I'm convinced I missed out a few years ago on a million-dollar business idea: a simple improvement to an everyday convenience, the shopping cart. I'm not just talking about any cart. I'm talking about the dreaded race car, fire truck and space shuttle carts young children love. The carts that bring out your child's unique super power to spot said cart while on approach to the entrance, locating it even when it's been shoved behind rows of other carts.
How did the brains behind this product -- a product that's supposed to enhance a parent's shopping experience -- manage to roll something off the assembly line that, frankly, doesn't roll very well? Something that's difficult to push and rarely turns a corner without sideswiping something along the way?
The theory behind these kiddie carts is that if kids are happy, then parents are happy. And happy parents will spend more time shopping.
But stuck behind the wheels of one of those monstrosities, the day's frustrations don't exactly melt away as items that are supposed to pile up in the cart instead pile up on the floor as the cart plows into shelves, displays and possibly other shoppers. None of this is good for parents, kids or a store's intended goal of keeping families there longer.
Turns out there are some very real reasons why the carts, introduced 15 years ago, are driving duds. It also turns out that since then, manufacturers have had time to think about the errors of their ways and come up with better designs.
The McCue 'Bean'
In 2000, the McCue "Bean" rolled into stores. In it, children sit low to the ground in a bright red-and-yellow plastic car positioned in front of the shopping basket. The McCue Corporation calls the Bean the first "child-safe" shopping cart, the concept being that by being closer to the ground children are less likely to be injured in a fall. McCue redesigned it in 2004 to offer more variety (singles, doubles, multiple baskets) and claims it is "Now voted (the) #1 kid cart by moms everywhere."
The company did not immediately respond to interview requests for this column. It may be some moms do love the carts. This mom does not.
It is true that McCue was onto something regarding child safety. In 2006, McCue's "child-safe" design got an indirect nod from the the American Academy of Pediatrics. "Each year approximately 23,000 children are treated in hospital emergency departments for injuries from shopping carts. Most injuries are caused by falls from the cart or by the cart tipping over. Many injuries are to the head and neck," the AAP said in a report on shopping cart safety.
Among the AAP's safety recommendations is a suggestion to use a cart that keeps kids closer to the ground -- "for example, in a small model car in front of the cart."
In 2001, a competing manufacturer, RTS Companies, Inc., came out with its own version of the child-friendly race cart, which places kids in a toy car in the rear of the cart instead of the front. Like the Bean, RTS's inaugural design included a shuttle or jetliner model with six wheels -- and those wheels are part of why both companies' early models -- to quote a mom friend of mine -- "drive like an anvil."
An engineer breaks it down
University of Alaska Anchorage mechanical engineering professor Anthony Paris helped identify why the carts are so difficult to push and turn.
After looking at images of the early models, he noted three main reasons for poor handling. First, the carts appear heavy. Second, adding a child to the front or rear compounds the weight issue. "Having that weight makes it difficult to turn," Paris said. And finally, "the wheels that caster have been moved from the front to the back, which is (like) trying to move a shopping cart backwards," he said.
Paris compared shopping carts to cars and said there's a reason cars have four wheels instead of six, and why the front wheels turn instead of the rear wheels. He added that cars maneuver best when the center of mass is close to the center of the vehicle.
More maneuverable models
The newest Bean models offer race car, fire truck and police car versions that feature a single front-wheel design on the largest models, presumably to help them move better.
RTS has also made improvements. "We really took a look at what was out there and then re-imagined what we thought would be a better kiddie cart for a family and a child," RTS national accounts manager Darren Norley said earlier this week. Where McCue pushes its low-to-the-ground safety angle, RTS claims "parents overwhelmingly favor having their children close to them," Norley said -- hence the decision to place children behind the shopping cart instead of in front of it.
I personally have not found many of the new, supposedly better, carts out there while going about my day. Which makes me wonder if Alaska is getting the old models retailers in the Lower 48 are replacing store by store.
From what I've seen in Anchorage, McCue's Bean is at Carrs grocery stores. RTS's old jetliner models are at Lowe's. Fred Meyer carries the RTS version. Just this week a family strolled by me there pushing RTS's four-wheeled, double-basket, pink princess design. They looked happy and didn't crash.
Souped-up child carts aside, the shopping cart preferred by most of the families I know is Target's all-plastic model, the result of an award-winning redesign produced by Bemis Manufacturing Inc. The national chain redesigned its carts in 2006, according to spokesperson Kristy Welker.
Target's cart is light and drives well and the wheels don't stick, all of which adds up to less hassle. It's not enough to make me an exclusive Target shopper; I routinely visit Carrs, Fred Meyer and home improvement stores like Lowe's and Home Depot. And if the new child carts perform as well as their manufacturers claim, and those new models make their way north to stores in Alaska, I might -- just might -- race another family to the store entrance to get one before they do.
Jill Burke is a longtime Alaska journalist writing from the center of a busy family life. Her father swore by "Burke's Law No. 1 -- never take no for an answer." Meaning, don't give up in the face of adversity. The lesson stuck. Share your ideas with her at email@example.com, on Facebook or on Twitter.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints.