The real reason Aldi makes customers pay for shopping carts

After Aldi announced their major push into the U.S. grocery market in 2017, many more people came to know and love this discount grocer that European families have counted on for years. There was a little bit of a culture shock that came with Aldi, though, and we're not just talking about their super-delicious, extra-creamy chocolate bars. We're also talking about the shopping carts.

You know the ones — they're all chained up in front of your local Aldi and they tend to baffle any one who's never been there before. If you want to use one, you'll need to put in a quarter. You'll get your "rental fee" back when you do the responsible thing and return your cart to the corral, but what, exactly, is the point of inconveniencing customers like this? (Don't think it's an inconvenience? You've clearly never forgotten your quarter!)

There are a couple things at work here, and according to Aldi's official line on the matter, it all has to do with keeping prices low. Aldi has a wide range of systems and policies in place that help them keep their overhead low and pass those savings on to the customer, which is one reason people love them so much. And this money-saver is simple.

When people return their own carts, Aldi doesn't need to pay someone to spend hours each day going around the parking lot collecting the stray carts you see at almost every other grocery store.

It's a win-win for customers, too. Have you ever come out from grocery shopping to find a cart sitting against your car, which is now sporting a nice new dent? That just doesn't happen at Aldi. Without carts being abandoned in parking lots, left to be pushed around by the wind and wheel around of their own accord like unsupervised kindergartners, there are no dents, no dings, and no parking spaces rendered unusable by stray carts.

You might not expect so many people would be so willing to return their carts for just a quarter, but according to Michael Roberto, a management professor at Bryant University, he suspects it has something to do with simple human psychology. According to him, it's a combination of the budget-mindedness of Aldi shoppers, and the fact that the general public is just unwilling to pay for something we feel should be free, like the use of a cart. It's the principle of the thing!

That weird bit of human psychology has created what some Aldi shoppers call their "cart etiquette." Say you've loaded up your car and are about to take your cart back. It's perfectly normal for another customer to offer to take the cart off your hands — it'll save you from walking all the way back up to the store, after all. But at Aldi, they'll usually have their quarter in hand, and they'll trade you for it. It's just proper!

It's also worth pointing out that there's something else that's not at work here, and that's the theory it might work as a theft deterrent. According to NBC News, shopping cart theft is a huge problem across the retail industry. Each cart costs stores anywhere from $75 to $250, and some stores have had such massive losses they're putting measures in place to stop it. Some even have perimeter controls that lock the cart's wheels if they cross property lines, but studies have shown that cart rental systems like Aldi's aren't an effective deterrent when it comes to people who just want to wander off with a cart. Apparently, people are willing to pay a quarter for a cart they can keep — even if it's not exactly legal.

And if you're still wondering why Aldi is willing to inconvenience customers — and perhaps alienate new customers who aren't familiar with the system — there's a possible answer to that which doesn't involve money at all. What it does involve is a different culture, and the fact that carts just don't concern Europeans as much as they do Americans. Since Aldi is a European chain, that matters more than you might think.

Grand Voyage Italy took on the task of explaining Italy's (and Europe's) tradition of coin-release carts, and says that many Italians just don't use them. Traditionally, European refrigerators are much, much smaller than their American counterparts. (Standard-size American fridge/freezers aren't the norm by any means, they're actually sold by retailers like John Lewis as "American-style" appliances.)

Those massive appliances have changed the shopping habits of an entire continent. Most European families don't make massive shopping trips and fill a fridge with enough food to last a few weeks. They'll head to the market, grab a basket or their recyclable bags, and get the food they're going to eat for the next day or two. Carts are more for heavy items than a lot of items, so Aldi's cart system just isn't a massive inconvenience because there are fewer people using them. Now you know!