The man in the ball cap loaded the groceries into his car with impressive speed and when he was done, he removed his cap, wiped sweat from his brow and gave the empty shopping cart a little shove with his foot. 

Off the cart rolled, away from his car and into an empty space a couple slots down. Satisfied, Mr. Ball Cap climbed into his car, backed out and sped away. 

Pretty exciting so far, right? 

On my way into the store, without thinking about it much, I fetched the dude’s abandoned cart and wheeled it back to store where it could rejoin its mates in the corral. I did this without thinking about it at all.

I had no idea I was a national hero. 

It turns out that people care a lot — a WHOLE lot — about what strangers do with their shopping carts once they’re done with them. 


I only know this because a news story broke a week or so ago about a California woman who declared, in a video that soon went viral, that she never returns a cart to its corral. Never. 

She won’t do it, the woman proclaimed, because it’s too unsafe to leave her kids alone in the car while she rolls the cart to its designated spot.

The internet, predictably, lost its mind. The video was viewed by around 20 million people the last I looked, and arguments raged in all corners of the internet.

By the time things really got cooking, it was beginning to appear that the future of organized society hinged entirely on where the inhabitants of said society stood on the shopping cart issue. 

Was the shopping cart lady a fiend in the same league 10 times worse than Charlie Manson, as some suggested? Or was her explanation as to why she won’t return carts reasonable and we should just leave her alone? 


Don’t look to me for an answer, Bub. I rarely use shopping carts — I’d rather just juggle a dozen teetering items in my arms like a dolt because it builds character or something. On those sad occasions when I DO use a cart, I always return it to the corral. 

Who wants to be the schmuck who leaves a cart in an empty parking space so that nobody else can park there? Who wants to let that cart roll freely when it might slam nose first into some poor fool’s freshly painted SUV? 

I don’t like to inconvenience other people, so when it comes to shopping carts, each of which has a wobbling left rear wheel, I play by the rules. 

Turns out this fact can tell you a whole lot about me. 

Yes, friends, there is actually something out there called Shopping Cart Theory. People have done studies on this and as we learned above, our ability to live in harmony together may rely on its findings. 

It boils down to this: A person who returns a shopping cart after using it does so knowing that there is to be no reward for the action, other than the appreciation of complete strangers. With this fact in mind, the return of the shopping cart has been accepted as the morally correct thing to do. 


You know. In an unspoken way. 

At the same time, there is no penalty for NOT returning a cart. You won’t be fined or beaten or banned from a store for leaving that cart right there in the middle of the lot. 

But you will, apparently, incur the wrath of the majority of people who see cart abandonment as objectively wrong and a violation of societal codes. A person who can’t be bothered to roll an empty cart maybe 15 feet to its proper place, seems to be the general opinion, cannot be trusted at all in polite society.

“A person who is unable to do this,” according to one anonymous user’s analysis in an internet forum, “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.” 

People who don’t return shopping carts are seen as on par with those who mistreat waiters and store clerks. They are up there, according to some, with those derelicts who park in handicapped spaces or fire lanes without any good reason to do so. 

Shopping cart violators are seen as a kind of loathsome archetype; if you don’t return shopping carts properly, according to prevailing opinions on the matter, you probably litter with abandon, refuse to use your blinkers, have loud phone conversations in public places, cruise in the passing lane on the turnpike (don’t get started on this one) and leave your dog trapped inside your car on hot summer days. 


By the time I was done reading up on all this, I found myself surprised that we don’t yet have gallows set up in grocery store parking lot. 

Because I’m a journalist, sort of, I decided to ask around within my own peer group (that’s science talk, right there. I have a whole hypothesis and everything) about the matter of returning shopping carts. 

As expected, just about all of my peer groupians insisted that they ALWAYS return the cart to its proper place. Why, they were shocked that I even had to ask.

“It’s a matter of respect,” said one.  

“Those who don’t return their shopping cart to the corral are lazy and entitled,” said a nice lady named Virginia. “It’s literally part of taking care of your business and cleaning up after yourself.” 

“In the end it’s about your character,” offered a seething fellow named Dave. “Leaving it hanging around often deprives others of a parking space and creates a hazard. … I wasn’t raised to be an irresponsible lazy (potty word.)” 


“Much like those who talk in theaters,” opined Anissa, “there’s a special hell for those who don’t return carts.”

A few emphasized that, not only do they return carts to the corrals, they will put in the extra effort to straighten the cart lines if they happen to be messy. It’s all about consideration for the next guy, they say, even if the next guy is a complete stranger. 

My very scientific study revealed a few interesting things. 

At least one person admitted that she returns her shopping cart, but only because she knows that other people are watching to make sure she does so. 

A few said they USUALLY return the cart, but not if they are in a hurry or if it’s wicked cold or raining outside. 

One guy openly admitted that he never returns the cart. Why should he, when someone else is getting PAID to round the carts up? Why, by returning a shopping cart, he might be putting someone out of a job.


But the average Jane and Jill are adamant. What one does with their empty cart speaks volumes about that person’s character. Return the cart and you’re a courteous soul who’s probably nice to dogs and old people.

Leave that cart to roll free in the parking lot and you may be deemed a traitorous lay-about not fit to participate in pubic activities.

“I consider the cart a litmus test for our society,” seethed a fellow named Joseph. “The more carts left haphazardly in the lot to careen into people’s cars, the more that means I can’t depend on a neighbor for help when there’s trouble, or a stranger for assistance in a jam.”

The way I see it, all of this raises me up to an extra level of saintliness — like I said, I never use a shopping cart myself, but I routinely return those left behind by others. I never really thought about why I do it, but now I know its because I’m morally superior and probably deserving of some sort of extra special designation. 

I’m being fitted for a halo later in the week. 

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