Saturday, July 13, 2013

Laws, Norms and Shopping Carts

You observe a stranger, in public, in possession of what is obviously stolen property of significant value. You might ignore it, but you also might call the police. 

Unless it's a shopping cart. The value of a shopping cart is about a hundred dollars and any that you observe outside the grocery and associated parking lot are almost certainly stolen. Yet, in practice, you do not call the police. My guess is that practically nobody does—or that the police don't come, or that if they come they make no effort to arrest the thief. The basis for that guess is casual observation—if there were any significant chance that walking off with a shopping cart would get you arrested, tried, and jailed with a sentence suited to the value of the cart, very few people would do it.

It strikes me as an interesting example of the tension between laws and social norms—or perhaps between laws and the commitment strategies that, as I have argued elsewhere, play a large role in enforcing legal rules. Part of the reason you do not react to the thief as a thief is that this particular form of theft is so common. Shopping carts are treated  by thieves, by observers of theft, perhaps also by police, as not quite  private property. The attitude is reinforced by the fact that they are designed to be treated as temporary public property within the store and its parking lot. The logic of our moral beliefs, like the logic of the law, implies no more right to walk off with a shopping cart than to walk off with a bicycle. But that is not how most of us feel, at least judging by our behavior.

One consequence of our ambivalent attitude is to make enforcement of the law by those most obviously affected, the stores whose carts get stolen, risky. Imagine that one such grocery chain made a point of getting the local police to arrest, try and jail people found with their carts. Stealing their carts might become less popular—but so would shopping at their stores. A good many customers, observing such a severe sanction for what they intuit as a mild trespass, might decide that they preferred to shop somewhere else. In practice, so far as I can tell, stores mostly deal with the problem in ways that do not depend on invoking their legal rights—sending people around to find and return abandoned carts or trying to design cart and parking lot in ways that making walking off with a cart more difficult.

25 Comments:

At 9:38 PM, July 13, 2013, Blogger John David Galt said...

I have a different theory: most of the people who steal or possess stolen shopping carts are homeless. And a large part of the public sympathizes with homeless persons and feels that they get hassled by law enforcement too much already. (And in most cases, taking the cart away from the homeless person would have the effect of stripping him of most of what little he owns.)

I would not expect the public to be similarly reluctant to call cops on someone making off with a cart if s/he doesn't look poor.

Most likely, the reason there is very little effort made to return stolen carts is the same as the reason the police pay little or no attention to any minor theft and vandalism -- the police don't feel it's worth the needed effort, and even the store owners, when they care at all, have found technological deterrents such as wheel-lock devices more cost-effective than guards or detectives.

 
At 12:49 AM, July 14, 2013, Blogger Milhouse said...

1. It's not that people feel sympathy for homeless people, it's that they're afraid of them.

2. I think the main reason people don't take this attitude is simply that they don't realise how much those carts cost. They think they're relatively cheap, so they don't take the theft that seriously.

 
At 5:49 AM, July 14, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Milhouse:

1. I guess that is a good point, but I don't think they are afraid of them so much as to far retaliation when they call the police on them. And police usually really don't fear them, unfortunatelly often they really treat them as second class citizens. Which is what most of the other people might do as well, but they don't have the power (and time, they have other things to do) to bully them around.

2.That is what immediatelly came to my mind when I read the article. I was actually thinking about this few years back and I wanted to know how much a cart costs. I was surprised by how expensive they really are. You usually need just a small coin to use them and sometimes they have those advertisement tokens which you can use instead of coins to unlock the carts. And it probably leads people to think the carts are actually very cheap, otherwise the "deposit" would be higher (which of course makes no sense once you actually start thinking about it, since when you steal it, you steal the "deposit" as well and just the amount of metal in the cart costs more than you put in).

On a semi-related note: Once I went shopping to a medium size grocery shop nearby which was big enough to have a few shopping carts. I was thinking about something and I didn't notice I took the cart with me straight home. I noticed some wierd looks of people around, but I didn't get what that was all about. I only realized when I stopped at our house and started looking for keys. So in that particular situation, I was lucky the norms about stealing shopping carts are rather loose :) I took the cart back to the shop afterwards. But I guess this is a very special case and most people are most of the time not as absent minded as I were then, so that is not the reason of that norm.

I wonder what would happen (and why that is not happening...or is it?) if some kind of a criminal organization decided to exploit this loose norm to make money. Of course, most people would probably report a truck being loaded with all the shopping mall carts as a crime. But they could simply hire homeless people, give a few bucks each for a cart they bring (but let's say no more than 5 per each mall a day, so it won't get too suspicious) and either resell them (without the mall logos of course) or use them for scrap metal (which still costs probably more than those few bucks). But I guess that either the daily amounts would have to be too small in order for anyone to bother (there are ventures legal and illegal that make you more money with less costs in energy, time and risk) or it would be too large for the norm to be kept loose as it was and cart stealing would suddenly start being reported and therefore the main advantage of this particular venture would go away.

 
At 7:28 AM, July 14, 2013, Blogger Fred Mangels said...

I saw a homeless type go into a porta- potty at a construction site and walk off with a roll of toilet paper. I thought that was tacky, but I didn't call the police.

 
At 9:34 AM, July 14, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Fred: A roll of toiled paper costs a few dollars. Shopping carts cost about 100-200.

 
At 10:36 AM, July 14, 2013, Blogger jimbino said...

I'd love to see somebody open a membership-only grocery store that featured a bar and porno films.

Of course, he wouldn't see kids or bums in the aisles, and that's the whole idea.

Boy, would I pay more for that! I could shop with a margarita in hand and no kids running in the aisles.

 
At 10:42 AM, July 14, 2013, Anonymous Patrick R. Sullivan said...

Tibor Mach is correct, shopping carts are very expensive, probably over a thousand dollars. So, it's probably a felony to steal one.

Police should, in fact, arrest anyone in possession of one off the premises of a grocery store. The 'broken window theory' of neighborhood crime almost demands it.

 
At 12:08 PM, July 14, 2013, Anonymous Daublin said...

It's a great question. There is clearly more to the story than just what the law is on paper.

John David Galt has part of it: when you see a homeless person pushing a shopping cart, you feel like they *need* it.

Along similar lines, if you see someone pushing just one cart, you feel a lot different than if you saw someone pushing 20 of them down the road. If you saw someone pushing 20 of them, you'd be more inclined to call the police, and the police would be more likely to do something. It's not just the money: it just feels really wrong for someone to blatantly walk off with a large amount of someone else's property.

Thinking about this example, I'm reminded of office supplies within a company. Again, whatever the official company policy is, the de facto way it works is that people just take what they *need*, so long as it is in moderation.

 
At 12:18 PM, July 14, 2013, OpenID dagonell said...

Having worked for two different grocery stores, I can attest that stores occasionally send out a few guys in a pickup truck to cruise the neighborhood looking for abandoned shopping carts.

Secondly, in addition to the homeless, the second largest group of cart thieves are the elderly. They take the cart home because they don't own a car, can't drive, can't afford a cab and aren't strong enough to carry home the groceries, so they take the cart home and return it later. Sometimes on their next shopping trip.

 
At 1:28 PM, July 14, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Patrick: Well, expensive they are at least from my subjective point of view, but they definitely don't cost thousands of dollars. Quick google search shows this:

http://www.shopcarriage-trade.com/metal-shopping-carts.html

So as I were saying, the price is about $100 to $200.

Also, I am not sure what "broken window theory of neighborhood crime" is. I know the broken window fallacy, but I don't see how it is related to police arresting people.

 
At 3:09 PM, July 14, 2013, Anonymous andy weintraub said...

In Elizabeth, NJ, there is a ShopRite supermarket that requires you to deposit four quarters into a slot before you can use a shopping cart. There are posts around the store entrance that prevent the carts from being rolled into the parking lot, so that in order to load your car you must drive it to an area on the other side of those posts and carry your bags between them. When you are finished with the cart, you can return it and get your quarters back.

 
At 6:59 PM, July 14, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is surprising to hear about people taking carts home. The ones in the UK contains a radio which locks the wheels if they leave the carpark. They are probably adding in GPS by now.

 
At 10:30 PM, July 14, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But why focus just on shopping carts as proof of social norms trumping laws. Just ask the students in your class how many have downloaded (illegally) songs, books, movies, etc. My guess is that you'll get 100% response. Then ask for a monetary value of their activities and many will be in the hundreds, if not thousands.

Similarly, we think nothing of people who lie about their kid's age in order to obtain a lower cost admission. I have a brother who, in order to get the 12-year-old friend of his son into Knott's Berry Farm for half price, told his son and the kid to say he was eleven if asked. (His son looks like he's 19, so it wouldn't work for him.) I asked my brother if he also takes his kids into stores and teaches them how to switch price stickers on merchandise in order to buy things cheaper. He didn't agree that they were similar activities.

 
At 1:31 AM, July 16, 2013, Blogger A Life Long Scholar said...

Since moving to Sweden 2.5 years ago I have never once seen a shopping cart anywhere other than the grocery store. I wonder if Swedes steal fewer shopping carts than Americans, or if the problem is that the observer (me) has just not been in correct locations to witness it here, though I certainly saw shopping carts away from their correct locations in the US on a regular basis.

 
At 10:22 PM, July 16, 2013, Blogger Milhouse said...

John David Galt has part of it: when you see a homeless person pushing a shopping cart, you feel like they *need* it.

I don't see how that's relevant. If they stole it they stole it. The reason I don't call the police is 1) I had no idea how much they cost; 2) I don't know who owns the cart, or even whether the owner can be traced; 3) I can't rule out the possibility that the person actually does own the cart. People do, after all. Though now that I know how much they cost, that may seem less likely. I thought it was something one could buy with the equivalent of a cart-load or two of deposit bottles.

 
At 3:19 AM, July 17, 2013, Blogger Tibor Mach said...

Milhouse: However, the carts get used and damaged quite a lot...so maybe some homeless people obtained them at a discount or (those in really bad shape) for free from the malls? I had a summer job few years back at Kaufland (that's a german based shopping mall, probably not present in the US) and there was a lot of stuff we would just give to people, since otherwise Kaufland would have to pay the garbage company (I actually worked for the garbage company and sorted out the stuff at the back of the mall). There was a guy for example who came there with a small truck and we filled it with wooden boxes which he used for something. Otherwise those would have to be trown away and that would cost Kaufland some money. Maybe it is similar with the carts (although less likely, cosindering their price and the fact that they're made mostly of metal which usually someone will pay you for at a scrap yard...but maybe not enough for the mall to be worth it to them).

 
At 12:46 AM, August 03, 2013, Blogger Jonathan said...

I think most people assume, as I did until now, that shopping trolleys (as we call them over here) are almost worthless, because we just put a coin in a slot to use them.

If they cost $100 each, each place that offers them should charge a returnable deposit of $100. Then, if the thing never returns, no problem.

 
At 1:57 PM, August 14, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stealing shopping carts is a plot point in the crude Canadian comedy series "Trailer Park Boys"

http://youtu.be/X95o53Gepmg?t=1m30s

 
At 1:39 AM, November 11, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The shopping cart laws are ridiculous.

First, police officers will not enforce the law, just like they do not enforce the law regarding motorcycle "noise" or even speeding.

Second, city officials, in their attempt to protect the "rights" of the homeless, make it impossible to retrieve these shopping carts.

Most grocery store operators will try to install electronic devices to lock up the wheels past a perimeter, but many landlords will not approve of the construction of this device on their property.

Most grocery store operators hire outside cart retrieval companies to regularly comb the neighborhood for carts.

Even with electronic devices and professional cart retrieval companies, the carts find their way through out the neighborhood.

Guilty parties are commonly the homeless, the elderly and the low income folks that do not have cars.

So, how is it fair that the grocery company has to bare the entire responsibility and cost with no one's help? Not the city, not the police department, no one?

Grocery companies need their shopping carts and they are clearly motivated to get them to promote "shopping" and lower costs (carts can cost as much as $250.00 each).

 
At 7:49 AM, December 22, 2013, OpenID 578b1a46-54ea-11e0-b7e9-000bcdca4d7a said...

bull..they are people too lazy to return carts that they take to their homes and apartments. they are usually fat women or older men who apparently can't carry one or two very light bags and have a smoke or...well you get the drift? fine the lazy morons

 
At 2:21 PM, January 13, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am low income and do not drive, but I would never lower myself to stealing a shopping cart. Just because I am low income doesn't mean I feel I have the right to get a break and steal a cart. I think some people may think that when they are down and out, but I don't. I bought myself one of those "granny carts" and I walk to the store and lug my groceries home in it.Works great.

 
At 6:29 AM, March 01, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a useless load of bull. The article nor the comments are useful to the business nor offers any solutions to the problem. And the comment by the individual who "assumes" most of the people who illegally remove shopping carts are homeless is an idiot. People take the carts because of a lack of transportation. I guess all people who don't drive are criminals, minorities and vagrants. Idiots.

 
At 6:55 PM, March 10, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live in a neighborhood a couple blocks away from the grocery store. There are about 25 carts abandoned
Near the mailboxes. I took some of them back but it is just overwhelming. I left a sign suggesting that the neighbors report these irresponsible people to the police. Some one just removeved the sign a few hours after I posted it. This is pitiful

 
At 11:41 AM, May 25, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just saw a middle-aged woman steal a cart and, no word of a lie, had two TINY little bags that added together wouldn't make up a full bag!

The idiot also was dumb enough to leave the cart (as always) in her neighbour's parking space by the dumpster. She also left one of her items.

I will return her item later with a nice descriptive note letting her neighbour(s) know just who is the absent-minded thief. And yes, it IS theft.

 
At 5:18 PM, August 26, 2014, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My friend stole a shopping cart and knew it and she brought it back will she go to jail

 

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