8 // Shopping Cart Community

I love Aldi. It’s a small discount grocery story that keeps its prices low by selling almost entirely its own brands, charging for bags (before that was cool), limiting the size of the store, and running minimal ads.

I love the fact that I can be in and out—with a cart full of groceries—in twenty minutes. And I love the fact that they plaster barcodes all over their packaging, which makes scanning items a cinch.

But what I love most about Aldi is their shopping carts. Each cart is locked to the next with a small chain, which can be unlocked by putting a quarter in a slot. When you’re finished shopping, rather than putting the cart in a “corral” in the middle of the parking lot for an attendant to gather later (or simply leaving the cart to go rogue in the parking lot and potentially damage vehicles), you return it, lock it back in with its friends, and get your quarter back.

It’s a great cost-saving measure for the store—no paying employees to run around gathering carts and very little replacing of damaged carts)—but what I’ve experienced most is the community this small system has created.

Most people, rather than fumbling for a quarter right in front of the carts, have their quarter ready as they walk from their car to the store. There’s an unspoken rule among regular shoppers that, if someone is about to return their cart and you’re just arriving, you swap your quarter for their cart.

Granted, this cart exchange sometimes happens at other stores. But it’s the handoff of the quarter that I love. There’s no easy way to hand someone something without making eye contact, which typically leads to a smile (because anything else is just awkward) and often a few spoken words.

Perhaps inadvertently, this simple system has taken something mundane, like grocery shopping, and transformed it from an errand to be completed to an opportunity for human connection.