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Supermarkets Wheel Out Cart Deposits for a Tryout

Times Staff Writer

Panorama City shopper Chris Wickliff’s first reaction was disbelief when the checkout clerk tallied the items in her shopping cart--and then rang up a 25-cent charge for the cart itself.

The quarter assessment was a deposit now being required of shoppers who want to wheel their groceries out to their cars at five San Fernando Valley supermarkets. The fee is automatically refunded when the cart is returned to a designated parking lot collection point.

Grocery industry leaders are experimenting with the cart-deposit concept as a way of controlling theft and parking lot accidents that cost California retailers an estimated $7 million a year.

If the idea works--and shoppers do not rebel over the 25-cent charge--retailers predict that such cart fees will soon be as common as check stand price scanners at Valley-area supermarkets.

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Things Looking Up

So far, store officials say things are looking up on both counts.

“At first, the cart fee almost sent me to another market to do my shopping,” said Wickliff, who shops at a Ralphs near her home. “At first I didn’t like it. But it seems to work well. For the stores, it’s a necessary evil.”

Across the parking lot, Mel Glatman of Panorama City cheerfully shoved her cart into a V-shaped rail and collected the quarter that was released when a special hook on the cart’s bottom triggered a coin return.

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“It’s worth it,” she said, explaining that the market parking lot and nearby residential streets are now free of abandoned carts that are a nuisance to motorists.

Carts Abandoned

“A lot of these things get lost. People walk with them to apartments around here and just leave them there.”

Inside the busy Van Nuys Boulevard market, Ralphs manager Dominic Rubino was singing some praises of his own.

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“I’m never out of carts in here now, no matter how busy it gets,” he said. “When the wind blows, you don’t have the carts blowing at you like sailboats across the parking lot. It’s easier on the employees who have to go out to the parking lot and round them up.

“Most customers are saying it’s about time stores did something like this,” said Rubino.

However, Mike Kuroyama, an operations manager for Ralphs Grocery Co., said the company will analyze customer feedback before installing the cart system throughout the 126-store chain.

Reaction ‘Mostly Positive’

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“We use cards to solicit shoppers’ opinions and so far it’s been mostly positive,” Kuroyama said. “We’ve received a lot of cards from customers appreciating the fact we’re doing something about the problem and not letting cars get banged up.”

Besides Rubino’s store, the Ralphs Grocery Co. is experimenting with the cart deposit system at its Encino outlet. Alpha Beta supermarkets in Van Nuys and Sepulveda and the independent Phil’s Food Queen market in Lake View Terrace are also using it.

Modeled after a luggage-carrier rental system that has been in use for 15 years at Los Angeles International Airport, the cart-operated coin return devices are manufactured by Smarte Carte Inc. of White Bear Lake, Minn.

Stores rent the system for about $600 a month through a City of Industry company, Abco Scale Co. Inc. Current users in Southern California also include Safeway and Vons.

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Car Won’t Be Dinged

Jack Sterner, Abco vice president, said shoppers look upon the 25-cent deposit favorably because “it guarantees them a parking spot in the lot and a cart in the store. They know that their car isn’t going to get dinged up by a loose grocery cart while they’re inside shopping.”

Tom Pate, national sales manager for Smarte Carte, said 35 supermarkets across the U.S. are now using the system. Most of the installations are in the West and the South--where the weather is usually nice enough to entice shoppers to “borrow” grocery carts to wheel their purchases home, he said.

Pate said the first test of the deposit system was 20 months ago at Phil’s Food King in Lake View Terrace.

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Today, the system is readily accepted by shoppers, said Dan Franklin, director of security for Phil’s Markets Inc.'s three-store chain.

Lost 15 Carts Weekly

“We were losing an average of 15 carts a week before,” Franklin said. “We have about 50 carts in the store and they cost about $120 a piece, so it was expensive. Now, the loss is down to about five a month.”

When neighborhood children discovered they could earn a quick quarter by returning carts, they fanned out into the neighborhood “and brought back carts we didn’t even know we had,” Franklin said.

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Likewise, when Ralphs officials installed the system in Panorama City about six weeks ago, local youngsters seized the opportunity, said 11-year-old Yussof Mohamed.

“I made $20 last month,” Yussof said. “A lot of people leave the carts without turning them in and getting their quarter back. I come here about 3 1/2 days a week and get them.”

Buy Candy With Earnings

Yussof said he and a friend, Sonny Wertz, 12, spend most of the quarters they make from cart returns on candy--purchased from Ralphs.

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Rene Arevalo is less enthusiastic about the new deposit system, however,

Arevalo cruises through the Valley in a pickup truck, retrieving abandoned shopping carts for Jet Shopping Cart Service. The Sepulveda-based company contracts with supermarket firms to hunt down and pick up carts that have been illegally removed from shopping center parking lots.

“I used to bring in 17 or 18 carts a day before they started this,” Arevalo said. “Now, I might find 10. It’s having an effect.”


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