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Commentary: Please return shopping carts here

By Master Sgt. Carla Milanese | Robert D. Gaylor Noncommissioned Officer Academy | April 5, 2018

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas. —

Please return shopping carts here. Most of us have seen this sign at various store parking lots telling shoppers to return their cart to this designated area upon completion of their shopping.  Yet even with the best efforts aimed to make sure the carts are returned, we usually see a handful of them scattered across the parking lot. 

A friend of mine becomes so frustrated with scattered shopping carts that he frequently turns his frustration to humor, citing a handful of reasons why the carts are in the middle of the parking lot. 

Some of those reasons might be that the cart is a “rebel” or that the cart is sad and lonely and can’t find its way home.  The commentary he provides to something so mundane is hilarious. 

I recently spoke to a colleague about this, which generated some good conversation. My aim was to understand:  why not return the cart?  If it’s a simple walk to a return area, and the individual is able-bodied, why leave it there? Do these shoppers apply this mentality to other things in life?

Throughout the conversation with my colleague, the shopping cart came to represent other things as well, and I thought about it some more.

For some people, it might be just a habit.  We simply don’t think about the inconveniences our actions, or lack thereof, can cause others.  I can recall a time when this happened to me; recently, I entered the conference room where I work and I noticed crumbs on a chair.  Oddly enough, I was sitting there just a few days before when we had a meeting and I was eating a cupcake.

Making a mess while eating is something I’m great at, and it’s definitely not new to me.  Knowing this was my mess, I vacuumed it up afterwards.  However, this was the first time I actually paid attention to the mess. 

We don’t always think about the effects, consequences, or the work we create for others.  Just like I never thought, “Yes, I cannot wait to make someone else clean up these crumbs.” I’m sure a lot of those shoppers don’t mean to purposely cause an inconvenience. 

It sure can be frustrating when you find what appears to be a great parking spot, only to pull in and discover a family of shopping carts there.  You either have to get out to move the carts yourself, or find a different spot. In the grand scheme of things, these are just minor inconveniences though, right?

How about when the wind blows the carts right into the street, causing them to interfere with traffic?  An observant bystander might retrieve a runaway cart before a potential accident occurs. Now it just became a little more serious.

Like the shoppers who leave their carts scattered in parking lots, think about the things you might be unintentionally leaving behind for others.  Maybe you work somewhere with shift work, and you carelessly left tasks for the next shift.  Or, maybe you failed to inform your replacement about something extremely important pertaining to the mission.  Due to your absent-mindedness, the team is now missing a vital piece needed to ensure that things go smoothly.  In a lot of career fields and jobs, there is the potential for great harm to people, equipment, or processes when this happens.

Now, what about the people who purposely do leave things behind because it’s “not their job?” We’re not talking about being inattentive anymore.  We’re talking about the people who have the mentality that some things are “someone else’s job.”

It’s a quick walk to the cart return area, right?  Even if workers patrol these areas and bring large amounts of carts back to the storefront, they shouldn’t also have to pick up after us when there’s a sign asking us to do our part first.

We may not have time to do everything and help everyone, but we should think first before we purposely leave a task for someone else. 

It may not be in your job description, but it might be something you can still take care of without any detriment to your mission.  Even better, it may help someone greatly.

We may have to seek out expertise at times.  But, it’s better to seek out expertise so that you can do the right thing, rather not try at all because it’s not your job.  Also, some of us may find ourselves in positions where someone else is taking out the trash or doing other things for us, which may be nice.  We are never above these things though, especially if we can still physically do them. 

When I first noticed the shopping cart phenomenon, I imagined how people made other decisions in their lives if they didn’t return carts.  I now know that the “shopping carts” in our lives may be other things or tasks. 

It may be intentional or it may be unintentional; we won’t always know.  If we are aware of our own actions and think twice before we leave the little things for someone else, our shopping carts won’t go rogue.