Why Most People Don’t Return Their Shopping Carts
The great divide: cart returners vs. cart leavers
The division in our country runs beyond politics and into mundane life chores like returning a shopping buggy to the store-provided receptacle.
There are plenty reasons to leave a shopping cart in place once it’s been emptied — the weather’s bad, small children, in a hurry, etc. but ardent cart returners find all such reasons to be less rational and more akin to excuses.
So why doesn’t everyone return their carts to the receptacle? And why is it largely socially acceptable to leave a cart in the middle of the parking lot?
Scientific American explored the phenomena:
A 2008 study published in Science tested behavioral responses against the manipulation of injunctive and descriptive norms to see if a violation of one norm would lead people to violations of other, unrelated norms. In the first test, researchers targeted participants who parked their bicycles in two alleys. On the walls of the alleys were signs that indicated graffiti was not permitted. One alley had no graffiti, while the other did, despite the signs. Researchers attached a flyer to the handles of bicycles in both alleys so that the owners needed to physically remove the flyers. In the alley with graffiti on the wall, 69% threw the flyer on the ground or hung the flyer on another bicycle compared with 33% in the alley with no graffiti. The researchers reported that the anti-graffiti signs were readily visible and all entrants to the alleys glanced at the signs. The appearance of graffiti on the walls in defiance of the signs suggested that it was appropriate to break another norm: littering.
They replicated these results in two additional tests. For example, they set up temporary fences along two parking lots and posted No Trespassing signs and No Bicycle signs. While the temporary fences did have a gap that a person could use to get to their vehicle, the No Trespassing signs were intended to make people walk to another entrance. The No Bicycles sign were intended to signify that people could not lock their bicycles to the fences. At one parking lot, bicycles were left nearby; they were not chained or locked to the fence. At the other parking lot, bicycles were chained to the fence. The results were significant: 82% of participants used the gap if the bicycles were chained to the fence compared with 27% when there were no bicycles chained to the fence.
In the final test, researchers went to a parking garage that served a supermarket and a gym. In one scenario, four carts were strewn about the garage, and in another all carts were in the receptacles. The researchers left flyers on the windows of the cars in the garage and—you guessed it—58% of participants littered (i.e., threw their flyers on the ground) when there were unmanaged shopping carts compared with 30% when all carts were in the receptacle.
TL;DR? In parking garages and lots where there are fewer cart returners, it’s more likely fewer will return their carts. It seems the observance of chaos makes most more likely to participate in the chaos.
Some supermarkets have tried to make this relatively easy: they have cart receptacles throughout the parking lot, a cart attendant to bring the carts back to the store, and some may even rely on a cart “rental” system where you pay for the cart and are reimbursed when it’s returned. In the instances where there is no rental system, people may leave their carts stranded for some of the following reasons:
- The receptacle is too far from where they’ve parked their car.
- They have a child whom they do not want to leave unattended.
- The weather is bad.
- They have a disability that prohibitive to easy movement.
- The perception that it’s someone else’s job to collect the carts.
- They’re leaving the carts for someone else to easily pick up and use.
Similarly, there are five categories of cart users:
Returners. These people always return their carts to the receptacle regardless of how far away they’ve parked or what the weather is like. They feel a sense of obligation and/or feel badly for the people responsible for collecting the carts.
Never Returners. People who never return their carts. They believe it’s someone else’s job to get the carts or the supermarket’s responsibility, and show little regard for where the carts are left.
Convenience Returners. People who will return their carts if they parked close to the receptacle, or if they see a cart attendant.
Pressure Returners. People who will return their carts only if the cart attendant is present or if the adjacent car’s owner is present, which means they don’t have an easy avenue for abandoning their carts.
Child-Driven Returners. These are people with children who view it as a game to return carts, often riding them back to the receptacle or pushing them into the stacked lines.
Social norms fall into two general categories. There are injunctive norms, which drive our responses based on our perception of how others will interpret our actions. This means that we’re inclined to act in certain ways if we think people will think well or think poorly of us. And there are descriptive norms, where our responses are driven by contextual clues. This means we’re apt to mimic behaviors of others—so what we see or hear or smell suggests the appropriate/accepted response or behavior that we should display.
I’m an avid cart returner. While pregnant, I began parking close to a cart receptacle to make it easier to return the shopping buggy. This is a practice I’ve maintained post-partum. Barring extenuating circumstances, I believe it rude to expect others to pick up after me. Not to mention the potential for damage a rogue cart might cause to someone’s private property. But that’s just my take. What’s yours? Do you return your cart?
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People who don’t return their carts go to hell for eternity when they die.
Nah. They’re just forced to shop in supermarkets that don’t have carts…
The tragedy of the commons – if it’s not yours and not visibly another person’s, why care what happens to it? This is why office refrigerators are full of moldy Tupperware, why some men pee on the seat at a public bathroom, why people don’t pick up their dog’s poop and apparently why people don’t return their shopping carts (buggy is something Amish people drive).
Or why leftists don’t clean-up after themselves after public rallies, while conservatives do?
Conservatives probably return shopping carts.
There’s also a class of people who believe that once they’re done with something, it’s no longer their responsibility whether it’s the trash from their car ditched in the parking lot or their grocery cart.
Sounds like obama and the United States.
His beast of a fake wife probably didn’t return her shopping cart, either:
Michelle Obama’s Target trip: Critics take aim:
World Class Psyco-babble!
But it’s interesting and actually useful info on why people do or don’t do something. This type of research is more useful than some of the SJW crap we are seeing. See the comment on NYC below….
Why would Big Craphole residents even consider returning their carts? After all, they’re special, and everyone else needs to cater to their whims.
Down here in East Central Florida, those are usually the filthy swill who are too good to clean up after themselves. Fortunately, it’s near the end of snowbird season so that shiite reduces significantly.
Don’t get me started on people who leave trash in their carts.
If I found the cart in the middle of the parking lot, where do I “return” it after I am done shopping?
I usually grab a shopping cart in the middle of the parking lot (up on a grass median) near my car. Then I leave it where I found it.
More efficient for everyone.
Heck, half the super markets by me have set aside spots in the middle of the lot explicitly for shopping carts, making this even easier.
If there are no unused carts nearby I will ask a shopper who is loading their purchases into their car if they are done with their cart.
At some stores carts are scarce, especially if they are busy.
“Trash begets trash”
This fact of life was the basic idea behind Rudy Giuliani’s cleanup of NYC, beginning with Times Square. Focus on some quality of life issues first (litter being one of the most importance; others include the squeegee men; running stop signs; boom boxes, etc.), other things will then begin to fall into line. If the owner of something doesn’t show any sense of pride of ownership, predictably neither will others.
“Trash begets trash”
Absolutely correct. No need to look further than the people surrounding obama and clinton.
The cleanest parking lot is at Aldi’s where there is a quarter deposit for the carts. A lot of parking lots in OK are relatively clear of stray carts, probably due to the winds.
I also have started parking closer to the return corrals.
The worst parking lot I ever see is Walmart’s, not that I go there much. It seems like every time I go I see at least one dirty diaper that someone has rolled up and thrown out the car window in the parking lot – I mean who goes shopping and throws dirty diapers out the window? A significant number of Wal-Mart shoppers, apparently.
I’m sorry, but you are missing the point.
I am a 67 y/o disabled male. It is difficult for me to walk and I do use a cane.
The shopping cart is a MAJOR help in walking. MUCH better than the cane. When I park in the handicap parking space, I ALWAYS hope that there is a cart next to the space.
When I return to my car, I leave the cart against the pole holding the parking sign at the head of the space, but not in the space or anywhere that it could be hit by someone parking.
I have spoken with a number of handicapped drivers and we much prefer the cart to be at the parking space, rather than having to go get it from the store or the storage rack.
NWEOI – YMMV
I understand your issue and I often wondered why there wasn’t a return rack at the HC spots. There are a few stores in my area that have grocery sackers who will ask if you want some help in getting the groceries to the car. They usually then round up some carts in the lot.
Except most supermarkets will have their baggers ask if you would like them to help you get your purchase to your car, ESPECIALLY if it looks like you might have a problem. Keep on lying, Binky.
Mark Matis – Lying? Seriously? It would be nice if you could read.
I didn’t say ONE WORD about getting my groceries out to my car. The issue is simply WALKING. Which is a major problem for me. I have a plastic knee-cap, a crushed hip, and a fused spine. My right leg is an inch plus shorter than my left. Just walking is a major PITA.
And in my condition, falling is simply something to be avoided at all costs.
Having the cart makes it a LOT easier to WALK, IDIOT. Both going IN to the store AND coming OUT of the store.
In my experience, I can’t remember EVER seeing a cart corral near the handi-capped parking spots. I am sure there must be some, but not at the stores where I shop.
Yes, LYING, you filthy leech. Now you claim you don’t even use the cart to take groceries to your car, but are merely strewing your crap across the parking lot for your convenience.
Damn you to hell.
You may have given this way too much thought.
You apparently don’t live in an urban area. Here in NJ the checker IS the person bagging your stuff – unless you do it yourself. I have NEVER heard anyone asked if they needed help getting purchases to their car.
If you’re in East Texas and shop at Brookshire’s, they always take your groceries to the car for you. It’s a thing for the chain.
Publix in Florida used to do that – makes sense when you consider how many elderly are there. Haven’t been to Florida for some years now, so I can’t say whether that is current practice.
It is, and the baggers are not supposed to accept tips.
I am a 55 year old mobility disabled vet. A shopping cart is much better than my cane, but I can walk and even carry light loads for short distances. I usually find a cart near the blue spots (handicapped parking areas) where some lazy bastards left them. When I am done with the cart, I try to leave the cart in the receptacle near the store doors, and carry my bags to the car. I believe we lead best by example, not forcing a legal mandate upon people.
Thank goodness for the lazy folks who preposition a cart where
I can use it to wheel into the store.
Then I take out a cart and leave it for the next lucky person who can use it for the trip back into the store.
It’s perfect rational symmetry.
I’m a life-long cart returner from a long line of cart returners. It wouldn’t even occur to me not to return a shopping cart; heck, I return them at Dollar General where there are no receptacles at all (I put it back inside the store where I got it).
I was at a CVS (or some such drug store chain) many years ago, and there was this woman ahead of me who left her shopping basket on the floor in front of the cash register. I was livid as I realized she was seriously intending to walk out of the store, leaving the basket right where she had been standing in order to pay for her purchases. Being a big mouth, I told her to put it back (the rack holding them was right by the door she was about to exit, fgs!). She glared at me, muttered something in Spanish, and reluctantly placed it in the rack on her way out. Who leaves a shopping basket at the feet of the person behind them? Ugh!
I always return the carts that I don’t steal.
I don’t steal carts. That’s against the law.
I tell my grandkids to do it. Cops won’t do more than give them a warning.
white grand kid privilege!
Interesting. I am a convenience returner. And I tend to park with that in mind. So, if the merchants have facilities in the parking lots to return carts to, I will typically use them, and will return them to the curb the store if close enough. I think that part of it is a theory that if the merchants are trying to make things easy on me, I will reciprocate. If they aren’t, that is their problem.
Another dimension maybe is that cart returning also seems to depend a bit on where you are. In particular here, we bounce between PHX and a small town in NW MT. Much less leaving carts in the middle of the parking lot in the small town in MT. My guess is that it is due to the reality that you may know the people who see you leave the cart in the middle of the parking lot, and they may judge you as a result. And people there really are a lot more helpful.
Hmm – PHX is a larger town, full of snowbirds and older people as well as having some heat so less likely to return to store. I can understand more carts in the lots.
Small town MT would be filled with younger and healthier people, cooler weather, and you have the “everyone knows my name” issue. I suspect that in the winter, more people stock up with the basics to avoid having to go shopping. And, they are more aware of the hassle of someone retrieving a bunch of carts.
Of course, this is profiling, but it is a fun thought experiment.
We are on the west side in PHX, well away from Sun City, and so the age range is typically young to middle aged. MT has young and old, but not as many in their 40s and 50s. Not sure where I am going with that…
I never leave them in the racks in the parking lot. I wheel them all the way back to the store, where they can sit with their buddies and talk about whatever it is carts talk about when they aren’t being pushed around.
But I do it mainly for the exercise. The SA researchers don’t seem to have considered that possibility. Typical.
I return the cart to the store. Rarely, I’ll return it to the corral in the lot. I grew up in a grocery store, and know the constant hassle of chasing carts. Every time I spend an extra minute returning a cart, it gives me time to reflect on how fortunate I am that I have never had to work at a grocery store as an adult, like my dad, who is 85 and still works in that grocery store.
I was born in the late 1950s. When I was a kid, the bag boy always helped take the groceries out to the car and always took the cart back to the store. Always. And he got a small tip.
In the ’80s, they usually did this, but not always. And like everyone else, I always returned the cart to the store. There were no carrels to take them to.
In the mid-80s or so, I decided, being in law school, that my time was too valuable to return the cart like EVERYONE else did, and I quit.
Then, my bad habit became quite common I regret to say. And after about 15 years, the stores started putting these carrels out for the carts. And I started watching they young teenage boys and girls pushing these heavy stacks of carts back. I felt badly about that.
So, I started returning my cart again to the store. Not the carrel. Just to the sidewalk, because I do feel it’s their job to navigate the incoming and outgoing traffic and to arrange the carts.
And now, I park next to the carrel to take one into the store. Sometimes if I see someone is about done unloading their cart, especially if they have kids, I’ll offer to take theirs in.
I don’t like seeing the kids pushing the heavy carts. I don’t like the store spending money on that either. I’m in Georgia, it’s hilly, and it can be very hard.
I have noticed at my store, more people have been pushing them to the store. I like that.
There is an additional category of cart user: The thief. You can see them pushing the carts full of groceries to their rented houses, there to be abandoned and perhaps repurposed into BBQ grills or vehicles with which the homeless can have mobility for their scant possessions. If the cart leaves the parking lot it is stolen and the perp pushing it is a thief.
I absolutely never, ever return a cart. I need one to push around all my worldly possessions. I used to have two carts, but one of the wheels went all wonky on one of them. Instead of grabbing a shiny new one from the parking lot, I decided to downsize to only one cart. At my age there really is no reason to hang onto stuff that I haven;t used for years. Besides most of it was broken or just plain worn out. When this cart wears out my “family” which lives behind the dumpsters at the back of the lot said I can move in with them.
In all seriousness what pi$$es me off is when I go to return a cart, the corral is jammed by carts haphazardly pushed in or left in random locations around the corral. I have seen carts strewn about on local streets left curbside, even on residential streets, up to a quarter mile radius from the store to which it belongs.
How do you spot a tweaker (meth addict) at the supermarket?
He’s the one with the cart turned over, working on the wheels.
Pray tell, WHERE do you live??
My thoughts are courtesy. My cart is returned so it does not roll into and damage someone else’s vehicle and my tray and table on my rare trip to a fast food restaurant is cleared so that the next customer is not inconvenienced. Rarely am I concerned about the lazy employees that are paid to clear parking lots of carts or trays from tables.
I wouldn’t necessarily call them lazy, if they are doing their job.
Most supermarkets in our area have two sizes of carts. My pet peeve is when people return them to the racks, they just jamb them in there all jumbled up rather than put the large carts on one side and the small carts on the other. It drives me crazy so I usually reshuffle the carts and nest them according to size. Should I seek psychological help?
Anybody remember Sniglets?
Vow! Monumental. Sometime soon, this travesty will be dealt a severe blow by legislation. Then we’re rid of a major problem!
Aw, that’s harsh. I am enjoying this discussion a great deal. Sometimes we need to take a break from politics and address random things that affect us all.
Why don’t people return shopping carts?? Because they are lazy!
Could have saved a lot of time and effort put in to this study that could have been used for something useful (like cancer research)!!
Or strippers who like to fish. Do their hands smell fishy afterwards? Inquiring minds want to know.
One thing that does puzzle me:
When the weather is pleasant, why don’t the fat people return their carts? Those folks could REALLY use the extra 60 feet of walking.
There are a few obese people — I have known some — who have medical problems which contribute both to their obesity and to their limited mobility. But it would be sensible for them to park right next to a cart corral to get a cart and return it.
I always return carts, either to the corral in the parking lot or to the store if there’s no corral. I push the cart into the one in front of it in an orderly manner if at all possible. This is a matter of courtesy. I don’t want to have to drive around the lot looking for a space where I won’t hit my car on a stray cart, so I don’t do it to others.
The exception for carts right next to the handicapped spaces sounds sensible, and maybe more stores should make arrangements to have them there.
Courtesy to others in common areas used to be part of American culture, at least outside of the large cities, with which I had no experience in my youth. The idea of leaving the cart, of throwing trash on the pavement, or throwing trash out my window on the road is incomprehensible to me.
Why are you relying on a shopping cart to avoid serious injury instead of a walker, not a cane?
What do you do in parking lots where there are no shopping carts?
And what do you do if you rely on a shopping cart to keep your balance and injure yourself? – Sue the store?
You might wan to rethink your use of shopping carts to avoid serious injury, any more than you’d use your car’s exhaust pipe to power your bong.
I push the cart into the one in front of it in an orderly manner if at all possible. This is a matter of courtesy.
Personally, I like the clattering sound they all make when I crash one into the end of the line.
The newer plastic carts are useless.
Laziness, I have often said 99 % of human problems can be traced to laziness and lust
Add ‘character’ to the equation. Lazy and lustful people who possess character usually do the right thing, despite urges to let laziness and lust overtake their values.
I suppose I am a convience returner. Just this morning I took a cart from someone who had just loaded his bags into his cart, and I returned it to the cart corral.
But I admit to not being so good when I have a lot of frozen food — it doesn’t take long for ice cream to turn to soup in Florida.
Grr. . . convenience.
Low-lifes don’t return shopping carts, but they return hillary clinton to public life. This actually is hilarious (no pun intended):
Hillary Clinton Lashes Out at Press and ‘Sexism’ for 2016 Loss, Claims She Beat Trump:
For some reason I don’t think I’ve ever seen a stray cart in the Trader Joe’s parking lot, and they, unlike most supermarkets, don’t have cart corrals. You have to take it back to the store entrance (or give it to someone who just parked, etc.).
Or, the prices are so high that you can carry everything in two bags…..
Are you kidding? They are like discount whole foods.
You might be more suited for their sister store, Aldi.
I put things back where I found them when I’m done using them. Not for any of the reasons listed above, but because it’s not mine, so it’s the polite thing to do. If there’s any obligation, it’s not towards anyone at grocery store, or other patrons, but to myself. So suck it, Science! ????
I always return the cart to the store, but it pisses me off that my fitbit cheats me out of all those steps.
You’re wearing it on your wrist, right? It thinks you’re, perhaps, riding a lawnmower when your hand rests on the shopping cart handles. Take it off your wrist and put it in your pocket.
I’m a cart returner. There is a special place in hell for inconsiderate people who leave their carts to roll across the parking lot into other people’s cars. If my 76 year old mother with a bad hip could take her cart back, there is no freaking excuse in the world why someone who could roll it out of the store, can’t roll it to the nearest cart corral.
I am a cart returner, either to the store or the corral as the case may be. I resent having to drive around other peoples’ messes, so I do not add to the mess.
When the day comes that I am enfeebled, I will leave the carts if need be, and with a clear conscience. Right now, though, there is nothing wrong with me, so I return the carts.
I always return my cart to a carrel. I think bringing the cart all the way back into the store might cost some young (and sometimes developmentally disabled) people their jobs.
For me, I enjoy returning carts to the correl. It’s a game: how far away am I? What angle do I use? What force? It’s like trying to make a 60 foot putt at the Masters. My personal best was a slight down hill with a left roll from 75 feet away. Nailed it!
Not return a cart? My mama didn’t raise me that way. And this was loooong before there was such a thing as cart corrals in the middle of the parking lot to give the lazy-ass shoppers absolutely no excuse for not returning the things.
Do unto others, people. The Golden Rule. It really is as simple as that.
Yeah, this explains a lot. I live in a nice city in California where people do return their shopping carts, but go one mile outside the city limits and you’ll find the streets littered with them. Evidently to many people in Los Angeles a grocery store shopping cart is a free wagon and baby stroller.
There’s a rare extra category not mentioned that applies to our local Costco parking lot here in the Tidewater area of VA.
We only have one Costco covering 4 nearby cities and the parking lot is EXTREMELY poorly designed…building was put too far forward on the lot (from back when it was a COMPUSA), so spots are limited and lanes are crowded. It’s very cutthroat to get a spot and it’s quite dangerous, you constantly feel like you’re in someone’s way while walking and you constantly feel like you’re going to hit someone or another car while you’re driving the lot.
I’ll admit on Sunday after church is out and all those religious manners have been exorcised, I’ve popped a wheelie on a cart and left it on the median in this situation.
I know exactly which Costco you are talking about. it is horrible for parking. I usually parked off to the left away from the main people.
Carts are dangerous anyways…they can apparently be used to burn bridges.
That and people who won’t bring the ball basket back at the driving range. The basket weighs nothing, you’re going to walk right by the place where it goes on the way out, if you make the guy walk all the hell way out to pick it up for you, when for you it’s completely effortless to return it, you’re way up in the a’hole hierarchy.
Looks like I’m the only one who’ll chime in on the flyers Placed on cars (or bikes). Grocery parking lots are private property. It has always irked me that management doesn’t give three hoots about solicitors entering their property and putting advertising flyers on their customer’s cars (which are private property also). No one has a “right” to touch my car; to lift my windshield wiper and place something under it…. (The sneaky ones put them under the passenger side wiper so you have to walk around the car to remove it).
If everyone did as I do, (which is to remove the flyer and toss it as high in the air as I can)and then complain to the store, Management would make sure the practice stops (or file trespassing / vandalism charges on the perpetrator(s) ). Can you imagine a parking lot completely filled with littered flyers?
No one has a right to touch my property, let alone place advertising on it.
My belief is that society in general is less and less focused on teaching personal responsibility. This is the result.
This is a re-iteration of the “Broken Window” theory of social behavior, introduced by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in an article titled “Broken Windows”, in the March 1982 The Atlantic Monthly.
“Before the introduction of this theory by Wilson and Kelling, Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist, arranged an experiment testing the broken-window theory in 1969. Zimbardo arranged for an automobile with no license plates and the hood up to be parked idle in a Bronx neighbourhood and a second automobile in the same condition to be set up in Palo Alto, California. The car in the Bronx was attacked within minutes of its abandonment. Zimbardo noted that the first “vandals” to arrive were a family – a father, mother and a young son – who removed the radiator and battery. Within twenty-four hours of its abandonment, everything of value had been stripped from the vehicle. After that, the car’s windows were smashed in, parts torn, upholstery ripped, and children were using the car as a playground. At the same time, the vehicle sitting idle in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week until Zimbardo himself went up to the vehicle and deliberately smashed it with a sledgehammer. Soon after, people joined in for the destruction. Zimbardo observed that a majority of the adult “vandals” in both cases were primarily well dressed, Caucasian, clean-cut and seemingly respectable individuals. It is believed that, in a neighborhood such as the Bronx where the history of abandoned property and theft are more prevalent, vandalism occurs much more quickly as the community generally seems apathetic. Similar events can occur in any civilized community when communal barriers—the sense of mutual regard and obligations of civility—are lowered by actions that suggest apathy.”
I “have” to return the carts to the corral (established routine so I don’t forget something, like parking in the same area or putting my keys in the same spot at home), round up my stray and get it home. Mainly so I can crash it into the back of the corral giving a minor stress relief with the crash. Bonus if there are carts just put in the corral and not interlocked I see how many I can get into a chain before I crash the back of the corral. I live in a nice area of RI and most the people in town know I’m a little nuts (respectful, but maybe close to the edge) so this doesn’t get as many reactions as you would think.