Call it the Shopping Cart Conundrum. Social media is split on this question: When the weekly tip to the supermarket is finished, should customers return the shopping cart to a drop-off depot or leave them stranded for store employees to collect? Economics might have the answer to this puzzle.
The Economics of Shopping Carts
Many grocery stores hire low-wage, unskilled employees to find shopping carts on company property. These positions are often filled by students, immigrants, seniors, or laborers who might struggle to find other jobs. The purpose of the position is to gather the carts and transport them to collection points for other shoppers to use.
The store realizes that shoppers might be irresponsible and choose to abandon the trolleys instead of putting them in the assigned spot. This forces the worker to venture across the parking lot and get all the carts left behind by the hungry, short-on-time (and lazy?) consumers.
Suppose every customer had been a model citizen and returned the trolleys to their proper locations. In that case, this employee might be deemed unnecessary by store management and, thus, out of a job.
Critics say that not returning the shopping cart is immoral and creates more headaches for minimum wage employees. But this viewpoint could lead to an unintended consequence: joblessness.
One could say that the shopping cart litterer should be celebrated, not faced with judgment. That is, unless the store has an express policy that prohibits abandoning shopping carts. In this case, it is critical to respect the rules of private property.
The Subjective Value of Shopping Carts
What if supermarkets choose to impose a cart rental system, where shoppers pay a quarter to use the cart? What if customers act in their own best interest and return these carts because they do not want to be inconvenienced in the future? What if they feel they are altruistic by creating a job for someone else? There are many questions to ask.
Good Person v Bad Person
People on social media debating the Shopping Cart Theory are asked to assign either benevolence or malevolence to a person – and there is no room for gray in this viral meme. But is life that easy to judge? Folks may be running late, or parents cannot escape for a split second because the five-year-old child will jump into the front seat and drive away. Life is complicated, and no shopping cart situation will change this fact.