Sunday, August 7, 2011


I have been using grocery carts for as long as I can remember.  My parents bought a mom-and-pop grocery store in the tiny town of Cannon Beach, Oregon in the 1970’s-Brady-Bunch-era. I began working in our store and as a result, began maneuvering grocery carts with great expertise at a very young age.  I not only knew how to steer them up-and-down the aisles of our store, but also learned how to use them outside on slopes and the rough terrain of our parking lot.  I knew how to stack them, assist customers with them and even learned how to twirl on them. I guess you could say I was a grocery cart aficionado…and I was only in 5th grade!
Our family grocery store at Christmas time...

So why am I bragging about my grocery cart expertise at the young age of ten?  Why would you care about my enthusiasm for them?  Well, fast-forward about 30 years to my life now in Australia and you’ll understand why.  Every time I place my hands on the plastic-covered-handle of the smooth metal baskets, I am reminded of the wholesome life I had growing up on the Oregon Coast. I am reminded of my parents’ store, the Mariner Market. I am reminded of what has made this piece of machinery a timeless marvel of human invention.  That is…until I begin to steer the darn thing!

You wouldn't see this in Australia!

Have you ever paid attention to the way a shopping basket (another name for grocery cart) is controlled?  Besides the necessary component of a capable person “behind the wheel”, there are certain mechanics that make it easy to operate…namely, the two front wheels that turn from side-to-side and the rear wheels that are stationary, allowing for perfect steering and control.  Even a child can do it!

Well, in Australia “shopping trolleys” (as they are called here) run with all four wheels that turn side-to-side, turning this self-proclaimed “grocery cart expert” into a disaster behind the wheel!  It’s one thing if you are “driving” it in a straight line, (anyone can do that!) But what happens when you want to turn down an aisle for your favorite cookies?  Well, all four wheels turn leaving the “driver” with a basket catapulting down the aisle sideways…or as I like to put it…catawampus! (My Aussie husband swears this isn’t a real word and laughs at me every time I use it!)  I’m telling you, steering a trolley with all four wheels turning is like attempting to safely steer your car out of a tail spin on ice…it’s almost impossible without a negative outcome!

Case in point…even though Australians have grown up with this tricky way of steering their trolleys; they still have trouble controlling them.  In fact, I recently saw a report on the telly (Aussie for “television”) that explained how insurance claims are on the rise due to hit-and-run trolley accidents.  Let’s face it.  Trolleys are often very difficult to control.  But I don’t want to blame Australians for their inability to steer their trolleys…anyone would have difficulty no matter where they grew up!  The problem is the inherent flaw in their wheel design!

My husband is such a show off!
When I first moved here, I quickly realized I was in over my head trying to push a trolley. Every time I had to turn the darn thing I was in a panic…blood-pressure rising…heart racing. Just WHAT is the proper speed to push a trolley when turning down an aisle without it going catawampus?  I would fight and fight with it, struggling to make all the necessary turns up-and-down all the aisles…nearly running over a child and a display of canned food on special. What a fine mess that would have made! Finally, I started making my poor husband push the trolley; (in fact, I still do) since he has been managing these hard-to-handle trolleys a lot longer than I have.  Not to mention the fact that he insists, “There isn’t anything wrong with our trolleys!”  To him I reply with a bit of sarcasm, “Yeah, right!”

The worst place to push a trolley is outside in the parking lot where even minor slopes leave the white-knuckled shopper terrified!  Their clenched hands desperately holding on to the handle in their feeble attempt to push their catawampus basket in a straight line hoping to avoid parked cars and children! There have been many parking lot conversions as shoppers eek out a short prayer under their breath toward heaven, “Oh God…ohhhhhh God…. Oh God! Nooooo!!!”  Keep this in mind next time you decide to visit this great Land of Oz in your rental car.  Just make sure to add additional insurance for parking lot disasters!

This gets me to thinking…perhaps Australia should issue permits for capable trolley drivers.  Every Aussie could go through a myriad of physical tests to prove they can handle an out-of-control trolley.  They could be tested on their ability to turn sharp corners while reading their shopping list.  There could be “the slope test”; pushing a full trolley in a straight line across a downward slope, with varying degrees of difficulty.  The “never-let-go test”; a shopper’s heavily weighted trolley runs catawampus down a steep slope as the terrified shopper hangs on for dear life slaloming between the parked cars like a downhill skier racing between flags.  There could even be a “wind tunnel test” to mimic the shoppers’ degree of difficulty in pushing their trolley across a sloped parking lot in a downpour of rain and intense wind.  Aussie’s who want the “advanced permit” could be tested on their one-handed steering ability giving them the right to sip their favorite iced coffee (very popular here!) while shopping.  Of course, crash dummies would be used in the place of children for all tests.  And don’t even get me started on tourists…who would have to hire “taxi drivers” for their trolleys!

I can see it now, the local security guard at every mall, like a scene from Mall Cop, will be fitted out with flashing lights in which to pull unsuspecting shoppers over asking them, “Do you have a permit to operate this trolley?”  Finally…security officers will have something to do!  ;-)

So, if trolleys are so difficult to control, this begs the question…why don’t they fix them?  Why don’t they simply make the back wheels stationary and avoid all these problems? To this I reply… “I have NO IDEA!”

Well…it’s time to head out to the shops (Australian lingo for going to the grocery store.)  Anyone care to join me?  I’ll let you push the trolley!