25-Cent Deposit : Markets Test System to Halt Loss of Carts

Times Staff Writer

Startled customers at a growing number of Southland supermarkets are being told that they have to pay a quarter to take grocery carts out of the store.

Although the quarter is refunded when customers return their carts to designated depots in the parking lot, "the usual response I get is, 'You've got to be kidding!" said Linda Zandstra, a cashier at an Alpha Beta supermarket in Santa Ana. "One woman said: 'Take your groceries back, I'm not paying!' Can you imagine? Over a quarter."

The new system is but the latest weapon that supermarkets are using to curb grocery-cart rustlers who damage or walk off with more than $7 million worth of the things each year throughout the state.

Similar System at Airports Modeled after a similar method used at airports for returning baggage carriers, the system is being leased and rented to Southland supermarkets by City of Industry-based Abco Equipment Inc., which distributes it locally for Smarte Carte Inc. of White Bear, Minn.

When customers go through the check stands, cashiers ask if they want to take the cart outside the store. If the customer agrees, a 25-cent deposit is added to their bill. If not, a clerk's helper assists the customer at no charge.

After emptying the cart, the customer returns it to a depot in the parking lot. The deposit is automatically refunded when the cart is pushed into the unit and secured.

In the last year, Alpha Beta, Food King, Safeway, Ralphs, Vons and Big Bear supermarkets, and Sav-on and Longs Drug stores have agreed to test the system at selected stores, according to Carl Hess, president of Abco.

"They're going through the test stage now," Hess said. He added that the system has been successful because even when customers forget to return their carts, "some little kid will take it back and get the quarter."

Indeed, at an Alpha Beta supermarket in Santa Ana, a cadre of youngsters on bicycles busily explored the parking lot for abandoned carts.

"We find the carts people don't put back," said 10-year-old Jose Zazueta, shoving off on his bicycle after returning a cart and pocketing a quarter. "Sometimes I make $2 an hour," he added, scanning the lot for more carts.

Paul Taylor, night manager of the Alpha Beta store, said he had no problem with children rounding up the carts and pocketing the quarters. After all, he said, "I got my first job here rounding up carts nine years ago."

"The shoppers who do not take their carts back figure it's worth a quarter to take them home," Taylor added. "The kids figure it's worth a quarter to take them back."

Youngsters aren't the only ones picking up extra change by returning carts. "The bag ladies out there in the morning love it," observed a cashier at the Alpha Beta store.

Most store operators are pleased with initial results.

"So far--knock on wood--it works very well," said Al Gray, vice president-store operations department at Compton-based Ralphs. "It's a heck of a lot cheaper than the cost of picking up carts." Ralphs spends "several thousand dollars each month" to retrieve abandoned carts in the vicinity of problem stores, he said.

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