Theory of Behavioural Economics and How It Applies To Shopping Carts

We are having a Winter Storm and Snow Event in Calgary today; there is so much snow and the roads are treacherous, so my class today was cancelled. I am enjoying the novelty of having a forced day at home; my husband even took the kids to school as the van was stuck in the garage. It’s kind of nice to have to slow down and just putter around, but it will be even nicer to get back to regular programming, as it were.

Yesterday I went to Superstore for groceries – Wednesdays are my Designated Superstore Days – and it appeared that the entire quadrant of the city was there, stocking up before the Big Storm. It was a tiny taste of what must happen when there is a big East Coast storm or a hurricane; I couldn’t believe the craziness at 11:00 in the morning on a Wednesday.

As I laboriously shoved my heavy cart through the snowy parking lot, putting all my weight into it with my torso nearly parallel to the ground, I recalled a conversation I had with Jake during the Christmas break. He had accompanied me to Superstore, a rare occurrence, and he wondered, in passing and in a very casual, making-conversation kind of way, why we had to put a loonie in to get a cart.

I’m sure that Jake didn’t realize that his casual musing would lead to a Can Opened Worms Everywhere situation, but that was the result. I told him that if people are forced to make a returnable deposit on something, then they will behave in a completely different manner than if there is no natural consequence to their actions, see also: bottle depots. Without an economic incentive, people rarely behave in a way that benefits society; I was this close to describing the Invisible Hand And How It Can Be Applied To Shopping Carts, but one only needs to spend thirty seconds in a Wal-Mart parking lot to examine this phenomenon.

Or Costco. Costco! The Costco parking lot is constantly the Land Of The Lost Carts, but a few weeks ago I was startled to see this:

What is the appropriate punishment for this crime? I mean, the least that could have been done was to do what every other lazy Costco shopper does when eschewing common courtesy and morality and shove it to the side, rather than blocking an entire coveted parking spot. I took the cart myself and at the end of my shopping, lovingly returned it to its corral, thinking you’re home now with your family, in a not at all unbalanced way.

A friend of mine gently pointed out that possibly that cart was left there for my use by a postpartum-y mama with other crying children in the car. Another friend said that perhaps there was an emergency or illness. Certainly, those things could be true. I am not a monster. I realize that there are extenuating circumstances that could result in a cart not returned to a corral; when I am at the Co-Op I always offer to return or take a cart when I see an elderly person leaving it to the side, and I even keep the passive-aggressive tone out of my voice. Here, let me take that for you. I offer to help new mothers and I take carts back myself, not – obviously – for the glory, but for my own Parking Lot Feng Shui.

It certainly can be the case that it is sometimes not physically or emotionally possible to return the cart, even if the person got the full cart that far, and pushing an empty cart is much easier, particularly, in this case, when there is a perfectly clear and dry parking lot. So, my compassionate and empathetic friends may be right.

However, I don’t think so. I think that this cart is just the most egregious example of a terrible epidemic of laziness and thoughtlessness, given that the entire parking lot was full of errant carts. In fact, I think that there were more carts outside of the corrals than in them, and there are, I should point out, corrals conveniently located in nearly every section of the parking lot. True, there may be a small number of people who are just unable, but those people are not even a patch on the giant quilt of non-returners.

I weep for humanity.

Interestingly, this has even been studied by anthropologists, which makes me feel better about my own weird obsession. My friend Simona (HI SIMONA) sent me this article, and what stands out is this quote:

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.

This sentiment is gross. It reminds me of people who throw garbage on the floor of a theatre so that the janitors have a job to do, or people who make giant messes of sweater displays so that the salesgirls won’t be bored on the job. Why don’t we all just pee on the floor of public bathrooms so that the cleaner can keep busy, or throw trash out the window so convicts will be able to pick it up on their work-release programs? LET’S KEEP A LITTLE HUMANITY, HERE, PEOPLE. The cart wranglers STILL HAVE TO TAKE THE CARTS FROM THE CORRAL INTO THE STORE AND THAT IS NO SMALL JOB LET’S NOT MAKE IT HARDER ON THEM.

It reminds me of when I was a teenager and I had a job at Pizza Hut. The two managers, I can see them still: Tim, with his sandy, curly blond hair and tiny stature, and Dave, with his slicked-back black hair and sweat stains on his shirt. Both enjoyed a general asshole demeanor. Neither of them could have possibly been older than 28, but they were both getting Managerial Bonuses for running the Pizza Hut with minimum staff, so every weekend was a complete gong show that would result in customers reaming out the cashiers (me) for their pizza taking too long or their table not being cleared quickly enough. Every single weekend we would deal with complaints that sometimes made me cry with their vitriol – and yet, we were always short-staffed. One might say that the short-staffing meant that the teenage staff was gainfully employed, but it was awful nonetheless. Tim and Dave, you were terrible.

But this brings me to a question: why doesn’t Costco retrofit their carts to be coin-operated? You can bet, with the certainty of Adam Smith, that the carts would be returned and peace would return to the parking lot.


  1. I’m sorry. I just couldn’t get past the part where it snowed and your kids went to school. We had a 2-hour delay on Monday for very scattered patches of ice on the sidewalks and no school at all yesterday…because it rained. Sigh. I hate winter where I live.

  2. Gurl you KNOW I love this post. Favorite parts:

    1. “I’m sure that Jake didn’t realize that his casual musing would lead to a Can Opened Worms Everywhere situation, but that was the result.”

    2. “I took the cart myself and at the end of my shopping, lovingly returned it to its corral, thinking you’re home now with your family, in a not at all unbalanced way.”

    3. “So, my compassionate and empathetic friends may be right. However, I don’t think so.”

    4. “This sentiment is gross.”

  3. ??????

    I had friends in college who wouldn’t take their popcorn bins or soda cups to the trash after we went to a movie together because “that’s what the theater janitors are there for” and over a DECADE LATER I haven’t forgotten it. Ugh!

  4. Oh boy… I love ranking about carts!
    But, I do recall the day I didn’t return one! A hail storm plus downpour with only-in-Alberta-size puddles. I remember deciding that gettting back the quarter wasn’t worth the destruction of $100-sandals!

  5. Ranting not ranking. Sigh.

  6. I love this post so much. Of course I completely agree on all fronts. I have to say, our Superstore does not have coin-deposit carts, and people are generally pretty good about it, but the Costco – OH THE COSTCO. Although I suppose I can understand the feeling, once you have dragged your enormous cart full of enormous heavy things to your car, the feeling that life just cannot go on if you have to do ONE MORE THING.

    My favourite part is your discussion of keeping the humanity. SO TRUE, people, so true. I think this is the first time I have been able to put my finger on why this kind of thing – the leaving of carts, the tossing of garbage – bothers me so much.

    Also: much Pizza Hut sympathy.

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