Basket Case

Richard Quinn

UPON RETIREMENT, I picked up additional duties at home. One was cooking and the other was grocery shopping, both of which I enjoy. The shopping part furthers my ability to observe people, a favorite pastime.

I have concluded that you can tell a great deal about people’s spending and lifestyle habits simply by what’s in their shopping cart. And you can tell quite a bit about individual responsibility and personal behavior by what people do with their empty shopping cart. I have no scientific evidence to support my observations. But I’m confident I’m on to something.

“Healthy, wealthy and wise,” exhorted Poor Richard. (No relation.) That’s a good way to assess the contents of shopping carts.

But before we get to that, consider the disposal of the shopping cart. Is it too much to ask people to return the cart to the corral or to where they got it? It would appear so. Rather, the frequent routine is to leave it where it was emptied—in a parking space, between two cars or simply pushing it aside, freeing the cart to dent someone else’s car.

I once saw a cart pushed across a parking lot. It took off down the hill, slamming broadside into a car just pulling into the lot. The perpetrator simply walked away, seemingly oblivious to his actions. What does all this say about our sense of responsibility, our level of laziness and our indifference to others?

In addition to the parking lot slobs, there are the wanderers. These are people who believe the store’s cart is their personal conveyance, no matter where they roam. Look around a strip mall. You’ll find the pharmacy cart near the supermarket, the fashion store’s cart by the pharmacy, and a cluster of them six blocks away. What are people thinking? Not very wise, in my view.

Now, about what’s in those carts. I marvel at the incredible amount of junk food, soda and such. Between sugary drinks and snacks, supermarkets have three or more aisles devoted to them. Americans spend over $1 billion a year on pretzels and Twinkies combined, and $65 billion on soda alone. Sadly, my observations show this buying is common among young people accompanied by children, who can’t wait until checkout before diving into the goodies. So much for our hopes to be healthy—and perhaps wealthy, too.

At the other end of the spectrum are the health-conscious shoppers. Everything they buy is organic and costly. You would think using less chemicals would make food cheaper, but the prices say otherwise. It sounds logical that we shouldn’t put chemicals in our bodies. But there’s no clear evidence of better health outcomes from going organic. It is clear, however, that doing so may impact our goal of being wealthy.

Next, we have carts filled with convenience food. These are the folks who have “no time” or inclination to cook, so they buy prepared. I had one shopper tell me she was beyond peeling and cooking a potato, so she bought prepared mashed potatoes marketed by a large restaurant chain. I tried some. They were quite tasty—and expensive—and why not? A half-cup portion contained 25% of the recommended daily intake of sodium. This one puts a dent in healthy, wealthy and wise, I’d say.

Finally, we have the granddaddy of all shopping carts, the oversized ones at the big box stores. They allow you to buy stuff you don’t need, and probably shouldn’t be buying in huge quantities, on the theory you’re saving money. Per teaspoon, I guess buying mayo by the gallon could conceivably save money. Ditto for junk food. I’m putting this one in the “neither wealthy nor wise” category. Heck, it’s often not healthy, either.

Now, if only I could link my shopping cart theorem to the “living paycheck to paycheck, can’t afford to save and don’t have $400 for a financial emergency” dilemma, I might solve all manner of societal problems. Can’t afford to save? Let me at your shopping cart and I’ll find at least $10 for your IRA. What about health care costs? The U.S. is the only developed country on the top 20 list of most obese countries. Can that be traced to the contents of the lowly shopping cart? Maybe not entirely. We also need to consider the $117 billion we spend each year on fast food. That isn’t healthy, wealthy or wise. But that’s another story.

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. His previous articles include Bad to WorseMissing the Point and An Old Man’s Gripes. Follow Dick on Twitter @QuinnsComments.

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