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Do you return your shopping cart, or do you choose chaos?
It’s time to test the Shopping Cart Theory in Tampa Bay.
An abandoned shopping cart takes up a space at Walmart in Tampa.
An abandoned shopping cart takes up a space at Walmart in Tampa. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]
Published Jul. 15|Updated Jul. 15

A fruitful exercise is to ask readers what irritates them, which I do often in my newsletter. This opens a floodgate of material, from “Forms: Why does my child’s swim school need the name of my dentist?” to “Golf: Ew.”

This week, I heard from Cameron Spears of Odessa. He suggested I write about shopping carts, or people who don’t return them. “It fascinates and annoys me,” he said. Well, Cameron, same. This infraction has been chilling on my peeve list for some time.

In my wild and brazen younger years, the days of Candies tracksuits and platform flip-flops, I admit to having dropped carts wherever. I half-credit an ex with changing my mind. Half-credit because his reasoning was, “Imagine what the cart guy could do if he wasn’t busy cleaning up your carts!”

Now, returning a cart doesn’t mean a store employee will peel off his name tag and become a full-time infectious disease specialist. Retail workers are plenty busy without cart negligence, and they deserve respect for what they do. But it got me thinking: I had no excuse to be a lazy sack of pink terry cloth. Putting my cart back was an easy place to start.

An overturned shopping cart behind Target in Clearwater.
An overturned shopping cart behind Target in Clearwater. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]

That relative ease is at the core of the Shopping Cart Theory, a viral meme that posits: “The shopping cart is the ultimate litmus test for whether a person is capable of self-governing. To return the shopping cart is an easy, convenient task and one which we all recognize as the correct, appropriate thing to do.”

Because punishment is mostly nonexistent, the theory goes, returning a cart is intrinsic good faith. Generally, I agree this is one small thing mankind can do when we’re not slapping each other to death against a backdrop of staggering galactic insignificance. But there are caveats, opportunities to press the brakes on judgment.

Scientific American went deep on cart behavior in 2017, using terms like “injunctive norms” and “descriptive norms.” Anthropologist Krystal D’Costa outlined who may not comply. This includes parents who can’t leave babies alone. Shoppers may have physical limitations, visible and invisible disabilities.

Then there’s a more baffling cohort of rebels who believe they benevolently keep people employed by turning the Publix lot into a Tough Mudder. This, friends, is mental gymnastics, and I wish you well in the Olympics!

So, what’s the state of cart compliance in Tampa Bay? In the name of anthropology (stalking), I spent a few hours observing (staring like a creep at) people. I sat in my car, peering over sunglasses and sipping a large Sprite Zero with nugget ice, a discount detective. The Dale Mabry Walmart in Tampa appeared most chaotic, in contrast to the tidy Publix two miles south. By the time I got to the Clearwater Mall, buggies were in full lawless disarray: Target carts flipped over behind the building, Costco carts big enough to transport several capybaras found clear across the premises, a PetSmart cart crying out existentially.

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A collection of shopping carts at Costco in Clearwater.
A collection of shopping carts at Costco in Clearwater. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]

Among the varieties of cart disposal:

Curb cart: This one is a head-scratcher. The shopper had to maneuver it off the ground into the mulch. The Apple Watch is lit after this; one wonders if a simple jaunt to the cart bay would have burned fewer Kcals.

Parking space cart: The worst cart! One thousand negative bonus points if the cart is in the accessible space. For shame.

Cart pushed just out of reach of shopper’s car into someone else’s car: Two thousand negative bonus points!

Cart right next to the cart bay: They made it all the way to the cart receptacle and then, I guess, were raptured.

Lost Boys carts: Abandoned carts that have formed a club.

Cart with mysterious open food/feasting birds: Why is it always a rotisserie chicken?

Cart moment of truth: This cart is at a crucial juncture. The shopper has unloaded three pallets of Kirkland water, a value pack of Brownie Bites, two electric toothbrushes and incredible quantities of Pinot Grigio. Shopper looks askance. Will he leave the cart? Will he walk 25 feet? Suddenly, he is saved when a woman emerges from her car in search of a cart, thus completing the cycle into...

The handoff cart: This mayhem starts all over again.

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