The Shopping Cart Derby


The Shopping Cart Derby

There’s a menace in the parking lot. Be it the grocery store, drugstore or shopping mall, the same danger lurks. You park your perfectly innocent car in a space and enter a place of business. When you come out, your poor Toyota has a new ding, and the culprit – not smart enough to beat a hasty retreat – is right there to prove its guilt: a shopping cart.
People go to great lengths to avoid this parking lot scourge. They shop at night, stay home on windy days or park in the outer reaches. This helps, but not forever. The carts get everybody eventually.
That said, I admit I regularly contribute to the shopping cart derby. If I don’t park near enough to a return stall, I leave my cart in the lot, because if I leave my kids alone in the car for more than five seconds, somebody’s going to call child-welfare services.
Other shoppers have different reasons for forsaking their buggies willy-nilly: laziness, nonconformist tendencies, bad manners, bad knees, etc. Sometimes you see the carts hitched up to anemic little parking lot trees or straddling curbs. Sometimes they wander the lot like ghosts overwhelmed by the slightest breeze, or speed violently toward the nearest Mercedes.
There are various solutions to this problem. None is quite adequate.
Return stalls are great, but there are usually too few and they are too far away. I’m not sure how many parking spaces get lost in the battle to corral wayward carts, but I can guess parking lot designers and parking lot owners want to minimize the number. If only there were a way to make the stalls smaller so there could be more of them.
Because, face it, there are the noble few who always put their carts away and the inconsistent fair-weather types who sometimes put their cart away; and then there is the vast sedentary majority who can’t be bothered. If only we didn’t have to walk so far, we might get the cart in its pen before we drive away. We know the noble few are watching us disapprovingly, but we are too lazy to care.
A very easy way to ensure that shopping carts get back to the lineup without damaging anyone or anything is to offer shoppers more assistance. People with small children, elderly folks and individuals loading oversize purchases all need help and are all more likely to walk away from a cart and turn their backs before the wobbly thing starts to tear away. The employee can simply return the cart on his or her way back into the store. Of course, not every place of business can afford to provide carryout service, so this is easier said than done.
I’m a big fan of the cart hand-off. If I can unload my kids and purchases and give the cart to someone on their way into the store, I’m saved the effort of pretending I’m going to return the cart myself and then surreptitiously abandoning it in the bushes. If this person also is challenged and/or blessed to have children accompanying her into the store, even better. Then we share a smile and a look of understanding, and both go away happy knowing we’ve dodged one minor obstacle in a long day.
A very strange and disconcerting new way to herd shopping carts is the microchip-locked-wheel variety that skids to an abrupt halt if taken beyond the boundaries of the store or its parking area. I found out about one of these paralyzed carts the hard way. I had taken my two children into a store and loaded them in a cart when I realized I’d forgotten something in my car. I wheeled around and headed toward the automatic doors. Just as we rolled over the industrial-strength rubber doormat, the cart totally seized up.
Determinedly, I rolled backwards and tried another angle, thinking the cart wheel was stuck. It was stuck all right, and I wish someone had mentioned it and saved me the time and trouble of figuring it out myself. Some shopping areas let you take the carts outside the store but you cannot leave the lot. That makes more sense to me, but I understand that keeping the carts in the store entirely is a good way to prevent them from being stolen altogether and keeps them from zipping around hurling themselves at parked cars.
Last but not least, a store I visit frequently has a sign posted at various intervals throughout its parking lot. It says something like, “Please help us keep our costs down by putting your carts away.” Parkers are offered both a request and an incentive in just a few words. What a great idea. And it seems to have an effect – even on me. I try very hard to put my cart away in that lot. I park close to a cart stand, and if I’m offered help out, I take it. If that doesn’t work, I look for someone nice and ask them to return the cart for me. Everybody wins: me, the cart, the store, kind passersby and helpful working folk. And I hope those whose cars are spared another day appreciate my thoughtfulness.

Melissa Bean Sterzick, PT’s Amateur Parker and Senior Proofreader, lives in Southern California. She can be reached at

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Melissa Bean Sterzick
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