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Cities Are Forcing Stores to Rein In Grocery Carts

Times Staff Writer

A growing number of cities that have struggled for years to keep shopping carts out of neighborhoods are forcing retailers to solve the problem.

Cities that have spent thousands of dollars a month to impound carts -- some charging stores as much as $15 per cart to get them back -- say old methods aren’t working. As stray carts pile up, so are city ordinances across Southern California requiring stores to install security systems or collect the carts themselves.

“We don’t care how they keep their carts on the property,” said Niki Tennant, chief of staff for Long Beach council member Bonnie Lowenthal, whose city will consider an ordinance Tuesday. “They can use poles. They can use an electronic system. They can keep the owner’s grandson on a lawn chair in the parking lot. We just want them to keep the carts on their property.”

And an awful lot of them are straying. Hernandez Cart Service, which serves about 300 stores and 10 cities in Los Angeles and Orange counties, collects nearly 1.8 million carts a year, worth about $270 million new, said firm owner Rick Hernandez.

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“Business was quiet, and then in the mid-'90s it started developing into quite a problem,” Hernandez said. “Now, it’s just out of hand.”

Todd Hultquist, a spokesman for the Food Marketing Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based organization representing 1,500 grocers nationwide, said similar cart ordinances were being passed across the nation.

Glendale, in 1988, was one of the pioneers in California of charging retailers to get their carts back. Last May, the city became one of the first in the state to enact a stricter “cart containment” law that requires stores to ensure carts remain on their property.

Since then, the two Jons Marketplaces in the city have banned customers from taking carts into the parking lot. Instead, baggers are available to carry out groceries in bigger, takeout carts.

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The two Albertsons stores in Glendale installed a security system that causes carts to spin in circles when taken out of the parking lot. Other retailers have installed systems that lock a cart’s wheels when pushed out of the lot.

Santa Ana is exploring an ordinance similar to that of Glendale and Long Beach. The ordinance “may be our last shot” at fixing the problem, said Bruce Dunams, Santa Ana’s community preservation manager.

Buena Park and Anaheim have taken another tack, leaving it to retailers to collect their carts and fining them as much as $1,000 when they don’t.

In Anaheim, which adopted its ordinance in January, Hernandez Cart Service collected 35,000 stray carts last year, said Bill Sell, Anaheim’s community preservation manager. The city paid Hernandez $48,000 annually to corral carts.

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In Los Angeles, which is considering a cart ordinance, maintenance workers since January have been impounding carts found sitting in public areas for at least 24 hours. For the next four months, stores can get the carts back free of charge.

“In other cities, the stores found it a better way of doing business just to order new carts than to take the ones that were impounded, particularly if there was a fee,” said Gary Harris, chief investigator for the city’s Bureau of Street Services.

In four months, Harris said, the bureau will determine whether the system is effective or if an ordinance is required.

The California Grocers Assn. opposes the new ordinances.

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“We feel it’s an issue that can be addressed internally,” said Jennifer Forkish, the group’s director of government relations. “We always prefer to self-regulate.”

Some stores in cities without cart ordinances have already installed security systems on their carts. Whole Foods Market in Santa Monica has a system that causes the wheels on its carts to lock when pushed over a yellow line just outside the store.

Kat Sullivan, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods, said the company is was working on installing cart-locking systems at all of its stores.

“We want to be good neighbors,” Sullivan said. “We don’t want carts strewn about the neighborhood.”

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Officials say the strays are mostly the result of families without cars who push carts home or to bus stops and abandon them on sidewalks. It’s illegal to take carts from a store’s property, but the law is rarely enforced.

Lourdes Gonzalez, 28, was on her way out of Northgate Market in Anaheim recently, pushing a shopping cart so stuffed with groceries that it threatened to topple. Gonzalez said she shopped at the market every two weeks, pushing a cart home each time and leaving it outside for someone else to pick up.

“If they don’t let me take a cart anymore, I don’t know what I’ll do,” said Gonzalez. “I guess I won’t be buying from them.”


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