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Science Has A Theory About Those People Who Don’t Return Shopping Carts

Growing up, no matter the weather, my parents always taught us to return our grocery carts to the corral before leaving the store. On any given trip to the supermarket, however, you can see that not everyone was taught the same lesson, or at the very least they have forgotten. Various scientists have looked into the psychology behind those who do and don’t put their shopping carts in their proper place. This is what they found.

The Psychology Behind Why People Do And Don’t Put Away Their Shopping Carts

Stray shopping carts in a parking lot are pretty normal. It can be pretty frustrating for those looking for a spot to park only to have a cart blocking the only one available. As someone who once worked at a grocery store and occasionally had to retrieve the carts for the coral, I can also confirm that it is just as frustrating, if not more so.

The question remains: Why do some people put their shopping carts away properly while others feel no remorse about leaving them wherever they want to? According to an article on Scientific American, these are the possible reasons why someone might leave their cart where it doesn’t belong (1):

  • The receptacle is too far from their car.
  • They have a child whom they do not want to leave unattended.
  • Poor weather conditions.
  • They have a disability that makes this task challenging.
  • They think that this is someone else’s job.
  • The thought that leaving the cart makes it easier for the next customer to use.

Some of these reasons are valid, some of them less so.

Categories of Cart Users

The researchers also decided to categorize the grocery cart users based on their findings. They found that people tend to fall into one of five categories:

  1. Returners: They always return no matter what, generally from a sense of obligation or responsibility. They tend to feel bad for inconveniencing others if they don’t.
  2. Never returners: They never put their shopping cart where it belongs. They think it is someone else’s job or responsibility and don’t care where they leave the cart whatsoever.
  3. Convenience Returners: If an attendant is nearby or the coral is nearby, they will return the cart.
  4. Pressure Returners: If the attendant is there or there is no easy place to leave the cart (for example, the next parking spot is occupied), they will return their cart.
  5. Child-Driven: They have their kids with them and view it as a game/ride for their child.

Generally, we are driven by social norms and contextual clues. Social norms refer to the fear of judgment from others or how they will see us. Contextual means we mimic what we see others doing. If there are no carts left out, we are less likely to leave our own and vice-versa.


In a follow-up article, Scientific American addressed some of the responses that they got from the original. Many of it had to do with perceptions. For example, we perceive perfectly healthy people who leave their carts as lazy and inconsiderate. Essentially, we pass a judgment on a person’s character based on whether or not they put away their shopping carts. (2)

One of the biggest reasons is that many non-returners think that leaving their carts scattered around the parking lot provides people with jobs. As a former grocery store worker myself and respondents who are or were workers, we can confirm: Retrieving grocery carts from the parking lot is not a “job”. It is a part of a job with many tasks. Having to run around the parking lot picking up carts from different spots does not provide them with extra job security, just extra inconvenience.

Still, others feel like they are expected to do more and more work (for example, bagging their own groceries and returning their cart), without any corresponding drop in prices. They feel they are continually asked to do more without receiving anything in return.

Disabilities And Children

Many people with disabilities struggle to return carts to the corals. Sometimes they are too far or it is simply painful for them. Just getting their groceries to their car is challenging enough. These people often have “invisible” disabilities that cause them chronic pain.

Many parents spoke up as well, saying that it was scary trying to walk through a busy parking lot with two or three young kids and a cart. They also don’t want to leave their children in the car, especially on a hot day (in some states this is illegal). For this reason, they leave their carts.

The Bottom Line

People leave their carts in the parking lot for various reasons. Some of them are good ones, others not so much. The researchers found that much of the reason why we do and don’t return them is based on whether or not we:

  1. Think and care about other people’s needs over our own, and
  2. Care about how others perceive and judge us or not

My best advice? If you are able-bodied, return your cart. You aren’t doing anyone any favors by leaving it and it’s the considerate thing to do. If you are unable, at the very least leave it out of the way so that it doesn’t block other parking lot users.