It seemed like a simple question: Why don't people return their shopping carts? It turned into a full discussion in many corners of the web. Shopping carts are pervasive, and it turns out we have a relatively nuanced relationship with them. Many of the responses fell in line with the original categories but revealed complicated assessments of morality, civility, and economics. Many people believed that returning a cart to a corral when it was present (to be clear, the article was never about returning to a store) was reflective of their behavior in other situations. For example:

  • I think one can measure a person's character by what they do with shopping carts when they are done with them.
  • There are a only a few behaviors that cause me to judge people; how they treat service industry workers, how they treat animals, and whether or not they return carts (assuming they don't have kids that need constant supervision). If I catch a perfectly healthy person that just leaves a cart in the parking lot, I will make a point to call them out on it.
  • I always return my shopping cart because I don't want to think of myself as lazy or inconsiderate.

These are great examples of how perceptions can drive behavior. For those who view Non-Returners as inconsiderate, they're also cognizant of how they themselves might be perceived. These are the principles that hold our society together: the general sense that we should escalate behaviors that are helpful to the group overall and diminish behaviors that are not. We also tend to want to display how well we exemplify this trait as well, so it is not surprising that so many of the public comments left on the Scientific American Facebook page as well the Anthropology in Practice Facebook page are indicative of this performance with so many commenters identifying as Returners. 

There were so many Returners that it prompted me to question whether Non-Returners were intentionally avoiding engagement, but this assumption turned out to be false--the web encourages a frankness that isn't always exhibited in-real-life where potential for conflict can produce unpredictable results. For Non-Returners, the responses fell largely in the camp of economics:

  • As the mom of 4 sons, I used to purposely leave my cart out of the place the store would need to hire young kids. 
  • Did you ever work any of your shifts for free? I doubt it. Did you think it was appropriate to stand around and get paid for nothing because everyone was a Good Citizen who returned their carts themselves or would you have preferred to be fired because your position was not needed because of these Good Citizens?
  • I don't return my carts on principle. Although I also don't block parking spaces - i put them on islands and curbs. My assumption is that if the cart wrangler could get a better job, he would. So I'm doing my part to keep him gainfully employed.


But actual supermarket employees chimed in to indicate they preferred to have carts returned, which creates an interesting quandary for the economic-based Non-Returners:

  • I return carts and usually take a few up with me that I find stray in parking spaces. First job was at a grocery store and getting carts isn't an easy job.
  • There is not a specific job to go get carts. The people who went out to get carts were usually the baggers, stockers, or cashiers so they had plenty to do besides go out in the heat/rain/snow to get carts strewn all over the parking lot. At the very least people could put them in the cart return instead of leaving them in parking spaces or in the grass.
  • At least at the grocery store I worked at, no one was designated 'cart getter'. Typically it was a cashier who wasn't needed because the store preferred to have too may cashiers available as opposed to too few. And if the cashiers were to busy and the carts needed to get brought in immediately, then one of the floor people got the carts. But that typically only happened on big grocery shopping days, like before Thanksgiving or Christmas. Unfortunately, you aren't providing anyone with job security.
  • Always return the cart! I spent many years in my youth working at grocery stores, so I know what a hard job doing a "cart run" can be! My routine now: park near a receptacle, especially in bad weather. Take a cart or two inside with me. Use one. When done, it goes back into the receptacle, or if I'm parked close to the door, I put it inside (or if my teens are with me. They can handle a walk!) Not hard, and can make a staff member's day a *little* easier. And not ding cars!


Whether this creates a change in behavior for this class of non-returners would be interesting to see. It may be unlikely as economically-based Non-Returners also seem to subscribe to the idea that cart returning constitutes free labor:

  • I think the article on returning grocery store carts neglected to mention an important trend worth mentioning: the fact is that many businesses expect customers to do more and more of the work without a corresponding drop in prices that would reflect the money businesses are saving by having customers do that work. For example, when I was young, a grocery store employee would take your cart to your car, load your groceries in the car, and take the cart back into the store. Now we not only are expected to return our carts, but also to bag our own groceries, and with increasing frequency, even perform self checkout. In fast food restaurants we are expected to prepare our own drinks. But are prices lower reflecting the extra work the customer does? Absolutely not. And in fact the self-service trend does cut jobs.

The public responses to these arguments centered around the idea of managing public spaces--not publicly funded spaces, but spaces that many people will access and interact with the elements in that area. While many stores may indeed have a Cart Attendant, this position isn't on duty all the time. At my local stores, they make periodic appearances that increase in frequency during high volume times. And while they are indeed in charge of collecting carts, by leaving carts in parking spaces, we're preventing others from accessing the spaces we have used until they can be cleared. Minimally, by returning the cart to the corral--if it's possible--we're creating a small courtesy for the next person behind us. 

In seeing these debates unfold, it seems more that the economics of the individual are being overlooked. We've commoditized time and labor in a variety of ways; not returning a cart may indeed force a supermarket to hire someone eventually to help if enough people demand the service, but the costs to regular individuals shouldn't be overlooked. And this means more than a potential increase in costs to at the supermarket for goods, but in terms of the time that is lost as an individual may need to find another space to park in, walk farther--particularly an issue if they have health issues--and costs related to damages to their personal property. Where do these issues fall in the spectrum of not returning carts?

The largest debates circled around able-ness and parenting, the latter being compounded by local laws that regulate leaving children alone in the car. It was good to see these points raised as they were certainly not a part of the initial classifications. They highlighted clear challenges to being able to perform normative behaviors at times and called for leniency in specific cases:

  • I used to sit on a high horse and judge people until I became physically unable to return a cart. I still return carts as much as I can and I try to park next to a cart return when those spots are open. Our society would be much better off if we offered a helping hand rather than sat back on our hindquarters and judged one another.
  • Many shopping cart receptacles are far from handicapped parking as well.
  • I am disabled (from an autoimmune connective tissue disease - it's like a combination of scleroderma & lupus), it is painful to walk.
  • I always bring them back, but when I had 3 small kids it was challenging: walking with kids over a busy parking lot is scary, but you also do not want to leave the kids alone in the car. So I understand it when a parent leaves a cart, preferably in a safe spot, in the lot, and not bring it back to the store.
  • I returned the carts until I had kids. Kids really do change everything. Lol! The truth is that by the time I'm done shopping with my kids, I'm so frazzled and want to be out of there so badly, people are lucky I don't run them over. Forget about the cart.
  •  Here in the South, leaving your kids under 12 in the car in the heat (normally Mar-Nov) is illegal. If there's no spots near a corral, I park the cart near something stationary (like a tree) and don't worry about it. CPS went after a woman for leaving her kid to pay for gas. I'm not dealing with that.


But they also demonstrated the immense pull of the social norm as there were also stories of people fulfilling the social expectations despite apparent challenges:

  • On one occasion I was walking into the store pushing a few stray carts I retrieved from parking spots on the way in. A nice fellow who was missing an arm and had a prosthetic leg was coming towards me, doing the same. We both made comments about how it irks us how lazy people can be. We then see a soccer mom roll her cart into the handicapped space next to her. My fellow cart returner and new hero made eye contact with her and said "really, lady? I'm missing limbs and can do this". She sheepishly pushed her cart to the Roundup even though the store was much closer.
  • Even with three little kids in tow I would return it - they learned that it is important to keep the moral fiber in the little things.
  • I was leaving a store on once and an old guy was holding onto his cart in front of the store looking across to his car with the door open and his cane in it. You could just see him wondering how he was going to get back to the car without holding onto the cart. I stopped and helped him back to his car. I would just like to say that old guy took his cart back.


These comments also further emphasize the fracture in expectations held by and of people who are differently abled and parents. Our social nature enables the care and support of those who are less able to function in our society (yes, I am sure someone will bring up elder abandonment shortly), so the question is when do we start to make allowances and how can we encourage that kind of behavior? One commenter framed the discussion beautifully:


We are hoping instead that after reading comments posted here it may help change bad habits or help people learn new ways of solving a problem. We will probably never discuss it again, but many here will definitely think twice when they see a buggy in the lot again. It is not wrong to address things, discuss how to change habits and mindsets or learn why leaving a buggy is a very costly issue. When I went to Strader's Garden Center last week a heavy, 3 tiered buggy for plants smashed into a woman's truck creating a dent and also scratching her vehicle all the way down the passenger side of her vehicle. That could easily be 500 or more in paint and body damage. Money wasted through our insurance companies, working hours etc just because someone didn't care, had kids with them and felt it was too hard to return it, or an elderly person was doing their best just to get to the damn store. The main point is that we all need to look around us and think not only about ourselves and our comforts but those of others.

These discussions were fascinating and represent the epitome of the nature of Anthropology in Practice. Thank you all for participating and contributing--I'd love to run a photo piece on carts in situ. Send me your photos of shopping carts. You can email them to or post them on the Facebook page.

The conversation is far from over. Comments have been disabled on Anthropology in Practice, but you can always join the community on Facebook.


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