned or disinfected

  • In Ireland being found drunk in charge of a supermarket trolley carries a fine of up to 500 euros

  • A standard size supermarket trolley weighs 30 kilograms

  • The Derbyshire town of Bakewell holds an annual Supermarket Trolley Grand Prix with a giant Bakewell Tart on offer to the first past the post

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