Electric shopping carts are common in large grocery stores. Essential for users with mobility impairments, they are also helpful for pregnant women, elderly shoppers, and other who have trouble walking long distances.
A few months ago, my grandfather overturned such a cart in a parking lot and broke his hip. Interested in what might have caused the accident, I examined a similar cart at my local store.
While the cart appeared stable, red-and-white signs affixed to the inside and outside of the basket read, in large letters, “IN-STORE USE ONLY.” Two others warned, “INTENDED FOR USE INDOORS ON LEVEL SURFACES ONLY!” and “DO NOT TAKE THIS CART OUTSIDE THE STORE.” An instruction manual I found online had similar statements in several places.
Here is the problem: A customer who uses the cart while shopping will surely want to use it when taking groceries to the car. My grandfather lived independently and drove himself to the store, but rheumatoid arthritis made walking difficult. Using an electric cart made it possible for him to do his own shopping. While he most likely saw the warning, he may have dismissed it as a statement written to merely to discourage lawsuits. (This is speculation–he could not converse following the accident and died a few weeks later–but it is consistent with his personality.)
Clearly the manufacturer had anticipated that people would use the carts outside and thought this behavior might be hazardous. But did the store share this concern? Since the cashier loaded the bags into his cart following the purchase, it appears that, despite the warning, the store expected him to drive the cart to the parking lot.
The signs and repeated warning statements in the manual suggest a mismatch between the design of the product and the expected behavior of users. So how should the problem be addressed?
If the carts are truly not stable outdoors, stores should not allow them to be driven into the parking lot. Instead, employees should carry out groceries for all customers who use a motorized cart.
Offering the service is not enough; some customers, not wanting to be a bother, will refuse assistance if asked. Instead, when the cashier begins checking out a customer with an electric cart, she should immediately summon a worker to load the groceries into a push cart and take the groceries to the customer’s vehicle.
Manufacturers should assume that customers will take electric carts outdoors and design them accordingly. Motorized scooters intended for outdoor use are widely available.
If they have not already done so, shopping cart manufacturers should implement similar stability features. As human factors engineers have said for years, a warning is no substitute for good design.
Good warnings tend to have a “why” that informs the user about the hazard when that hazard is not immediately obvious. If you though the reason to keep the cart indoors was because you might be hit by a car, your decision to take the cart outdoors could be different than if you knew the cart were unstable.
Kim Wolfinbarger is the recruitment coordinator and an adjunct instructor for the School of Industrial Engineering, University of Oklahoma. Her research interests include usability, product design, industrial ergonomics and design for special populations.
Like many people, I use heuristics when choosing between food products. My algorithm goes something like this:
What’s the lowest unit price? 25 cents per ounce vs. 40 cents per ounce?
Pick up the lowest
Look at the saturated fat RDI
If reasonable, look at ingredients
Is list too long to read in 3 seconds?
If yes, pick up next cheapest item for comparison.
If no, look for “partially hydrogonated” or “high fructose corn syrup”
If either found, pick up next cheapest item for comparison
If neither found, purchase.
Wouldn’t it be great if someone did steps 3-9 for me? Or if they considered factors I’m too lazy or uneducated enough to balance and comprehend? Well, the ONQI has stepped up to the challenge. The ONQI, or Overall Nutritional Quality Index, is coming to products near you as a single scale for all foods. As the site states, it finally allows the comparison of apples to oranges (oranges win, by the way.)
One of the things I’m most impressed with is the ONQI’s use of the entire scale. Unlike choosing wine by points (where nearly every advertised bottle is above 88 points on a 100 scale), on the ONQI soda gets a 1 while oranges get 100. Now we know that although pretzels aren’t bad for you… they certainly aren’t good for you with a rating of eleven. Eleven is a lot closer to Coca-cola than it is to oranges.
The second thing I’m impressed with is their attempt at transparency. Their conference presentations are available online. However, due to patent, the actual algorithm used is not available. We are asked to trust that experts have tested it and found it reliable. Hopefully this will change as soon as the patent expires and it may be examined by numerous independent investigators.
One thing it does not do (that the food pyramid has been trying to do for 50 years) is recommend a balanced diet. Oranges and strawberries may score 100s, but a pure diet of those won’t do much but prevent rickets. However, I like their concept of attacking the nutrition problem at a food-by-food level. If I have my meal basically planned, I can use the scale to decide between individual options.
Last, I enjoyed this bit from their website:
What about products that don’t score well? Aren’t you at risk of alienating some brands? The ONQI was developed based on sound science, independent of any food company or commodity organization bias. Since the ONQI can be applied to all foods, beverages, recipes and meals, it levels the playing field, and provides consumers with a universal tool to measure any food they wish to purchase. It can also provide a benchmark for product development and reformulation.
The failed food pyramid is a good example of how difficult it is to create a nationwide understanding of a complex topic. The ONQI does the work for the consumer; work we’re clearly not interested in doing ourselves. I’m going to be watching closely to see how the ONQI pans out in studies of purchasing behavior changes.