Stolen Carts Push Cost of Groceries Up

The shopping cart has become a standard feature of city streets, transport not just for the homeless but the homemaker who pushes home the groceries and leaves the cart on stoop or street.

Treating private property as a natural resource does not come cheap. The standard cart costs $75 to $125, a fancy top-loader $150, and the average food store loses 12% of its carts every year, according to the Food Marketing Institute in Washington. In California alone, cart theft in the past decade cost the grocery industry up to $14 million a year, "and that cost," says Southern California Grocers Assn. President Steven Koff, "is passed on to the consumer."

The industry is oddly ambivalent about the situation, complaining of the losses, campaigning to get the carts back and the pilferers punished but loath to criticize the primary thieves--"who are not professionals trying to steal from us, but our customers," says Jan Charles Gray, senior vice president of Ralphs Grocery Co. in Los Angeles. Grocers have "never cared if people take carts home," says Don Beaver, president of the California Grocers Assn., "if they call or bring them back. . . . people who don't have a car can't carry home three to five bags of groceries; the industry is consumer-oriented and wants to be helpful."

Carts Appeared in 1940s

Modern shopping carts have been around since the 1940s, leaving market lots when customers who had formerly carried their groceries home couldn't carry them any more. That became increasingly common as more women went to work, shopping less frequently and buying more at a time and as convenience packaging added more air and cardboard to the food bought.

Grocers say offenders are often the elderly, the poor, sometimes college students--people who don't drive and who live in apartment complexes within walking distance of stores. They are also regular offenders: Cart retrieval services, who contract with stores, keep "going back to the same locations," says Jim Oliver of Oliver's Cart Recovery Service in Diamond Bar. "It's like a newspaper route."

People take a lot of carts. The 139 Ralphs stores had about 41,000 carts last year, about 300 a store. About 5,500 were irretrievably lost, and retrieval services brought in some 78,000--the equivalent of each cart being stolen twice.

Some say the bigger problem is "real" thieves--people taking carts for something other than transport. Some are taken by petty grifters, who call the stores for ransom. Others are taken for use in laundries, hardware stores, restaurants; there are even, says Beaver, "unscrupulous grocers who'll buy carts belonging to someone else," grinding the name off the metal. These may come from professional thieves who pick them off the lots or the streets and who may also take them across the Mexican border or, as in one California case, ship them to the Orient.

Cart Hot Lines

Generally, the grocers have concentrated on retrieving the lost carts or, more often, paying someone to retrieve them. Jim Oliver's service, for example, is 12 years old, and its 22 trucks collect up to 200 carts a day per store, although the average is three batches a week of about 15 carts each.

There have also been some more organized efforts. California grocers supported a 1982 shopping cart law, which made it a misdemeanor to remove shopping carts from a lot and was accompanied by a public campaign for more retrieval. Toll-free hot line numbers, for example, were printed on shopping cart seats so that anyone could report an abandoned cart. The Southern California line (800-252-4613) took 42,000 calls last year: 29,000 of them were pranks or cranks or incomplete information, but the rest resulted in retrieval of some 84,000 carts.

Stores also have individual preventive methods. Many have tried deposit systems--"the 25-cent solution," says Safeway's Brian Dowling in Oakland--charging shoppers a quarter, which is returned automatically when the empty cart clicks into a pen in the parking lot. Grocers say such systems are costly to install and maintain, however, and draw a lot of kids and transients onto the lots to cadge carts from customers. Besides, says Bill Wade, senior vice president of Alpha Beta stores based in La Habra, "charging people for a cart didn't fit in with giving customer service."

Some have tried barriers. At Giant Food stores around Washington, carts go directly from checkout to gated cart corrals, where attendants load the groceries directly into shoppers' cars, or into their arms if they're leaving on foot. Giant thus keeps a tight hand on its carts while winning points for customer service.

Others tried fences with openings too narrow for shopping carts, which, unfortunately, also were too narrow for wheelchairs. And some have tried sensor systems, which lock cart wheels when they cross perimeter wires, and a "fifth wheel system," which drops down another wheel when the cart crosses a perimeter bump and makes the cart go around in circles. But ways have been found either to deactivate such systems or to trigger them unexpectedly, giving stores potential liability "when the cart locks and the baby flies out," says Lee Lacy, director of shopping cart services for the Southern California Grocers Assn.

Thefts Remain Steady

Whatever the grocers have tried, thefts seem to have remained steady over the years, with occasional decreases during a public campaign. When California's law and industry hot lines were first introduced, the industry's $14-million annual losses were more than halved, but Beaver estimates they're up near $10 million again.

This is probably a problem that could be solved if grocers really wanted to solve it. What is insoluble is the industry's ambivalence, its wish to lose neither cart nor customer and certainly not the sale of all those goods being carted off.

In fact, they have every reason for ambivalence: Whatever losses they can't control because of theft, they can make up for in other ways. As they say, it all adds to the price of the goods.

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