The Shopping Cart Theory and inner decency

What does the shopping cart theory say about you? Does this small action really indicate a person’s character?


There is a quote from CS Lewis that “integrity is doing the right thing even when nobody’s watching.”  The shopping cart theory plays into that idea. The theory is based  on the notion that returning a shopping cart to the shopping cart bay is a test of “autonomy and civility.” It is supposed to be the litmus test for determining who is a good person and who isn’t and separates the team players from selfish individualists The “Shopping Cart Theory” proposes that an individual’s integrity and moral standards can be determined by whether they choose to return a shopping cart to its designated spot… or not.

To get a shopping trolley in many supermarkets you need to insert a coin which is only returned when you return it to its correct place. Some shoppers don’t care if they lose money. Some don’t care about anything much at all!


Why don’t people return their shopping carts?

According to American Scientific, there are a host of reasons which people think are worth losing their $£€ coin by not returning the shopping cart to its rightful place. They are:

  • Distance  – too far from where they’ve parked their car. Get a life. Get exercise.
  • Afraid to leave a child alone in the car. Fair.
  • Bad weather –  depends on how bad, said weather is.
  • They are disabled.  Valid.
  • NMY  – not my job.  Really?
  • Helps other shoppers. Seriously?

5 types of shoppers

American Scientific also identified 5 types of shoppers

  1. Returners. These people always return their carts to the cart bay regardless of how far away they’ve parked or what the weather is like. They feel a sense of obligation and/or feel bad for the people responsible for collecting the carts.
  2. Never Returners. People who never return their shopping trollies believe it’s someone else’s job to get the carts or the supermarket’s responsibility, and couldn’t care less where they end up.
  3. Convenience Returners. People will return their carts if they parked close to the return bay, or if they see a service attendant.  You would rarely or never see one of those in Europe for sure.
  4. Pressure Returners. These are people who return when they are shamed into doing so.
  5. 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. I used to give my kids the coin as an incentive. My son said to me last time we were in a supermarket “Mum I’m 30!”  He still took the coin though.


shopping cart theory

To return or not

The author of The Shopping Cart Theory says this is an important test of character because “no one will punish you for not returning the shopping cart, no one will fine you, or kill you for not returning the shopping cart, you gain nothing by returning the shopping cart. You must return the shopping cart out of the goodness of your own heart. You must return the shopping cart because it is the right thing to do. Because it is correct.”

They also suggest that those that don’t pass the shopping cart test are categorised as “A person who is unable to do this is no better than an animal, an absolute savage who can only be made to do what is right by threatening them with a law and the force that stands behind it”  

This seems quite extreme.

Inner decency

But does this small action indicate a person’s character? Is this a person who is more about “I” than ” we.” We are seeing this today during the pandemic around mask-wearing and social distancing. This is the kind of attitude that suggest people look out for their teams, and customers, as much as themselves. This is an “in it, to win it together ” attitude. It shows that hidden integrity and decency. It’s about “we” and collective community, not “I” and self.


Do you return your shopping cart to its rightful bay? Please tell us yes!

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