Anti-theft shopping cart mechanisms — a UX case study

Ronit Newmark

Imagine doing your weekly or monthly grocery shopping without a shopping cart.

Hard to imagine right?

The shopping cart has become a ubiquitous part of the shopping experience. So much so that e-commerce use the analogy of a shopping cart to help you collect your items to checkout online.

Now what if I told you that shopping carts can retail for $75–$150 each sometime even upwards of $300! And people stealing them can cost the supermarket more than $8,000 a year!

For years stores have been trying to combat these costs by installing anti-theft mechanisms to combat cart thievery. Each of these anti-theft mechanisms have their merits and some of them just turn the whole shopping experience into a nightmare.

Physical Barriers

Some stores use a simple and yet incredibly frustrating solution to keeping carts from wandering off. They will put up physical barriers near the entrance and exit of the store which will prevent a consumer from taking the cart out to the car.

I can see why this would seem at first glance to be a good solution on the side of the store. First it keeps carts from going too far from the store itself, this helps prevent theft. And second it also can keep the cost of hiring someone to go around the collect the carts out of the picture because the carts are not getting scattered around the parking lot. Thirdly you can have more parking spaces because you aren’t giving them up to shopping cart deposits.

This might seem like a win-win-win situation from the side of the shop. But you also have to keep in mind who the user is of your shopping carts.

Shopping carts by design lend themselves to allow the user to pick up more items than they can carry. This is a mechanism used by stores to get shoppers to buy more stuff, however when you don’t allow the shopper to take the cart out to their car they now have to figure out how to carry everything they just bought from the cart to the car in one go. I remember when I was little going with my grandmother to a grocery store that had these barriers in place and always being frustrated that we had to carry everything from the store rather than just being able to push the cart out to the car.

This solution while saving the store money on gathering the carts from the parking lot could potentially have a negative effect on how much shoppers put in their carts. When you have to carry everything you might think twice about how much you buy and how many heavy things you’ll pick up.

Deposit (Collateral)

The deposit solution has become almost a standard, carts are daisy chained together in a designated area and the shopper has to give the cart a coin (25 cents for example) to release a cart. Then when the shopper is finished using the cart they can connect the cart to another and their coin pops out.

This solution serves few really clever solutions for stores.

  1. It ensures that carts get returned to designated areas, when the shopper has to return the cart to get their money back (albeit small) this forces shoppers to collect the carts for the store. Thus resulting in less time needed by a staff member to collect carts from around the parking lot.
  2. It ensures that carts get returned. Period. It is amazing the psychological connection people have with money. A shopping cart is worth way more than 25 cents and yet shoppers will go out of their way to get their coin back from the cart. Resulting in fewer lost carts.
Plastic coin keychain

In my opinion this solution has its positives and its negatives for the user. The first is the barrier to entry, the shopper is forced to ensure that they always have the right coin available when going to store. Otherwise they have to waste precious time going to the help desk, a cashier or begging other shoppers for break money for them. There are clever solutions for this like keychains that have a piece of plastic that is just the right size that you can use in place of the coin.

On the plus side the shopper is able to take the cart all the way to their car to unload and then return the cart to a designated area. This allows them to buy as much as they want without worrying about if they can carry it to the car.

Giving a Membership ID

The other day I went to a grocery store I don’t normally shop at but figured since I was going to need a lot of stuff I might as well check out the bigger grocery store. When I pulled into the parking lot I noticed some odd looking machines by the shopping cart deposit areas. Curious to see what they were I parked, got out of the car (bringing my plastic coin for the cart deposit) only to discover I wouldn’t be needing my coin to get a cart.

It was a machine that offered me a few different options for how I could claim a cart. One option was to type in my personal ID number (think social security number or membership ID), I could scan my membership ID from the store or the QR code on the screen could be scanned using the store’s app.

There wasn’t anyone else around getting carts, so I was a little unsure if I would even need the machine so I tried to take a cart, but the guardrails kept the cart from being able to be removed from the area. So I typed in my ID and the machine said I could take a cart. This time when I tried to pull the cart the guardrails allowed the cart to leave the area.

I didn’t need my coin, I could take the cart as far from the store as I wanted.

When I finished my shopping I took my groceries out to the car and came to bring the cart back. All I had to do was type my ID into the machine again (the sign says to use the method you used to borrow the cart to return it) and the machine greated me and said I could return the cart.

This method does a few things really well from a UX standpoint.

  1. They give the user options for how they want to borrow the cart. I could use my ID, membership card or the app. This means if I forgot my phone or membership card card I could always type in my personal ID number leaving little room for me to be stuck being able to borrow a cart.
  2. By using an ID number they are able to identify me as the user. This allows personalization of the messaging, saying “Hi Ronit! Please return the cart” instead of an impersonal “please return the cart”.
  3. Identifying the user by name has another benefit, because it feels personal and like they know who I am, I’m less likely to steal the cart because I’m not a random stranger who can never be tracked down.

The only drawback for this solution is user privacy. If I’m not a store member, I can type in my personal ID, but what if I don’t want to be giving out this information to the grocery store? While there are some who are afraid of giving out personal information especially to a retailer just letting them know I borrowed a cart isn’t too much information. When they start sending bills to my home because I didn’t return a cart, then I’ll be worried.

But until then, I think that this move towards a more sophisticated hi-tech anti-theft mechanism is a step in the right direction. It makes it easier and less frustrating to borrow a cart to do my grocery shopping. Plus I noticed in this stores parking lot that there wasn’t a single cart outside the deposit areas.

Author: Ronit Newmark

Collect by: