Bureau of Ergonomics shopping carts

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Shopping Cart Shape and Sizing Up Clothes Online

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

By Dr. Rob Tannen

Q: Why are shopping carts so oddly shaped? They’re nearly impossible to load and unload!

A: Like the mullet hairstyle—business in the front, party in the back!—shopping carts are designed to serve two purposes. They need to provide a large amount of mobile storage space to the shopper, but they also need to be herded up and stored compactly. As is often the case with two  competing functions, the resulting design is a compromise to both: the cart basket is tall and deep, maximizing volume to increase purchases, but also tapered and narrower toward the front, making it difficult to reach inside.

Shopping carts were not always this way. Early versions were more vertical, like baby strollers, with removable baskets. In 1999, design firm IDEO created an updated version of this cart design that also featured steerable rear wheels, but it never made it past the concept stage. Technical innovations such as electronic cart tracking have started appearing, too. But overall, shopping cart design hasn’t changed much in the past 50 years.

Q: I like to shop for clothes online, but items I order never seem to fit. Why can’t I get the sizes right? Hasn’t somebody thought of a way to improve this?

A: Since you don’t want to go to the store to try things on, wouldn’t it be convenient if someone who looked like you did? Or, even better, if you could somehow go online and try things on at each website? Enter Fits.Me, an Estonian website that has developed a physically variable mechanical robotic torso.

(Say that five times fast.) Basically, this robot can take on hundreds of body profiles by adjusting its components based on provided dimensions. Online retailers photograph each garment on the robot in all of the hundreds of body profiles so that when you enter your own detailed body measurements you see the image that best matches your body—lumps, bumps, and all. This technology is not widely available just yet, so in the meantime, stick with the brands you know to avoid any unwanted returns.

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