Call it the Shopping Cart Conundrum. Describe it as an examination of the human condition in modern society. Or perhaps it is a dilly of a pickle to waste time on this thing called the world wide web, comparable to the Dress Debate from the ancient times of 2015. Whatever the situation may be, social media are split (shock!) on this question: When the weekly mission at the supermarket is concluded, should households’ foot soldiers return the shopping cart to a centralized drop-off depot or leave the carts stranded for store employees to retrieve? As is typically the case, economics might have the answer to this puzzle.
The Economics of Shopping Carts
Many grocery stores employ low-wage, unskilled individuals to find shopping carts on company property. These positions are filled by students, immigrants, seniors, or other laborers unable to find alternative means of employment. The purpose of the position is to gather the carts and transport these instruments to the interior or exterior collection bins for other shoppers to use.
The store realizes that shoppers might be irresponsible and choose to abandon the trolleys in their nearest vicinity. This forces the worker to venture across the parking lot and amass all the carts left behind by the hungry, short-on-time (and lazy?) consumers. Suppose every patron had been a model citizen and self-regulated by returning the business’ carriages to their proper locations. In that case, this employee might be deemed superfluous by management and, thus, out of a job.
However, visitors may appreciate the convenience of having to discard these vehicles at an arm’s length. They understand that they are paying a premium for convenience in the form of slightly higher supermarket prices. It is a beneficial relationship: The employee has a job because of imprudent customers, and shoppers can ditch the carts on the property without having to journey an additional 50 steps.
Critics purport that not returning the shopping cart is immoral and creates more headaches for minimum wage employees. But this sanctimonious posturing leads only to unintended consequences, much like mandating the $15 hourly wage: joblessness. Or at a minimum checking out guests, a task that will inevitably be automated out of existence anyway.
One could present the argument, at least in the grand scheme of things, that the shopping cart litterer is a valiant person who should be celebrated, not faced with the mockery and scorn of others. That is, however, unless the corporate entity maintains an expressed and transparent policy that prohibits this classification of littering. In this case, it is critical to respect the rules of private property.
The Subjective Value of Shopping Carts
One of the central tenets of the Austrian School of Economics is subjective value, the principle that every person has his or her preferences for actions or items. The shopping cart thesis could be assessed through a subjective value lens from several vantage points.
What if supermarkets choose to impose a cart rental system, requiring shoppers to make an upfront payment of a quarter to operate the vehicle? 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 employment opportunities? There are many questions to ask.
As eminent economist, Walter Block writes in Defending the Undefendable, ” … the decision of whether and how much litter to allow is based ultimately on the wishes and desires of the consumers!”
Good Person v Bad Person
The motive behind the Shopping Cart Theory is to assign either benevolence or malevolence to one’s character – and there is no room for gray in this viral meme. The ultimate conclusion is that the litmus test proves the need for government and force to guide good behavior without considering any variables. 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 neither traffic jams of carts nor the evisceration of trolleys from parking lots will alter this fact.
Read more from Andrew Moran.