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Keep on Rolling: The Humble Shopping Cart’s Marketplace Journey

Kerby Meyers
January 06, 2020

3 minute read

Few elements of the commerce world receive less love than the shopping cart, which is usually uttered in close proximity to the word “abandonment”.

As in, persistent online cart abandonment rates, which reflect the frequency at which potential buyers bail on purchases — which is around 70%.

Such statistics frequently place the functionality in the cross-hairs of exasperated marketers, who regularly seek out potentially better ways forward.

For example, Capgemini reports that one-click payments, which allow buyers to bypass the singular cart-facilitated collection point, are proving enticing to some online retailers, while spread payments, in which an automatic payment plan streamlines the checkout process, look promising to others. In the brick and mortar world, Capgemini says that invisible payments, the backbone of frictionless checkouts, are gaining traction in industries ranging from banking to retail and automotive.

For much of its existence, however, the shopping cart has faced questions of its value to consumers and businesses. And as its utility has proven enduring, so has its staying power.

Born in Oklahoma

The physical cart traces its origins back to Oklahoma during the Great Depression. There, Sylvan Goldman, owner of the Humpty Dumpty chain of grocery stores, invented a “combination basket and carriage in 1936 and subsequently patented the device.

Although his motivations stemmed from the sight of shoppers struggling with heavy hand-held baskets, the initial adoption rate was low. To stimulate the use of his creation, Goldman employed faux shoppers to demonstrate how to guide a full cart through his stores, as well as an early version of the Walmart greeter—an individual to distribute carts to shoppers as they entered. Within a decade, the devices had become commonplace to the point where dedicated telescoping models were used nationwide.

An uneven trajectory for online carts

Not surprisingly, as retail opportunities started sprouting online in the late 1980s, developers integrated a code-based version of the familiar shopping cart to assist shoppers with the digital buying experience.

As consumers grew more and more comfortable with shopping from the convenience of their desktops and laptops, however, legal matters almost derailed the technology.

Between 1993-95, software developer Open Market filed three patents on online shopping cart technology. The company’s business model hinged upon licensing agreements for the functionality, but it struggled and was acquired by another development firm in 2001.

A subsequent series of acquisitions placed the patents, which grew increasingly controversial due to the ubiquity of online cart applications, in the hands of Soverain Software, which fully embraced the licensing approach and pursued—and won—fees from retailers as large as Amazon.

One company forced to pay $2.5 million, Newegg, appealed the ruling and convinced a Federal Appeals court in 2013 that the patents weren’t valid. The decision ultimately led to the downfall of Soverain, which freed the technology from patent-related constraints.

Unlikely to completely disappear

For more than 70 years, the shopping cart has been a focal point of the American shopping experience—from cruising aisles of merchandise in a physical store to skimming product pages of a favorite retailer.

Going forward, although its value will likely wane in increasingly frictionless corners of the marketplace, online cart technology appears well-aligned with payment application developers. Ultimately, until consumers stop buying multiple items in one shopping session, it remains highly unlikely that the online shopping cart will ever be rendered obsolete.

Kerby Meyers
An independent consultant specializing in the development of relevant messaging and strategic content, Kerby Meyers helps ensure that his clients' communication efforts resonate with customers, prospects, employees and investors. He has been connecting corporations with key stakeholders for more than a dozen years, with an emphasis on companies in the financial services industry.
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