Caroline’s Cart

carolines_150pAs published in Birmingham magazine.

Her daughter’s disability inspired a Birmingham mom to create a new type of shopping cart.

Five years ago when Drew Ann Long shopped at the grocery store or ran an errand, she hired a babysitter for her daughter Caroline who has Rett Syndrome. Until Caroline outgrew them, Long was able to place Caroline in the fun carts meant for active toddlers. Then she pushed Caroline in a wheelchair while at the same time trying to maneuver the grocery cart with her free hand and keep an eye on her other two children. Sometimes another adult went with Long to help her navigate this everyday experience. Other times, she chose the drive through for dinner.

Frustrated, Long started brainstorming how to solve the problem she and millions of parents face daily, weekly, when they shop at the grocery store or any other retail outlet. Surely it couldn’t be that complicated to create a cart to accommodate Caroline and the other overlooked children like her. She sketched an idea on a napkin, began researching and contacted the largest shopping cart manufacturer to discuss the validity of her idea.

For six months the plant manager refused to accept her phone calls. When she asked for a meeting, he said, “I might as well. You won’t stop calling.” In the meeting, he assured her and her husband David that retailers would buy the product. Excited she’d gotten the industry validation she needed, she was still puzzled: “But why hasn’t it been done before?” she asked. A 20-year industry veteran, the manager didn’t have an answer but insisted she build a market for the cart concept. “How?” she wanted to know. “You got this far,” he told her. “Go out and blow it up. Create demand.”

Sitting in the car outside the manufacturing plant before that meeting, her husband told her, “Either it starts or stops today.” When they returned to the car, he smiled at her and said, “It starts today.” That was
in 2009. Long knew then she had to have a working prototype, and soon discovered that an electrical firm 10 minutes from the Indianapolis headquarters of the company her husband worked for was capable of creating a prototype. Her daughter’s disability inspired a Birmingham mom to create a new type of shopping cart.

Long pitched them and the company agreed to make it. Without any guarantee of future success, the Longs withdrew $22,000 from their savings to pay for it. Placing Caroline in the cart when she brought it home, Long knew, regardless of the future, she’d succeeded then and there.

But she couldn’t stop. Long assembled a team to handle contracts and patents. Now all she had to do was figure out how to manufacture the cart, understand the supply chain and convince retailers to buy it. Long says, “You might as well have asked me to invent the space shuttle.”

About that time, a major manufacturer agreed to meet with her. The next day Caroline was scheduled for hip surgery, which prompted reactions to anesthesia and left her in a full body cast, struggling for her life in ICU. In the hospital Long received her first phone call from a major retailer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. The next day, her husband lost his job.

At that point, she hit pause on the demand-building phase, took the prototype into the garage and covered it with a sheet. Alone, she prayed: “God, when you want this to continue, you will have to make a way. I don’t know what to do.”

Six months passed: her husband received a good severance package and found a new job; Caroline was no longer in a body cast; and her son started preschool. Long took the sheet off Caroline’s Cart. She was determined to build demand and talk to retailers, but she never knew what each day would bring. When Caroline was returned to the hospital for back surgery she brought her laptop there. “All I knew to do was one thing each day to move Caroline’s Cart forward,” Long recalls.

In May 2012 she attended a trade show in Dallas held in a football stadium. Tucked away in the end zone, she was not receiving much traffic or interest about Caroline’s Cart. Frustrated, she and her CEO Rebel Negley, parked themselves in front of the Budweiser truck in the middle of the show, Long sitting in the cart to demonstrate how it worked. Needless to say, they received the traffic they needed.

When Michelle Obama spoke in Alabama this year, Long had a chance to meet her because Caroline is the National Easter Seals child. The First Lady encouraged Long not to give up, saying, “You can’t stop this. It’s because of moms like you that things like this exist.” She soon found a manufacturer to make 100 carts.

In October, after a long journey, Caroline’s Cart became available at Belle Foods in Alabaster, Hoover and Tuscaloosa. They are also in grocery stores in New York, Vermont, Oklahoma, Illinois, Iowa, and Mississippi.

How has Long changed since the day she sketched her idea on a napkin five years ago? She says she no longer believes hurdles are insurmountable.

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