For most of us, grocery carts are a utilitarian necessity to get our groceries to the car. But, for all of us, abandoned carts are a blight on the community.
Customers take grocery carts and leave them on lawns, in parking lots and streets corners. All neighborhoods are affected. We see them in empty lots, gullies and roadsides. Stray grocery carts are dangerous, because children play on them. Teenagers take joy rides on wobbly wheels in the street, and runaway carts damage cars and other property.
Stolen carts are a problem everywhere. Worldwide it is an $800 million annual loss to stores. Some stores lose as much as $3,000 a month from lost carts.
In Washington state it is a misdemeanor to steal a cart. Cities all over the country have tried to solve the problem by city ordinances, with varying degrees of success. Most ordinances hold the stores responsible, but this policy seems to be putting the blame in the wrong place.
In Union City, Calif., businesses are penalized if they don’t retrieve their carts. Fines are leveled at the thieves in some cities, but this is difficult to enforce. Usually store clerks don’t stop people when they see them taking the carts, because they don’t want to lose a customer.
As a result, private businesses are born out of this dilemma. Cart “repo” men pick up wayward carts and return them to stores for a bounty.
A Spokane Valley Yoke’s store handles the problem in a neighborly way. The manager told me that carts are frequently taken across the street to a senior citizen living area. The seniors usually return them, or the store sends someone across the street to pick them up. This works well for the store and the community. It would be unfortunate for a city ordinance to interfere with mutually agreeable arrangements.
Some Wal-Mart stores offer incentives to return carts. The names of people who retrieve carts are entered into a drawing for rewards.
An assistant manager at a local Rosauers store said they pick up 10 to 20 carts a week in their neighborhood. They recover most of them because they changed to plastic carts. Metal carts often ended up as scrap metal.
In Europe, most stores chain the carts together and require a coin deposit to get a cart. This probably doesn’t prevent theft, and it can be an inconvenience for customers who don’t have the correct change. However, it is a way to ensure that carts are returned to the right place and not left in the parking lot.
Many California cities use electronic and magnetic devices that can lock up the wheels when the cart goes over an invisible barrier. Safeway stores in the Bay Area have implemented magnetic devices. Similarly, a store in Pennsylvania near a college campus initiated an effective retention device and is saving the store $3,000 a month.
I am all for people walking to the store instead of driving, and I empathize with those who don’t have a car. But, stealing a cart from the store is not the solution.
A lightweight basket-on-wheels maneuvers easily and holds a lot of groceries. It can be purchased for $25 to $40. All of the expensive devices wouldn’t be necessary if the public could just do what is right and not take the carts and abandon them in the community.