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Returning your shopping trolley!

The shopping cart theory (I know it’s a trolley, but I want to stick to the source material), a concept that gained viral traction in 2021, actually offers a surprisingly apt metaphor for ethical behaviour in the financial services sector. 

The shopping cart is the ultimate litmus test for whether a person is capable of self-governing. To return the shopping cart is an easy, convenient task and one which we all recognize as the correct, appropriate thing to do. To return the shopping cart is objectively right. There are no situations other than dire emergencies in which a person is not able to return their cart.
Simultaneously, it is not illegal to abandon your shopping cart. Therefore the shopping cart presents itself as the apex example of whether a person will do what is right without being forced to do it. No one will punish you for not returning the shopping cart, no one will fine you or kill you for not returning the shopping cart, you gain nothing by returning the shopping cart.
You must return the shopping cart out of the goodness of your own heart. You must return the shopping cart because it is the right thing to do. Because it is correct. A person who is unable to do this is no better than an animal, an absolute savage who can only be made to do what is right by threatening them with a law and the force that stands behind it.

Why? Well, this theory posits that a person’s willingness to return a shopping cart to the designated area after use reflects their inherent respect for social norms and consideration for others. Similarly, the financial services industry has a critical choice to make. It can prioritise short-term gain at the potential expense of vulnerable customers, or it can embrace a customer-centric approach that fosters trust and long-term sustainability. 


Often forgotten, the financial services industry serves everyone who can enter a financial contract (basically everyone apart from dependent children) and so by definition must serve all vulnerable individuals for fear of discrimination. Why would any industry want to discriminate against society’s most vulnerable, especially when its utility is universal? 

As the theory says, “to return the shopping cart is objectively right”, and thus to serve eligible vulnerable customers is also objectively right too. 

So, why has it taken so long, and the introduction of Consumer Duty, for the industry to start slowly waking up to the idea of ensuring those in vulnerable circumstances get just as good an outcome as everyone else? 


The financial services industry has a well-documented history of complex products, opaque fees, and unfair sales tactics. This can leave vulnerable customers, including the elderly, financially unsavvy individuals, and those with cognitive difficulties, at a significant disadvantage. Is it any wonder that there has been an erosion of trust in the financial system? 

Just as a discarded shopping cart creates an eyesore and inconvenience for others, neglecting the fair treatment of vulnerable customers creates a ripple effect of negative consequences. Regulators are forced to implement stricter oversight, which can stifle innovation. Public confidence in the financial system wanes, leading to a reluctance to engage with financial products and services. Ultimately, the industry itself suffers as customer loyalty diminishes and the potential customer base shrinks. 

The ethical shopping cart: putting customers first 


The shopping cart theory offers a clear path towards a more ethical and sustainable approach. By prioritising the well-being of vulnerable customers, financial institutions can build trust, cultivate loyalty, and ultimately enhance their bottom line. 

And here’s how: 

  • Vulnerability assessments and tailored support: Financial institutions can implement consistent vulnerability assessments to identify customers who may require additional support. These assessments must consider the four drivers of vulnerability, health, life events, resilience, and capability. Based on the assessment, tailored support plans can be developed, including dedicated customer service representatives, signposting to support organisations, invitations for friend and family member support and even simplified account interfaces. 


  • Customer-centric sales practices: Sales staff should be supported by consistent systems and trained to prioritise customer needs over sales or productivity targets. This means understanding individual circumstances, recommending suitable products, and avoiding high-pressure tactics. Vulnerable customers, in particular, should be offered additional support and guidance throughout the sales process. 

  • Transparency and simplicity: Financial products should be designed with clear and concise language, avoiding jargon and overly complex terms. Fees should be transparent and easy to understand, with no hidden charges or surprise costs. Information brochures, phone lines that are answered quickly by well-informed caring staff and explainer videos can be instrumental in simplifying complex financial concepts for customers. 

  • Financial literacy initiatives: The financial services sector has a responsibility to empower customers with financial knowledge. Educational programs, workshops, and online resources can equip individuals with the skills they need to make informed financial decisions. Partnerships with community organisations and educational institutions can further amplify financial literacy efforts. 


Building a culture of fairness 

If the shopping cart theory serves as a powerful starting point, true commitment to fair treatment requires a cultural shift within the financial services sector. 

Here are three ways that we can achieve this cultural shift: 


1. Embedding fairness into the DNA of the organisation: Fair treatment of vulnerable customers should not be seen as an afterthought or a compliance exercise. It should be a core value embedded in the organisation’s mission statement, training programs, and performance metrics. 

2. Incentivising ethical behaviour: Compensation structures and performance reviews should reward staff who prioritise customer needs over sales or productivity targets. Recognition programs can celebrate employees who go the extra mile to ensure vulnerable customers are treated fairly. 

3. Leadership by example: Senior management must champion the cause of fair treatment and lead by example. This includes integrating ethical considerations into strategic decision-making and holding employees accountable for upholding high standards of customer care. 


The long-term advantage of fairness 

By embracing the principles embodied in the shopping cart theory, the financial services sector can reap significant long-term rewards. Building trust with vulnerable customers fosters loyalty, not only with them, but also with wider society, too and encourages everyone to engage with a wider range of financial products and services. 

A reputation for fairness attracts new customers and strengthens the industry’s overall image. Whilst it is depressingly all too often the main reason, rather than being customer centric in the first place, a focus on customer well-being can mitigate regulatory scrutiny and create a more stable and sustainable operating environment. 


To be blunt, the financial services sector now stands at a crossroads. The continuation of short-term gain shareholder gain at the expense of vulnerable customers is the sign of further ethical erosion of trust. The fair treatment of vulnerable customers outlined in Consumer Duty is the path to fairness and builds a more robust financial ecosystem for everyone. 

As the shopping cart theory suggests: it will be the litmus test of whether the sector is capable of self-governing.

This article was originally published in IFA Magazine on 10th May 2024.


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