The Shopping Cart Theory Explained

The Shopping Cart Theory Explained

It was in 1937 when American supermarket chain owner Sylvan Goldman desired to replace shopping baskets with wheeled carts that would encourage people to buy more groceries in his store. The shopping cart was invented and it now has become the symbol of the entire retail industry and modern consumerism. However, it can also reveal about the character of a person or his or her morality based on what he or she does with his or her cart after a trip to the store. This is the main idea behind the Shopping Cart Theory.

What is the Shopping Cart Theory? What Does Returning Your Shopping Cart Say About You?


Shopping carts can be problematic. Storeowners and even legislators and community leaders have struggled to prevent them from being left in parking areas, discarded on sidewalks, abandoned in public spaces, and stolen from stores. This struggle stems from human behavior and it became a focal point for conceptualizing the Shopping Cart Theory.

The exact origin of the theory remains unknown but it has been taught in classrooms and books or discussed in newspapers and magazines as part of explaining how people behave in public.

It gained massive popularity in recent years due to the advent of social media. Users on platforms ranging from YouTube and Facebook to Twitter and Reddit have shared the premise of the theory and ventured into lengthy exchanges to discuss its merits.

What exactly is the main premise of the Shopping Cart Theory? What does it say about the character or specific moral inclination of men and women?


The theory proposes that the character of an individual can be determined by whether he or she chooses to return the shopping cart to its designated spot or not. In other words, whether this particular individual places the cart back in its rack or proper area rather than leaving it in a parking lot or wherever he or she pleases determines his or her goodness.

Several social experiments have been conducted to observe the theory and understand further how shoppers use their carts once they are done shopping.

Most people would agree that returning carts and even baskets to designated areas is a task that is both appropriate and convenient. It is appropriate because it demonstrates courtesy and is also convenient because it does not take too much effort to return these objects to their racks.

Why then shoppers should return their carts or baskets voluntarily? Instances of lost or stolen carts and baskets provide a reasonable answer to this question. Furthermore, when shoppers use these objects, they are simply borrowing them from the stores. Basic courtesy tells that it is appropriate to return what has been borrowed.

However, there are people who would refrain from doing so because it is not illegal to abandon their shopping baskets and carts. Most stores and areas do not have relevant policies.

Others think that exerting an effort to return their used baskets and carts is an inconvenience Some believe that they do not have the responsibility over these baskets and carts. The task of returning them falls under the responsibilities of store attendants.


The Shopping Cart Theory enters into the picture to argue that how people use their carts or baskets once they are done shopping can determine whether they are capable of doing good without being forced to do so. Its premise is interesting because it provides a simplified and observable example of how people follow norms and laws.

It has also been used as a model for understanding the reason why some people commit crimes or are predisposed toward breaking laws.

The theory has helped in understanding crime prevalence in a particular area, developing crime prevention strategies, determining new policies or loopholes in regulations, and evaluating the effectiveness of law enforcement.

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