Robeys Blog: The Supermarket Trolley Problem

After leaving my car in the morning, my walk to work takes me through the car park of a local supermarket and I often find my passage impeded by abandoned trolleys.  As an able-bodied, unimpeded pedestrian, this really doesn’t affect me.  But I regularly see parents with pushchairs, wheelchair users and the elderly struggling to negotiate these obstacle courses.  It irks me.  But the more I thought about it, the more I saw that there wasn’t one but two parties responsible for the problem.

There are two distinct areas of congregation for abandoned trolleys.  One is at a foot exit from the car park, about as far from the main door of the supermarket as it’s possible to be whilst still being on their property.  The foot exit leads into a densely populated residential area.  So it’s pretty reasonable to conclude that people who live there will shop at this supermarket and that they will exit in this direction.  In fact, it’s so reasonable that the supermarket’s planners put a trolley point (a trolley corral?  A trolley pen?) right next to the exit point.  And they also put a red line on the pavement at the exit point to clearly indicate that pushing the trolley beyond that point will cause it to lock down.  And yet more people simply push the trolley up to the line and then abandon it than put their trolley into the pen.  What’s going on here?  Is the effort saved by the extra five paces really worth the hassle the abandonment places on our fellow citizens?

We’ll return to this in a moment.

First, let’s look at the other point of abandonment.  This one is just a few tens of metres away from the first, but this exit point leads immediately to a bus stop and, again, there is a regular concatenation of abandoned trolleys every morning.  Again, it can easily be anticipated that those who use the bus are going to want to take their trolleys as far as they can.  But here there is no trolley pen.  In fact, the nearest trolley pen is the one – tens of metres away – by the foot exit.

I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the bus-stop abandonment is the more understandable.  These are people who cannot, for practical reasons, carry their shopping home.  They are going to go and wait for a bus, after all.  If you’re doing the sort of volume of shopping that requires the taking of a bus then walking any distance with it is likely to be onerous.  And the last thing you want is to be fifty yards from the bus stop with six bags of shopping when the bus pulls up.

Why, then, does the supermarket not position a trolley pen more conveniently for these shoppers?

Again, we’ll return to this.

Let’s go back to the foot exit, first.  There, the shopper is approaching the exit.  He – for the sake of argument – knows that there’s a cut-out line.  But he has a long walk to his house from there with a full trolley of shopping.  He can obediently leave the trolley in the pen, accepting the extension of his journey by no more than a few yards, but instead he goes right up to the line, where the cut-out immobilizes his trolley.  Or does it?

This shopper is a regular and a local.  He knows dozens if not hundreds of other regular locals.  He knows that the trolley cut-out doesn’t always work.  Usually it does.  But perhaps one time in ten shops, it doesn’t.  For the sake of no inconvenience to himself, therefore, he can check to see if, this time, the cut-out doesn’t work and he can walk his shopping all the way home.  If it does, of course, he can’t put the trolley back in the pen because it’s been immobilized.  So he abandons it and walks home.

Meanwhile, the supermarket elects to accept the abandonment at the bus stop exit because installing another pen would impede the traffic flow more than a few abandoned trolleys that will be cleared up by staff.  But, whilst they aren’t cleared, combined with the other trolleys abandoned within sight at the foot exit, the impression is given that most people abandon their trolleys.  This sends a signal to all that the majority behaviour is the abandonment of a trolley.

I hope you’ve twigged, by now, that this is not about supermarket trolleys.  It’s about desirable and undesirable behaviours and how we – as organizations – encourage one or the other.  An abandoned trolley is a metaphor for any act that has no personal consequences for us, but which does have negative consequences for others.  I could equally have chosen the phenomenon of sudden lane changes on a busy motorway: for the lane changer, all is well.  She moves more quickly through the traffic or at least no slower than she otherwise would have.  But behind her, her sudden manoeuvre has caused a fellow driver to brake quite suddenly.  This creates a ripple effect and, before you know it, there’s an eight mile tailback for no good reason at all.

In the workplace, when decisions are taken in an official capacity, they are usually taken with the best interests of the business in mind.  We might know that they will cause people inconvenience or difficulty, but we make those decisions with that impact in mind and do our best to make sure that they pay-off is worth the pain.  But in HR we have to deal with the consequences of other decisions: the decision to ignore that training request; the decision to swear at a colleague; the decision to undermine that manager by going behind her back…

We cannot see every discarded trolley.  We don’t have time to personally put each and every one where it belongs.  And even if we did, we can’t wipe away the impact of its having been discarded in the first place.

Like supermarket planners, we need to design our organizations – from scratch or, more often, on the fly – with the abandoned trolleys of human behaviour in mind.  We need to reward and recognize the correct disposal of trolleys.  We need penalize their incorrect disposal.  But most importantly we need to create a culture in which discarded trolleys are everyone’s problem.

Author: Editorial Team

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