Senior Capstone Project: Shopping Cart


I’m a Senior Industrial Design student at the University of Washington and I’m currently working on my Senior Capstone project. I’m working to design a new shopping cart and I’m currently wrapping up the research phase of the project. I’ll post the concept sketches as soon as I get started on them sometime next week. It’s a two quarter (20 weeks) long project and I’m six weeks into the first quarter.

So far I’ve done my research by going online and reading as much as I can about shopping carts and watching a lot of videos on YouTube, which includes the shopping cart designed by IDEO about 10 years ago. I also have been going around department stores around my neighborhood observing the way how customers shop and conducting interviews with managers and courtesy clerks getting their opinions on what are the current problems with shopping carts and what improvements they would like to see in the new shopping cart (so far I’ve been to Safeway, Top Foods, Costco, Target, and Uwajimaya).

I thought cart theft and steering problem (it gets really hard to steer the cart when you have a lot of stuff in it) were big issues but after interviewing people I found out that they were not really big problems after all, at least not from the management’s perspective. What I’m trying to focus on now is designing a shopping cart around making the customer’s shopping experience better and easier. Maybe I can focus on the check out process because people have to put stuff into their cart, take them all out once they get to the counter, put it all back into the cart, and then take them all out again once they are at their cars. Another thing to consider at this point is the type of carts, because bigger stores like Costco uses different type of carts than stores like Safeway. Maybe I should pick one store and design a cart specifically tailored to it, just like how Target has their own designed cart.

I’m attaching the mind map of everything that I’ve done so far plus couple pictures that I got from visiting these stores. (Is there a way that I can attach more pictures? or maybe I can make a public dropbox folder with all the images in it?)

I would appreciate it if you guys can at this point give me some opinions about possible directions and your inputs on what the problems are with current shopping carts and what improvements you guys would like to see.

Anything will help! Thanks for your time :slight_smile:

It is only one study, but it sticks with me every time I touch a shopping cart.

Which of the following surfaces is most likely to be contaminated with dangerous bacteria—a diaper changing table…playground
equipment…a shopping cart handle…ATM buttons…or the handrail on an escalator? Most people would have said the changing
table…and been wrong. Correct answer: The shopping cart handle…

So that was what wikipedia was referring to when it said there has been a study done on shopping carts, thanks nxakt for the additional info.

In 2004 shopping carts were identified as a source of germs and became a major public health concern. This was primarily because of the media spotlight on a Japanese research study indicating a large amount of bacteria was found on shopping carts. This was confirmed in 2007 when the University of Arizona released a study called, “Research Report on Shopping Cart Bacterial Contamination - Dr. Charles P. Gerba”. Now sanitary wipes, for cleaning hands and shopping carts, are seen near the entrances of most retailers.

Take a look at what IDEO did and see if you can determine why it didn’t take off.

there is also the Seymour Powell TV show with the shopping trolley redesign episode.

I’ve recently been using an app for iOS called fooducate. It let’s you scan food and helps determine how healthy it is. I realize this might not be feasible within your scope, but if a cart could help you eat better I think that would be interesting. Potentially segmenting the cart into different food groups or something. If people didn’t buy any fruits and all carbs they’d be able to see it.

Just a thought.

The germ thing also seems pretty interesting to explore as far as antimicrobial materials go and such.

good luck!

So I would take a step back a bit. What made you pick a shopping cart as you Capstone? Do you feel this is a challenging and meaty project for you? If so what is the root of the problem here with shopping carts?

I personally don’t find problems with the cart itself, but rather the entire shopping experience. The traffic jams created by the carts, the check out experience, like you mention the multiple times of items going in and out of the carts, and this may sound dumb, but when it rains, snows, or is just plain cold outside the carts sit outside and bring the weather in with them. Not pleasant.

Can a new cart address the issues I mentioned above, maybe, but I would think of it as designing the experience and the cart is only part of that. By thinking this way it turns a project that I would look at as mediocre project, to one that has a lot of robust thinking and shows you think further than the artifact.

Post your process so we can give you feedback.


I can tell you personally that this is a tough one. I actually chose the same topic (retail/grocery checkout) for my Sr. project and there is so much that can be done, that if you actually start looking into it, you’ll see there’s been a ton of ideas already piloted. Now in the real world this is one of the key areas I work in, and even then it’s still just as challenging. Not only do you need to bring a cool design, but you need to show a business that investing in a fancier cart will bring them value.

The # of challenges are there, and the problem I found was actually figuring out which area to focus on. Justin pointed out you can look at the whole experience, but to me that becomes dangerous…there are dozens of retail experiences out there, ranging from typical grocery, personal shoppers (where you scan your items directly), self checkout, or even digital storefronts that you’ll see popping up now where you just scan some barcodes printed on a poster and your goods come out a shoot. All are unique and good in their own ways, but it makes a tough ID challenge for a student to solve…because big businesses have been trying for years and still haven’t done a great job.

My advice may be to think about it the opposite way - go into a very specific niche, focus on something you can do real research for, and kill it with awesome execution. IE what if you picked a very specific store or user group (mom with kids, seniors, etc) and tried to do something that really served that user group or the brand itself.

It’s not looking at the big holistic experience, but I think it gives you material to do a great project. You can do some parts of it that show how you’ve considered the big system, but if you’re looking to do product when you graduate (vs experience, or branding or strategy work) then that’s how you should tailor the project. There’s a lot of nice details that could go into the cart…where to put your purse, cell phone, how to deal with germs - even consider talking to some stores about how they buy and service/repair the carts. Maybe there are opportunities to save money in shipping or on repair labor. I think if you could capture those insights and put them into a sweet project, you’d have something pretty good.

I agree that OP should not try to take on all shopping experiences. That is a gigantic undertaking, trust me I am about to do it myself. What I am suggesting is to pick one channel , grocery store, club store, drug store, etc and blow that experience out and how a new cart can make it better. To be honest designing a new shopping cart with a few bells and whistles I don’t find to be that strong. I personally think my cart is fine and don’t really see the need for an upgrade unless it is providing a greater value or improving the shopping experience. Even if you improve it for the retailer it still has to provide a consumer value or the retailer will not adopt it.

Like I mentioned before, a consumer experience approach will show greater thinking which will create a stronger portfolio project. There are a lot of design student out there that can create a cool shopping cart, it is you job to show us what your point of view is on the need for the consumer. Why nt make tat as strong as possible?


I’d still be worried that even picking a single store/brand/type of store could be too much. Especially if you still have to meet a customer base that covers every single possible demographic like a pharmacy. Or that the end result would be difficult to really quantify in a presentation. Ex. the whole “Barcodes on a poster, stuff gets delivered” retail experience is something that is pretty new and pretty cool for all kinds of reasons. But at the end of the day how much ID would come out of inventing that concept? Probably not much.

In general terms I would say this - your Sr. project is going to be what you spend the most time talking about when it comes time to land that interview, and it will probably occupy the most real estate of your portfolio. Think about where you want to position yourself after graduation, and focus on developing a project that is going to tell your story in that fashion. If you really like product, focus on the product. If you are looking to get into UX there are killer UX opportunities in that area, etc. If you can deliver all of those elements in one you’ll be killer, just make sure you don’t spend too much time at the high level without digging into the nitty gritty.

Either way stick with your gut with what you want to do and you can get feedback along the journey to make sure something good comes out at the end of it.

The bottom line is your project needs to tell a concise story. In your original post I can’t say that I understood the “why”. Redesigning something for the sake f redesign is nt valuable. You need to have a clear reason for it. Now tht reason could be your curiosity to learn about CPG, shopping experiences, etc… If I was interviewing you I would be looking for you rationales behind you designs mor that the physical design itself.


I apologize for the late update, I’ve been occupying myself with other projects along with my senior capstone. From this point on, I’ll be more prolific and be on top of keeping the updates coming.

First off, thank you Justin and Mike for your feedback.

When I first decided to work on shopping carts as my Senior capstone, I have to be honest I haven’t thought much about the shopping experience at all. I saw the opportunity to redesign a shopping cart because I saw it as a good fit for ID project (it had a lot of “meat” to play with, according to my professor) and also because those things haven’t changed much ever since when they first came out in the late 1930s. Justin’s comment though made me realize that shopping carts are really just part of the entire shopping experience. As a result, I’ve been talking with my professors and my IxD classmates for the past week and seriously considered working with one of my classmates to make this into a ID + IxD group project because I felt that shopping experience design will be a too big of a project to handle on my own. However, at this point again I’m steering towards designing just a shopping cart because after talking with people and spending many nights conceptualizing I’m starting to feel that if I were to go into shopping experience, even if I picked a specific store, the project will easily get out of hand just like what Mike said.

I am personally much more interested in product design than experience design even though I see that both ID and IxD go hand in hand in terms of offering users experience. I understand that this will go into my portfolio as a major conversation piece and I feel that I will have more things to talk about when I design a solid product rather than people’s behaviors. I will of course still pay attention to shopping experience in general but I plan on spending most of my time on developing the cart.

One thing that bothers me greatly though is the fact that many shopping cart designs that are already out there haven’t really took off because I feel like they just focused on making a killer cart and left out the shopping experience… Justin you mentioned about putting a few bells and whistles on shopping carts won’t make much difference in terms of their design and I agree. There is only so much that you can do with shopping carts unless you bring a dramatic change to the entire shopping experience. Do you guys think that there are still room for improvements for shopping carts? I would hate to design just another fancy shopping cart that will get buried with other shopping carts that’s already out there…

I think there is room for improvement of the cart itself, but a great design project comes from solving a great problem.

I think right now you’ve still struggled to truly identify what the problem you want to solve is, you’ve just identified that existing carts are mediocre at best. You need to consider though - design problems aren’t just about the artifact, they’re about what’s appropriate, cost effective, fit for the use case, etc. For example whole foods was prototyping robotic carts with a Kinect sensor that would drive themselves around the store, but is that actually solving the problem? Was pushing my cart too big of a challenge?

You’ve done a lot of thinking, and it may be worth a few more trips to the store to hang out in the parking lot or front end and see what real problems you could identify. I think that’s one area where picking a niche market or user will help. Solving a problem for “Everyone” is tough if that problem doesn’t really exist, because like we’ve pointed out most of us use shopping carts just fine. But if you look at a unique market segment (people in wheel chairs, elderly, etc) I think you may be able to find a solution that really resonates more than trying to make a cool cart for everyone.

Here’s an example of a shopping basket redesign that WAS actually incorporated because it solved one problem for super markets: MAKE MORE MONEY.



The problem: people who live alone or just shop for the day don’t use a cart, they use a basket. The basket fills up pretty quickly and gets heavy, and the person stops putting more stuff in. Solution - by making a basket that is bigger and putting wheels on it, you get those single-household losers to shop more! Cynical and predictable? Sure, but here you are seeing them pop up in every store, yet no one adapts the IDEO or SeymorePowell carts.

My point is: if you look to solve business problems instead of adding some minor convenience to the end user by solving problems they don’t have, you might have a more interesting project. Perhaps not to your idealistic class mates, but take a moment to think about who you want to impress when you’re looking for a job in 6 month.

(I find this basket redesign especially successful because the users DO benefit comfort-wise and may actually think it was done for their convenience, but still the stores are the real winners)

Couldn’t agree more. At the end of the day we solve business problems, the design is just the out put. Think about…In order for a retailer to adapt your cart, basket, etc… design you have to show that there is a benefit to them. Little nuances of the cart will not do that. Making the shopping experience better so they sell more product will.

You really need to go through an opportunity/experience mapping exercise here. What are the challenges, what are the cost implications (best you know), and what is the retailer going to gain? After you have answered those questions, you then start to design. This will ground you in the reality and give you direction.

Good luck!!


Cost and profit modelling is damn tricky, if not impossible especially as a student. It’s possible if you have the right connections, and some of that can be done online but I’ve seen student projects where they try doing cost calculations that are so far off it makes it almost invalid as a student exercise.

For example, one could argue that narrower shopping carts could allow for narrower aisles, and that by reducing the store footprint by 25% they’ll save 25% of their rent because they can now build a Starbucks in the space they saved. (And while this is sort of a joke, it’s completely serious when you look at what Jetblue did with their “Even more leg room seats” - they removed one row of seats, shuffled the alignment, and restructured their pricing model so they make more money - but would you buy that concept if it came from a student?

Even if you focus on shopping experience you have to say very clearly (and this is usually your first exercise when it comes to the thesis project) of “What is the problem you are solving?”

“Shopping experiences aren’t as good as they can be” is not a good problem statement, and neither is “Shopping carts are kind of crappy”.

Perhaps before you even worry about getting your design done you should spend some time and post up what your problem statement is. Once you nail that down you’ll probably find the design comes easy.

I’ve been talking with my professor and he also told me to focus on a specific problem and cut out rest of other factors. I clearly see at this point that I cannot possibly tackle the entire shopping experience that fits the need of all customers. Not only do I not have time for it, the project will turn out shallow and not have enough depth in it.

Design being part of the business decision definitely makes sense; if it doesn’t have enough incentives in terms of making more money for the big guys it won’t ever get applied.

The hygiene issue of these carts seem to be a pretty big issue, it’s just that many people are not aware of it. Heck, I wasn’t aware of it until I started researching for my capstone.

At this point, I’m thinking about going into this direction. The current carts are not the easiest things to clean. As a matter of a fact, they are quite hard to clean thoroughly because they are mostly composed of wires and hinges. I can see that the process will be a little bit different for each place, but from what I heard from interviews, most places they just wipe it really quick with a sanitizing wipe or they take the carts out as a group and pressure hose them, and that’s really all they do to clean the carts. Carts seem to be one of the most dirtiest things out in the public for people to use. If I design a cart that’s a lot easier to clean for the courtesy clerks, it will save business people money in terms of general store maintenance. People naturally want to use clean things. I can raise people’s awareness of just how dirty these things are and introduce them with newly designed clean carts then they will want to use the new carts, which will bring more business for stores. I can perform a research by going around the stores with visual research on my iPad and quickly show people just how dirty the carts are and see their reactions haha. It sounds like it will be fun :smiley:

It’s definitely a subtle problem that not many people are aware of, but it’s definitely a problem indeed. I think it has a great potential. Any thoughts?

There are two locally owned businesses that go around and clean shopping carts; something along the lines of a mobile automobile detailer. They have a trailer set up with a water tank, and soap dispenser and do the work in the parking it. Being so close to the ocean here, I’m surprised that they are allowed to operate since most parking lots in the area have DTO (drains to ocean) plaques near all the drains.

THESE GUYS, Green Secure Solutions, are getting it right; a self-contained automated shopping cart wash.

When you watch their video presentation and learn that 60-80% of the carts test positive for fecal material and e coli bacteria you’ll never want to walk into a grocer store again without latex gloves on.

The issue of sanitation is coming to a head in San Luis Obispo County, California. With the recent ban on all plastic shopping bags, and the requirement that all stores now charge $0.10 per bag people are becoming a bit leery about using the reusable “knit polyester” bags to too long, citing health concerns. Remembering to keep a supply of bags in the car is hard enough for local residents but visitors to the area are usually taken aback when told that they will have to pay for what it usually “free”.

Also see > The Buggy Bath Shopping Cart Cleaning System

They could use some help with packaging… . …

PureCart Systems is another to take a look at. >

I think you’re on the right track - work on nailing down exactly what your problem statement should be then solve the heck out of it before the semester ends.

I don’t mean to be a curmudgeon here, but I don’t really feel this is strong problem. I get the hygiene issues, I truly do, but is this a Capstone worthy issue? I don’t really see it. My definition of a Capstone project is one that stretches you skills, maybe takes you outside your comfort zone and is geared towards what you want to do when you graduate. Does this do that? If you feel it does then go for it. I have to say as an employer, I would think that a project that addresses consumer experience or ease of shopping would be much more appealing. Now I do work in CPG and it is what I live and breath every day.

Since you going this route, make sure you address why a retailer is going to scrap a fleet of carts that they may have had for years, and take yours? How often does a retailer actually clean their carts, and if they don’t how is a new cart going to change their behavior. The bottom line is that this work is being done by 15, 16, 17 year olds. We all know as a kid we do just enough to get by. We run into the same problem with store displays. They are never put together the way they are supposed to, unless it is a no-brainer. Creating extra steps at a retail level is hard to excite.