At last, a trolley that goes where you want it to

It might be the invention of the millennium. The Sainsbury's supermarket chain has unveiled something which will look after your mobile phone, your child, your flowers, keep your wine cold and hold your week's shopping.
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The Independent Online

It's a trolley, of course. But what may make this one revolutionary is that it should steer where you want it to. Wars have been fought over less, and the announcement yesterday of what may be the ne plus ultra in trolley design, 62 years after the first ones were introduced, ignited another brief skirmish in the group's supermarket wars with Tesco, now the biggest chain in the land.

It's a trolley, of course. But what may make this one revolutionary is that it should steer where you want it to. Wars have been fought over less, and the announcement yesterday of what may be the ne plus ultra in trolley design, 62 years after the first ones were introduced, ignited another brief skirmish in the group's supermarket wars with Tesco, now the biggest chain in the land.

Each new Sainsbury's trolleys costs £200 and has features that would not shame a small family car: shock absorbers, colour-coordinated bodywork and "ergonomically friendly steering", according to the supermarket, which is introducing them at its Cromwell Road store in west London.

"We have incorporated a steering device into the trolley" said Paul Martin, the trolley spokesman. "Normally the more weight there is in a trolley the harder it is to get round corners, because you have to do the swingy thing. But with this one, the more weight in it the wheel kinks off at a slight angle, so it's actually easier to steer."

But Tesco was dismissive. "We tried that a few years ago but people didn't like it," said Russell Craig, a spokesman. "So we reverted back to the old one."

However, as Andrew St Vincent, sales manager at the trolley's designers, Clares MHE of Wells, Somerset, explained, the problems we have in Britain with trolleys are a consequence of their origin. They emerged from stores with narrow aisles, where manoeuvrability was at a premium. "Trolleys were introduced in Britain in the 1950s in small stores in town, so you needed to be able to swing them around in a small space. So you needed to have all four wheels able to move. However, it leads to real problems if you have a sloping car park or even an uneven floor in the supermarket - they'll wander all over the place."

In the US, by contrast, where the stores have wider aisles, the trolleys have fixed back wheels - making them harder to move around but ensuring that they are more stable generally.

The principal reason why trolleys will not steer, though, is that they get bashed up in car parks and in the stores, bending the frame or the wheel joints. And once your trolley slumps towards any corner, it will head in that direction no matter what you do.

A trolley's life is generally a short and battered one, lasting 18 months before it needs to be replaced, recoated or is junked.

The first ones were introduced in a store in Oklahoma in 1938. They reached Britain after the Second World War and soon gained their first feature, the child seat. That remained the principal feature until the 1980s, when a divider was introduced so that fresh or delicate foods could be put into a section near the front.

Now innovations are coming thick and fast: there are flower holders, mobile-phone holders, shallow trolleys, giant trolleys, double, triple and even (in a Bristol branch of Tesco) quadruple-child-seat trolleys ("someone said they had quads and were having trouble managing two trolleys," said Mr Craig, the spokesman).

So quickly has demand grown that Clares MHE makes 330 types of trolley. In Europe as a whole, 2.5 million are made every year. The total number in use is 20 million. While it may seem at times that 19 million of these are in municipal waterways, Mr St Vincent said the metal frame rather than a plastic one offered the best combination of weight, strength and cheapness.

He agreed that curbing the apparent tendency of trolleys to fly the supermarket coop was still the Holy Grail for designers, even more than steering.

"We have been looking at electronic tagging - the technology exists but it's expensive," he said.

"There are also some stores which have tried spikes in the wheels which lock on grids as you exit the supermarket car park, and similar things. But nobody," he admitted, "has yet got the perfect solution."

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