This Is the Single Most Atrocious Sin You Can Commit at the Grocery Store

A shopping cart was left in the middle of a parking spot at Winn-Dixie in St. Petersburg, Florida.
A shopping cart was left in the middle of a parking spot at Winn-Dixie in St. Petersburg, Florida. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

I’m a fairly mellow guy. Slide in front of me in line, and I’ll probably roll my eyes and mutter to myself. Talk during a movie, and I’ll just ignore you.

But ram your shopping cart up on a curb when there’s a cart corral 25 feet away? My face gets that look Bruce Banner gets just before he hulks out. Pure, unbridled rage.

Unreasonable? Perhaps, but I’m not the only Don Quixote tilting at this windmill.

I feel better. I’m not alone.

I get it. You’re in a rush and probably don’t like touching nasty shopping carts anyway. Still, there are lots of people who believe if you use it, you’re obligated to put it away when you’re done.

Your Shopping Cart Isn’t Someone Else’s Job Security

It’s such a sore subject that “Scientific American” did an article on it called “Why Don’t People Return Their Shopping Carts?” It struck such a nerve with its readers that the publication did a follow-up piece a couple weeks later that highlighted readers’ comments.

Most readers echoed the sentiment that people who don’t return their carts to the corrals are horrible humans who learned nothing in kindergarten. A few, however, chose to defend their stance to never return their carts.

One reader claimed she was looking out for her boys. As the mom of 4 sons, I used to purposely leave my cart out of the place intended… so the store would need to hire young kids.”

I’m not sure what’s more disturbing: her belief that this preserves jobs or that she dreams of cart corralling as a future career for her sons.

Caitlin Constantine, a senior editor at The Penny Hoarder, hasn’t always worked at a desk next to other awesome Penny Hoarders. There was a time when she was the person who had to go out and retrieve those carts.

“Collecting carts from the parking lot was just one of many tasks I had as a courtesy clerk when I was a kid,” she said. “We also had to bag groceries, carry people’s groceries to their cars, wipe down counters and conveyer belts, sweep the entire store floor and help make sure all of the products were faced in the right direction. We definitely did not lack for work to do.”

In other words, you’re not saving anyone’s job. You’re just making the one they have harder.

A Few Legit Arguments for Not Returning Shopping Carts

There are some people who have legitimate reasons for not returning their carts.

“I despise the laziness of people who leave their cart right next to my car when there is a cart station a foot away,” said Kurt Schultheis, another former cart wrangler. “But when there are only two stations in a huge lot, I sympathize with those with parents who are five seconds away from losing theirs— with the kids.”

He makes a good point.

Those with mobility issues also have good reasons for not returning their carts, especially those who use handicapped-accessible parking spots, which are often not near cart corrals.

The True Cost of Those Stray Shopping Carts

An abandoned shopping cart in the Crystal River Mall.

Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

It’s not just that stray carts irk me. They actually cost people money. Abandoned carts roll downhill or get blown by gusts of wind. Once they get going, what’s to stop them? Oh yeah, our cars! Parked cars get smacked by shopping carts every day. Who is liable? Should the store be liable for a customer’s laziness?

One poor fellow, Tod, wrote that he was just cruising down the road (not even in a parking lot) when a shopping cart hit his car. This doesn’t happen when the cart is tucked safely away in its corral!

Stores can be held responsible for the damage wayward shopping carts create. How do you think they pay for those unexpected expenses? It’s not coming out of the CEO’s pocket, that’s for sure. It’s more likely to get tacked onto that bag of Oreos in your cart.

Battling the Stray Shopping Cart Epidemic With Quarters

It wouldn’t be a big deal if we saw the occasional out-of-place cart, but that’s not the case. Head to a Walmart or Winn-Dixie this weekend, and you may see what looks like a shopping cart flash mob throughout the lot.

Aldi has curtailed this behavior by asking customers to cough up a 25-cent deposit for their cart, which the shopper gets back when they return the cart. Aldi says this also helps keep prices down because it doesn’t have to pay someone to “police the shopping carts.”

While I applaud Aldi for doing this, I have to wonder: Is this something that should even be necessary? Probably not.

“I never leave my cart in just any old spot,” Constantine said. “I take it to the nearest corral, or sometimes I even take it back into the store. I know it saves the grocery store employees tasked with that job — by the way, many of whom are retirees — from having to go out there and pick up after me, and it only takes a couple of extra minutes of my time. Frankly, as far as I’m concerned, it’s just common courtesy.”

Common courtesy. That’s it. If we start letting the little things slide, the next thing you know we’ll be double-dipping chips at parties. It’s a slippery slope.

It’s this simple: If you are at all able, put your cart away when you are finished with it. You’re helping out the store, the employees, other parking lot users and your own karma. It’s what Shopping Cart Jesus would do.

Tyler Omoth is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder who loves soaking up the sun and finding creative ways to help others. He always, always puts his shopping cart away. Catch him on Twitter at @Tyomoth.