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The Secret Life of Shopping Carts

I have a lot of thoughts about shopping carts. They've been on my mind in some fashion for at least ten years, to the extent that I even started a self-published book on them using Blurb at one point. Alas, the file for that project has been lost in a couple of computer upgrades since then. I also started a group on Facebook devoted to the shopping cart that is worth checking out: a shopping cart saved my life.

It seemed necessary to me that I sketch out these thoughts using this blog, if only as somewhere to point to when I get a quizzical look about the subject. The problem thus far is that the subject is so large that I have been stalling on it, waiting for the opportune time to really give the cart the full treatment it so richly deserves. It looks like that opportune time is never coming, though, so here is a cursory first pass. A quick summary that outlines the areas and perspectives that require further development.

My thesis statement is that the humble shopping cart plays a significant and largely unnoticed role in our culture, society, and environment. This role is multifaceted and ranges from the pragmatic/material to the symbolic/metaphorical. Without doing any organizing and in no particular order, here are some of the perspectives and aspects of the shopping cart that are worth noting:


The shopping cart comes in a variety of shapes, colours and styles, both within and across countries. Devising a comprehensive classification system for all of the possible variations would be a daunting task, but at the most fundamental level they can all be rated on a nimbleness/capacity spectrum. There is also some variation in vocabulary across regions, with "trolley" being the most common alternative to "shopping cart."



There is a lot of sculptural art out there that takes the physical cart and modifies or aggregates it in some way to artistic effect. These efforts range from spray painting a cart gold and hanging some bling off of it it to massive installations made to look like Christmas trees, decorated and lit, and usually gracing the parking lot of a mall.

Some light Googling of the term "shopping cart sculpture" and examining the image results will provide a multitude of examples.



The repurposing of shopping carts into new uses such as furniture (by far the most frequent type of repurposing) shares considerable overlap with the cart as art, Often, the results are aesthetically and conceptually pleasing, but I suspect usually not very comfortable. More of a case of something that can be done, rather than something that should be done. Adding upholstered elements like has been done with this example would certainly help in this regard.



One popular way to modify the shopping cart is to put a motor or engine on it and see just how fast that thing can go. Another way is to make a greatly enlarged version and slap a motor on that. The former is more about performance and the latter is more about marketing and parades. This feels like a uniquely North American endeavour, but there are probably people doing this in many other countries. It's an avenue of research that I haven't looked very deeply into, not being mechanically inclined.



A huge part of the cart's cultural significance is it's frequent use by the unhoused, the homeless, and those getting by on the street. It's that fundamental tension between the cart as a representation of both extreme poverty and consumerism that makes it such a powerful symbol. There is a strong yin yang quality that, to me, makes the shopping cart fascinating and is what initially started me thinking about the relevance of the humble cart.



The shopping cart was invented as a tool for buying things and that is its primary function in our society. Because of its ubiquity and utility, the cart has come to stand for the acquisition of stuff, for shopping, for buying things. The symbolic value of the cart in this way is so fundamental that it appears as an icon on almost every retail website on the internet. The cart means shopping.



The very niche and extremely dangerous practice of riding a shopping cart down a very steep road was brought to the world's attention with the powerful documentary, Carts of Darkness, by Murray Siple. Filmed in my home town of Vancouver (North Vancouver, specifically), the documentary is as much about homelessness and the humanity of those experiencing it as is is about this unbelievably dangerous pastime. I just checked the film on YouTube, and it has over 5.5 million views, giving an indication of just how popular it is. Any time the subject of shopping carts and my interest in them comes up for the first time with someone, they almost invariably bring up Carts of Darkness.



The potency of the shopping cart as a symbol of money and also the lack of it has been recognized by artists for quite a while. It's often used as means of commentary and criticism, as in Banksy's Show Me the Monet which sold at auction in 2020 for £7.5 million. The cart can also be seen making appearances in fiction and film, perhaps most notably in The Road, written by Cormac McCarthy. Beyond its symbolic value, though, the shopping cart also possesses strong graphic qualities, being composed of a lot of straight, clean lines and a silhouette that is pretty much equivalent to the object as a whole. Consequently, the cart is frequently used in painting and graphic design as both a symbol and an aesthetic.



Some of the most compelling aspects of the cart from a purely visual perspective are the patterns and geometries created when they are nested. There is something almost mesmerizing about the dwindling repetition of a small sea of nested carts, and even a single row evokes a feeling of tidy satisfaction in knowing that they are fitting together snugly in the way they were designed to do. I'm not alone in being attracted to this aspect of carts put together as any image search of shopping carts will quickly reveal.



Abandoned carts are seemingly everywhere and have become such a commonplace part of our landscape that they are often not even noticed. Sometimes referred to as carts in the wild, abandoned shopping carts wait for the next chapter in their story. Will they be returned or appropriated, if they are still in good shape? Will they be repaired, recycled, or condemned to the landfill if they are not? Will they spend the rest of their long existence buried in mud at the bottom of a canal? So many possibilities for the lone cart deprived of the warmth of the herd.


We, as humans, have a tendency to project human feelings and motivations on to non-human things, aka, anthropomorphism. Shopping carts are no exception to this inclination, especially when they are alone or in small groups out in the wild. I think it's revealing about us that the emotions most often attributed to shopping carts in these situations involve loneliness, shyness, introversion, and longing. An abandoned shopping cart adrift in an uncaring world touches something in us.



For a very vocal portion of the community who are very passionate about the subject, one's behaviour regarding returning shopping carts after being done with them is seen as a kind of moral litmus test. The idea is that voluntarily returning a cart to the cart corral without any external incentive to do so is a sign that one is a responsible member of society. Of course, the purity of this test is muddied by the coin deposit often required to get a cart out of the stack, but the theory remains. The internet is populated with many memes on the topic, a sure sign that a concept has broken through into the zeitgeist. Articles and opinion pieces are also easy to find. Personally, I return my cart no matter the incentive, but I'm not sure that means I'm a better person for it. It's something I'm still thinking about.



Usually, when people interact with shopping carts, those people are outside of the carts. There is a rich tradition, however, of putting people on the inside of carts, at which point hilarity and hi-jinks usually ensue. Alcohol is often, though not always, involved. It almost seems like taking a ride in a cart is a rite of passage, a cultural baptism that requires relinquishing control and abusing private property in about equal measure. It's also popular with prop-driven photo shoots; just give those kids a cart to play around with you get instant dynamic energy.



When shopping carts make an appearance in the news, it's for a variety of reasons that tend to be bad. Runaway carts with small children in them, damage to vehicles in parking lots, the cost to municipalities of collecting them. Even a recent "shopping cart killer" in Virginia. It's not all bad news, though, ranging from probably neutral (stores implementing shopping carts with interactive tech installed) to positive (carts used in fundraising efforts). I very recently ran across this photo of a man thinking of his family while his city burns, and I find it one of the most inspirational images I've seen in a long time.



If there is any doubt that there is more to the shopping cart than meets the eye at a casual glance, let that doubt be tucked into bed with a story and a hug by the popularity of the cart as a children's toy. The cart is so important that we feel the need to get them familiar with it as soon as possible. There are many versions of the toy shopping cart available out there, often complete with toy groceries. On the one hand, kids are often dragged along on shopping trips and generally like to copy the things that grownups do. On the other hand, it's very easy to take a jaded, cynical view and interpret this as capitalist indoctrination. Either way, bright colours and rounded corners are sure to be involved.


There are more perspectives to be considered, to be sure, but I can't think of any more at the moment. This is a good start.

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