It’s all Smoke and Mirrors: Trolleys, lighting and Butcher Boys

Home » It’s all Smoke and Mirrors: Trolleys, lighting and Butcher Boys
Retailers today take many things for granted and don’t know who invented them.  Machine-readable barcodes – the basis of stock control and EPOS – were the brainchild of Alan Haberman in the 1970’s. Forty years before then Sylvan Goldman, the owner of ‘Humpty Dumpty’ grocery stores in Oklahoma invented the ‘greatest ever development in the history of merchandising’ – the shopping trolley.

The USA has always been a consumer-driven society eager to embrace new ideas. Until the 1930’s grocery stores were always ‘serve-over’ so moving to self-service baskets to reduce staff costs was the initial step forward. Goldman tried that then had a lightbulb moment when he realised sales could be doubled by using ‘Basket carriers’ on wheels to take the weight of the basket. More dwell time equals more sales.

In a TV interview Goldman explained that Shoppers resisted the idea. Women said I’ve pushed enough baby carriages. I don’t want to push any more’ and husbands said ‘are you calling me a wimp? Do you think I can’t carry a pesky little basket?’ or something like that. Basket carriers were a flop when he introduced them in 1937.

But he persisted and spent a small fortune on newspaper and radio advertising and hiring pretty girls to walk around pushing his invention. Staff were trained to spot people struggling with baskets then place them in his carrier which (another lightbulb moment) could also carry a second basket. The design then evolved from a folding wheeled frame into todays fixed basket in a stackable frame. And trolleys in the USA are BIG – about half as big again as those in the UK.

Goldman also experimented with less-successful techniques. He tried emulating Henry Ford by putting  baskets on a track beside which customers shuffled along collecting produce. That was a stinker. When anyone stopped to read the product label the line also stopped. Oh well, back to the drawing board.

The point is that Goldman researched Shopper psychology. He kept experimenting and wasn’t frightened of change. He then patented his idea and became a very wealthy man indeed. The Yanks are good at that.  

Todays big retailers are always looking for a lightbulb moment but I’m sorry to say few Markets match them. Take product lighting for instance. A whole industry has evolved around product lighting – different wavelengths for different products: meat, fish, vegetables, fabrics and jewellery – and it really works. Colour-balanced lighting dramatically increases sales and a haberdasher no longer needs to take the Customer outside to show them the sample – specialist lighting brings daylight onto his stall. Product lighting is now cheaper than ever and hopefully exposed fluorescent tubes on Markets be history.

Another idea: Many US stores employ friendly ‘greeters’ to open the door for Shoppers. It sounds a bit naff to Brits but one of the most successful Butchers I know does the same. He stands his boy in front of the stall in a nice clean uniform simply to smile and say Hello to Dan and Doris as they pass by. They love him and they come back.

*First published in Market Trade News 2018