By Scott Meacham
Copyright © 2018, The Oklahoma Publishing Co.
Innovation drives everything. Without innovation, we wouldn’t have entrepreneurs, startup companies, or job and wealth creation. And we wouldn’t have shopping carts.
Sylvan Goldman, the Oklahoma grocer who in 1937 invented the shopping cart, had a business problem that was keeping him from increasing what we today would call in-store sales.
The women who came to Goldman’s grocery stores (and in the thirties, they were mostly women) stopped shopping when their hand-carry baskets were full. I can just imagine Goldman sitting in his office after a long Saturday pondering the problem and thinking “how can I grow my business by making it easier for these women to shop?”
With a bigger basket, his customers could buy more things. Since the basket would be too heavy to lift, Goldman put it on wheels, using a folding chair for the frame. His “prototype” was kind of klunky, but Goldman figured it was good enough for a market test.
Like most entrepreneurs, Goldman discovered that his target market was hugely resistant to change. He studied his customers’ objections. Women said the cart reminded them of pushing a baby carriage, and men resisted because pushing a cart didn’t feel “manly enough.”
Confident that he was on to something, Goldman hired male and female “ringers” to shop for groceries, pushing carts. He also added a greeter to offer carts to shoppers as they came into the store. It worked. The carts caught on, Goldman patented his invention, and earned his way to becoming of Oklahoma’s philanthropic multimillionaires.
What strikes me most about Sylvan Goldman’s story is the simple elegance of his solution — a basket on wheels. It’s the kind of invention that makes us ask ourselves, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Goldman also sought to grow his business by providing better service to his customers. And, like any outstanding entrepreneur, he had a solid exit strategy, ending up licensing his shopping cart patent to a company that improved the product to the telescoping baskets we use today.
The story of Sylvan Goldman also typifies the type of practical innovation that is underway in Oklahoma right now.
Consider iRecommend, a Tulsa-based company that is in beta testing with Amazon’s Middle East affiliate with a new “intelligent” matching software for retail shoppers, or Spiers New Technologies which provides a one-stop solution to the automotive industry for life-cycle management of advanced battery packs, or Linear Health Sciences, which provides a break-away valve that reduces the dislodgment of IV lines.
Like Goldman, the entrepreneurs who founded these startups each recognized a problem in an industry they understood very well. And like Goldman, they tackled those hurdles by inventing something new, the simpler the better.
We can have billions in investment capital, all the advisory services in the world, and a state legislature that leads the country in supporting entrepreneurship, but without innovation, we will just be as a sounding brass.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state support from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology and is an integral part of Oklahoma’s Innovation Model. Contact Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org.