Sunday, July 07, 2024

Is it ever OK to take someone else’s grocery cart?

Is it OK to take someone else’s grocery cart if it seems clear it’s not being used?

Typically, when a reader we’re calling Herman goes grocery shopping, there are dozens of empty grocery carts at the front of the store available for customers to use while shopping. But recently when Herman got to the grocery store, there were no empty grocery carts to be found.

He went to the courtesy counter and asked if there were any empty carts available anywhere but was told that if they weren’t out front, he was out of luck. He was advised to use a small handcart, which Herman knew wasn’t nearly big enough to hold all of the groceries he planned to purchase. Nevertheless, Herman grabbed a handcart and persisted in his grocery shopping adventure.

He quickly noticed that many of the shelves throughout the store were being stacked and that new signs were being placed on various items’ shelves. He also noticed that there were at least 20 shopping carts full of boxes or signs or other items that clerks were using to re-stock shelves.

As he got to the delicatessen counter, Herman noticed there were two grocery carts. Each was half full of empty boxes that had been broken down and laid flat. By the time he reached the deli counter, Herman’s hand cart was already almost full, so he set it on the floor and then proceeded to move the flattened boxes from one grocery cart and put them into the other. He then transferred his groceries from his hand cart into the grocery cart and went on his way.

Herman was concerned that he might have crossed a line by taking the cart. He also was concerned that whoever had been putting those empty boxes into the cart would hunt him down and chastise him for taking it. The latter never happened, but Herman still wonders if he was wrong to transfer the flattened boxes to another cart and then use it rather than finding someone to ask permission first.

I’m with Herman and likely would have done the same thing. The carts were only half full and none of the boxes were full. He didn’t toss anything onto the floor to empty a cart, but found a way to try to minimize any disruption to whoever had been emptying the boxes. He did the right thing by asking the courtesy desk first and then trying to find a solution that might solve his challenge without causing hardship to others.

But a larger question is why the grocery store would tie up all of its grocery carts by having them used for restocking shelves. Also, why wasn’t anyone around to inform customers of the shortage when they entered the store? And why was there no one around many of the grocery carts – including the one Herman took – so a customer could ask about using it? The grocery store management team should have found a way to do its job without causing such a disruption to shoppers. That would have been the right thing to do.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin


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