The shopping cart theory describes how one can measure a person’s character just by what they do with shopping carts after using them.

A family of three visits a store to shop for some items. After paying for the shopped items, the father asked his son to return the cart they used. In protest, the son replied, “C’mon, Dad. There are lots of carts all over. No one returns them. Besides, there are people hired to collect them.” The argument continued for a few minutes as the mom joined in the conversation. She described how it’s no big deal to return the cart and thus called on them to leave.

As the father was about acceding to the mom’s call, he saw an elderly couple on their way to return their cart. His interest got reawakened, and he said to his son, “There are two kinds of people in the world: the first put their carts away, and the second kind leaves their carts wherever they like. The latter may even leave it near their vehicle. We’re the kind who returns theirs. You should return the cart now!”

What Type of Person Are You?

This leads me to ask you the personality questions: Which type of person are you? The type that returns the cart? The type that leaves it anywhere they like? Or the person who doesn’t care about any?

As a big fan of late John Wooden, a professional basketball coach with a number of works on character development, I boldly say that he has laid a solid foundation that is being followed by sports coaches as well as education and business leaders. One of his favorite quotes: “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching” perfectly suits the Shopping Cart Theory.

How to Measure a Person’s Character

The shopping cart theory describes how one can measure a person’s character just by what they do with shopping carts after using them. While some people tend to return the carts to their destination, others leave them wherever they like. Someone once revealed that he could not always withstand the sight of a perfectly healthy person that leaves their cart in the parking lot. He considered those who don’t return their cart as lazy and inconsiderate. According to him, such people also tend to treat service industry workers with disdain.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

Are you the type of person that considers the act of returning a cart to its designated spot after use as unnecessary and insignificant? Of course, it is an appropriate thing to do, even though in an objective manner. Every day, we waver between two options, basically: what we are expected to do and what we want to do. Sometimes, we are respectful and considerate; at other times, we tend to show the other (negative) side of us. In the story above, the kid probably thought he would render some people ‘useless’ just by doing what they are being paid for – that is, returning shopping carts to their designated spots.

Our Usual Ways

There is no better time to subject ourselves to the ultimate litmus test in terms of doing the right or appropriate thing without being forced or observed than now. As humans, we tend to do the right thing only when we are being observed, probably to receive commendation and approval. Nevertheless, the moment those eyes are off us, we tend to return to our “usual ways of doing things.” As we seek to become better people, do we know that a simple act of returning shopping carts can help us form habits that reveal a good personality in us?

Those who don’t return their carts may be quick to justify their behavior by considering their action as not illegal and not punishable under any act or law. An individual who once worked a retail job gave a counter opinion, though in an inoffensive manner. He stated how he thought the person in charge of putting the carts back would appreciate having some carts to return. According to him, he might not be required to put the cart back out of respect for the worker rather than for the sake of the “unspoken societal law.”

What Do You Lose?

But the question is: what do you lose by returning the cart? Obviously nothing – just like you don’t also get rewarded by returning the cart! Why not do the right thing out of the goodness of your heart? The good and bad sides of humanity are revealed in their actions, reflecting their personality and character.

Human characters are influenced by the different situations in which they find themselves. In this case, if you decide not to return the shopping cart, your character just gets revealed, and when you engage in this form of behavior the first time, it tends to continue for a longer time, and it becomes a part of you. As individuals, we are expected to determine what is right or wrong – or what is good or bad – even without any social rules specifying the behavior that is considered appropriate or inappropriate.

Shopping Cart Theory

According to the post from where the shopping cart theory originated, your refusal to return the shopping cart makes you someone “who can only be made to do what is right by being threatened with a law and the force that stands behind it.” Though the theoretician went radical, we only need to take out the part that deals with the real issue.

However, there are always exceptions to every rule or theory. Further research indicates that not everyone abandons their carts that are necessarily lazy or is without good character. There are many possible reasons for such a failure (of returning a cart to the receptacle).

Abandon Ship

For instance, it may be unexpected for people with a disability that is prohibitive to easy movement to return their carts. A Twitter user once recounted how she always returned her cart before she became disabled. Being disabled implies that she would still run out of strength by the time she returns to the car. Thus, she would park next to a cart corral or even abandon the cart wherever she liked. While people may assume she was lazy, they may not be aware of the pain she was going through at the moment. This is quite a different case!

Like the above instance, a mother who visits a supermarket or grocery store says three kids may find it challenging to walk with them to return the carts, especially if the parking lot is a busy type. Rather than take the chance to leave her kids in the car unattended, such a parent may decide to leave the cart in a safe spot in the lot. This is also understandable.

Go Getter

Some people also erroneously believe that the responsibility of getting carts usually lies with the baggers, stockers, or cashiers in the store. They also tend to believe that leaving them with the responsibility of getting carts gives them job security. Meanwhile, the reality is that it is not common – that is, if there is any – to find a grocery store designate someone as a ‘cart getter.’ Those who get the carts are usually less busy employees, but have you ever considered who will get the carts if those employees are not less engaged?

Or how do you feel when you see baggers, stockers, or cashiers get carts strewn all over the parking space, especially in bad weather (in the heat, rain, or snow)? Your simple act of kindness could have saved someone from the need to engage in a ‘cart run.’

Other people believe abandoning a cart is to the advantage of the next user who can easily pick it up and use it.

Carts Around The World

In the Netherlands, China, and some other countries, a strategy to reduce the number of shopping carts not returned has been adopted. It involves having to put a coin in the cart to take it with you. So if you want the cashback, you return the cart to its destination. You may also leave it if you no longer want the coin. This still boils down to the fact that people tend not to do the right thing, especially if it is not for personal gains. 

Notwithstanding, this system of renting out carts fails the litmust test of serving as an accurate measure of character. This is because the motivating factor for returning the cart is the fear of losing one’s coin rather than the want to do the right thing for the sake of being useful.

From Carts to Hearts

Therefore, it would be safe to assume that people with good character return their shopping carts, and people with character flaws do not bother about returning their carts. At the same time, it would also be safe to be aware of those who only fail to return their carts based on personal convictions or as a result of specific disabilities or chronic illness. This is to avoid being judgmental.

Nevertheless, as humans, we need always to consider better approaches or ways of doing things such that we make other people happy or their work easier. Above all, be the type of person that returns their carts after use. 

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