#25 The Great Shopping Cart Debacle

Good Morning!

For as long as I can remember, every single time I’ve entered the parking lot of a grocery store I’ve seen at least one stranded shopping cart.

The only time I’ve entered a grocery store parking lot with no carts strewn about is when I see the cart wranglers moving the carts back into the store, the store isn’t open, or a coin deposit system had been implemented.  The latter usually solves this problem for the most part, but then some people still don’t return their carts.

I’d like to attribute this to shear laziness and lack of respect and common courtesy some people have for their fellow human and to the natural order of things, but I can’t.  There has to be another explanation.

Let’s Get to the Bottom of This

What I’m going to do is give you a bit of history about the shopping cart and why it came to be, explain why I think a shopping cart is considered a tool, the unwritten rules surrounding the act of borrowing something, why using or borrowing something should be respected, why “creating work” for someone might be a bad idea, and who gets a free pass on the issue.

To get a better understanding of this topic I read a few articles, I observed human nature while visiting my local grocery, asked the question on social media, and used my own logic and rational thinking to form an opinion.

It Didn’t Always Used to Be This Way


I remember when I was a kid, when checking out at the grocery store there would be people at the end of the check out line bagging the groceries, loading the bags into red containers and then putting the red containers on a steel roller type conveyor to head outside. The shopping cart was then taken away by someone to get filed with the rest of the carts. Then mom and I would go back out to the car, and she would pull up next to the building under the canopy where some people outside load the groceries from the red bins into the back of our car and we’d be on our way.

What’s interesting is that I don’t remember carts ever leaving the building.

Some Shopping Cart History

After reading for a couple hours, it turns out the good’ol shopping cart has story- rich history and quite a bit of innovation tied to it. Who would have thought!?

There was many different iterations, each version solving a new problem that the previous one had created until finally we end up with the various styles we have today. The shopping cart is still evolving even now in modern times with the addition of audible, visual, and haptic technology to create an even more immersive shopping experience. I can’t wait to literally get my hands on one of these one day to give it a try.

Businesses want to sell you as much stuff as they can; more sales equals more profit. The grocer from Tulsa, Oklahoma, Sylvan Goldman knew this way back in 1936 by observing at the time, that when the shopping basket became too heavy to carry, people stopped shopping.

He encouraged his staff to be as attentive as they could in bringing another basket to shoppers whose baskets were becoming full, but this proved to be very difficult in practice for number of reasons.

Sylvan needed to solve this logistical problem.  His ‘ah-ha’ moment came while sitting in his office staring at a folding chair with a basket resting on top: Put another chair and another basket on top and put some wheels on the legs so it’s easy to move around.  With this simple concept he solved his ‘two basket problem’.  Realizing it’s potential, he along with a few other innovators refined this idea and changed the self-serve grocery experience into what we now know.  Check out the Wikipedia article for the whole story.

Easy Shopping Equals More Profit

The motivation behind the shopping cart is to make the shopping experience as effortless as possible.  This is accomplished by the shopper not being physically required to carry everything they want to purchase around the store with them, all in one trip. Not only that, but it solves a few other problems for the customer which makes it quite convenient, such as a place for a child or two to sit or a secure place to put your bag or purse, and now even a secure shelf to put your phone or tablet on.

Carts Are Tools

Carts of all kinds are underrated for the convenience they provide, and are considered a necessary organizational tool in many professions. Besides, they just make stuff easier: gravity is unrelenting.

If we can agree that a cart is a tool, and a very convenient tool at that, why do some of us treat the carts at the store so poorly? Isn’t it like borrowing a tool from a friend?

Don’t the same rules apply to the shopping carts as it would with anything else you might want to use that isn’t yours?  Is it because the carts are provided for your convenience and you don’t have to ask to use it? Is it the motivation behind the business in providing the carts convenience that makes it ok? Let’s examine.


I published an article recently, The Act of Borrowing, which was inspired by this section. If you’ve read that article already, this section will echo some of what I wrote there.

It’s an unwritten rule for using pretty much anything that we borrow, especially when at no cost to us, that we return whatever it is we borrowed to where it’s supposed to go so the that the next person can find it and use it.

Return the magazine to the pile, return the tool to the right drawer of the tool box.

I remember, quite vividly, my shop teacher in high school stressing the importance of returning the item you borrowed in the exact same condition, or better, to the exact location from which it came.

Creating Jobs

The idea is that if a person leaves their cart out in the parking lot, someone has to go out and get it and bring it back into the store, therefore creating the need to perform a task and therefore creating a job for someone.

Wanting to be a part of a social behaviour change with the goal of creating jobs sounds a like a great idea and I’d participate too, but in practice on the individual level it’s a futile effort.  These types of social changes are far to slow to happen organically without mass market intervention like viral social media coverage or a retailer-wide policy change, and both of these are unlikely to happen.

In reality, cart wranglers are already tasked with collecting all of the stranded carts, so if you leave your cart out in the lot, all you did was create more work for that person.  That’s not nice, now is it? It’s just like walking over the portion of the floor a janitor has just mopped when you could have easily walked around.

It would be kinda weird anyways. Just imagine you’re all done shopping, you’re walking out the door to go to your car where person greets you, pushes your cart for you, helps you load your groceries into your car, and then takes the cart back for you.  That’s a tip-worthy job. Great, now I’m obligated to give this person money for a job I can clearly do myself. No thanks.

It’s Not About You

Parking in a busy parking lot is a huge pain in the ass and the last thing anyone needs to deal with is a parking space with a stranded cart left in it.  It’s infuriating. On top of that, a stranded cart can turn into a runaway cart and leave a less than desirable mark on someone’s car that you’re technically on the hook for.

Returning the cart to the corral isn’t about you.  It’s not even really about the cart, it’s about all of the other people that come after you.  It’s about the responsibility you have to treat others in the general population with respect.  No one wants to be disrespected, much less their things, and most importantly, their time.

Not all of us have the mind set.  The structure and flow of the parking lot doesn’t just jump out at all of us, some of us just don’t care, and finally some people just only do the bare minimum of what’s expected of them, so we should not be surprised when we random sample of the population don’t adhere to the unwritten rules or social norms.

The Free Passes

There are always exceptions to the rules, unwritten or otherwise.  So who gets a free pass?

The Elderly. Of course the aged get a free pass.  If anyone makes it to old age and has to deal with all of the BS that comes along with growing old, it’s understandable that they’d prefer to take one less step. But most older folks also know better than to get caught leaving a cart stranded out all by itself, at least the folks who frequent my grocery store do.  They leave their carts next to the building, and these carts don’t count because more than half of the people entering the store will grab a cart just sitting outside the door on their way in. It’s actually kind of nice, and also efficient, but sometimes the amount of them at one time gets out of hand.

The Disabled or Handicapped. These folks have their own carts and it goes without saying, if an able-bodied person who sees doesn’t at least offer to help them return their cart, well let’s just say that there is a special place for you in the afterlife.

People who legitimately have an emergency. Go! You have stuff to take care of.

People who are really struggling. The people who are suffering in silence, roaming around on autopilot that have stuff going on in their lives deprioritize everything else in their world except what is absolutely necessary, and the stupid shopping cart doesn’t make the list. We need to watch out for these people, because the leaving a stranded cart could be symptom of a sad ending being near. A simple “Hey man, is everything ok?” could be the tiny amount of compassion that person needs.


We’ve established that carts are a convenient tool that the store lets you borrow while you shop and when you’re done with it, it’s assumed that you understand the unwritten rules of borrowing something and will then return it to where it is supposed to go, but some people get a free pass, while others don’t care, and the rest just want to watch the world burn.

I’m happy I got to write this article.  Who would have thought that the simple shopping cart has such a rich history and social stigma surrounding it.

Trivial by its nature, the act not returning the shopping cart to the corral isn’t really a huge deal, but it is a nuisance for everyone that has to use the parking lot and unfortunately will continue to be an issue until shopping carts, parking lots and the self-serve grocery store is no longer a thing.

I return my cart to the cart corral because that’s where it belongs. I’m compelled to do so because it’s not mine and I tend to treat the things of others with respect.  I even go so far as choosing a parking space across from the corral for this very reason.

I hope you enjoyed this article and found of the information fun and useful.  Please leave a comment below with your thoughts on this topic.


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Author: Karsy

Your average writer, maker, robot programming, gaming, tig welding, foodie, car jock, who loves to travel and is obsessed with coffee and lifting heavy things. Cheers!