September 15

What a shopping carts reveals about security awareness


Tokens, Shopping Carts and Security Awareness

What can grocery-shopping carts teach us about building security awareness that works to influence behavior change?

Turns out perhaps more than imagined.

During a recent hotel stay, I took a trip to a local grocery store to buy some snacks. I pulled into the lot, parked and headed to the store. Since I only needed a few items, I walked past the carts toward the entrance.

At the entrance a rather LARGE sign explained, “change machine for the carts inside store.”

Something about the sign encouraged me to stop; I needed to understand the need for change for a cart.

Turns out that the carts had a strapping mechanism that essentially tethered them together when stacked properly. Unlocking the cart required a quarter. When the cart was properly returned, the quarter was released and returned.

But a quarter is only $0.25

At first, this struck me as silly. Even in this economy, a quarter isn’t much and I thought it lacked the value to influence cart behavior. And it seemed like an inconvenience.

In the thick humid dusk of the evening, I took a few moments to look out and scan the parking lot. Not a loose cart in sight. So I looked harder and longer for a loose cart to prove someone bucked the trend and “just didn’t care.” Yet all of the carts were either in use or put away.

The token is engagement

Then it hit me: the quarter was only a token, a gesture. The money, in all reality, meant nothing. People put a quarter in, but they got it back. They weren’t renting the cart. At play was the physical act – the token – to connect individuals to the cart.

The token (the quarter) engaged people, connected them to the use of the cart and essentially redefined normal.

The use of a quarter to unlock and use the cart connected people to the process. Awareness of the condition to use the cart ensured people carried a quarter, sought change from the machine (inside the store) and served as subtle reminder to return the cart – if only to get their quarter back.

So how does this apply to security awareness and influencing behaviors?

With a different perspective, these carts taught me a lot about the value of engagement and commitment. By asking for a small value – which will be promptly returned, in full – the interaction changes.

The key here is the token.

It was more than symbolic – and it required some thought or action, but it was not onerous. I suspect shoppers at the store routinely had a quarter or two in their pockets, purses or cars… without complaint.

The low economic value of the token is important to the function. Engaging people in this way does require a shift in behavior (and the first shift is sometimes the hardest), but make it too complex or otherwise costly, and it will be summarily ignored or revolted against.

In the coming weeks and months, we will continue to explore parallels, amplify the good and advance our ability to address the human paradox, shift thinking and inspire behavior change through security awareness that works.

How are you using “tokens” in your efforts?  More importantly – how did you figure it out, how is it working and how is it evolving?

Share your experiences in the comments, engage me on twitter, send me an email or pick up the phone and call. I’d love to learn about the token in your efforts.


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  1. Bold move. I actually don’t appreciate the inconvenience of this control. It’s not the .025, it’s that the store didn’t communicate why they’re bothering me. Is it because they want to save 1/4 of the time of a minimum wage worker to round up carts? If so, I view this as a symptom of a larger issue and probably shop somewhere else.

    Is it because cars were getting dinged from runaway carts?

    If it’s the latter, I’ll embrace it and a simple sign would do.

    Plus, as long as there’s a spot for me to park my cart safely in the lot, since I don’t care about the quarter when I have two little kids to buckle up.

    In the spirit of the post, I hope the store pilot tested and tracks Q sat. Great post.

    1. Jared,

      You raise a great point about communication. I didn’t see anything around the store explaining the decision, and I did not ask (not sure I would have gotten accurate answers).

      Intention goes a long way – especially when measured and communicated appropriately. And then, if needed, adjusted.

      When it comes to incorporating the concept of a token into awareness programs and risk management projects, we need to focus on “measuring what matters” so we can “communicate what counts.”

      Great stuff.

  2. I’m going to play devil’s advocate here and say the reason you didn’t see loose carts isn’t because of the symbolism or gesture of the quarter-in-quarter-out play, but rather because a homeless man probably watches the parking lot like a hawk and swoops down to redeem a free quarter every time he sees someone leave a cart, thus giving an artificial appearance of compliance.

    But in all honesty, I agree with your post. I just wanted to throw another idea in. 😀

    1. Hah!

      I thought about that too… or perhaps the employees did a sweep of the lot before I got there. What I am going to think about though… is if a token used in the scenario described is artificial compliance, or actual compliance. Admittedly, I want individuals to take the action (and I would expect a large number would — especially if they have kids asking for the quarter). But if the purpose is to ensure carts are put away without staff intervention to protect the cars in the lots, etc…. then a token might have more value.

      In a corporate setting, then, we offer a “token” — and while accepted and used by most, if others were to find value and “pick up the slack,” I’m not sure that is necessarily bad. I guess it depends on the situation.

      Great stuff!

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