Abandoned shopping carts cost taxpayers thousands of dollars

New York

Santa Fe, New Mexico, paid a local contractor $47,000 to collect about 3,000 shopping carts around the city in 2021 and 2022.

Fayetteville, North Carolina spent $78,468 collecting carts from May 2020 to October 2022.

Shopping carts continue to run away from their stores, depleting taxpayers’ coffers, causing a plague and frustrating local officials and shopkeepers.

Abandoned shopping carts plague neighborhoods as wayward carts block intersections, sidewalks and bus stops. They occupy disabled spaces in parking lots and end up in streams, ditches and parks. And they clog municipal drainage and waste systems, causing accidents.

There is no national data on shopping cart losses, but U.S. retailers are estimated to lose tens of millions of dollars each year replacing lost and damaged shopping carts, shopping cart experts say. They pay vendors to rescue stray carts and pay municipalities fines for violating shopping cart laws. They also lose out on sales if there aren’t enough carts for customers during peak hours.

Last year, Walmart paid $23,000 in fines related to abandoned shopping carts to the small town of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, said Shawn McDonald, a member of the city’s Select Board.

Shopping carts loose.

Dartmouth officials spent two years collecting more than 100 Walmart carts scattered around the city and housed them in one of the city’s storage facilities. When Walmart applied for a new building permit, the company was told it would have to pay the city thousands of dollars in daily storage fees, McDonald said.

“It’s a safety issue with these carts whizzing down the hill. I had one left on the road while I was driving,” he said. “I got to the point where I got angry.”

More municipalities across the country are proposing laws to curb stray carts. They impose fines on retailers for abandoned carts and pick-up fees, as well as mandates for stores to lock their carts or install systems to contain them. Some places also fine people who remove carts from stores.

The city council in Ogden, Utah, passed an ordinance this month that would penalize people who take or possess shopping carts. The measure also authorizes the city to charge retailers a $2 per day storage and handling fee to recover lost carts.

“Abandoned shopping carts are an increasing nuisance on public and private property throughout the city,” the council said in the bill’s executive summary. City officials “spend a lot of time picking up and returning or disposing of the carts.”

Matthew Dodson, the president of Retail Marketing Services, which provides shopping cart retrieval, maintenance and other services to leading retailers in several Western states, said lost shopping carts are a growing problem.

During the busy 2022 holiday season, Retail Marketing Service leased additional carts to retailers and recovered 91% of the approximately 2,000 carts, up from 96% last year.

Dodson and others in the shopping cart industry say the increase in misplaced carts can be attributed to several factors, including people without homes using them to store their belongings or for shelter. Homelessness has increased in many major cities due to skyrocketing house prices, lack of affordable housing and other factors. There have also been incidents of people stealing carts for scrap metal.

Some people, especially in cities, also use supermarket carts to carry their groceries home from the store. Other carts drift away from parking lots if left unlocked in bad weather or at night.

Of course, the problem of wayward shopping carts is not new. They began to leave stores soon after they were introduced in the late 1930s.

“A new threat threatens the safety of motorists in stores,” the New York Times warned in a 1962 article. “It’s the shopping cart.” Another 1957 New York Times article called the trend “Cart-Napping.”

There’s even a book, “The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification,” devoted to the phenomenon and an identification system for stray shopping carts similar to bird watching guides.

Edward Tenner, a leading scholar at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, said the misuse of everyday objects like shopping carts is an example of “deviant ingenuity.”

It’s similar to talapia fishermen in Malaysia stealing phone boxes in the 1990s and attaching the receivers to powerful batteries that emit a sound to lure fish, he said.

Tenner hypothesized that people get shopping carts from stores because they’re extremely versatile and not available anywhere else: “There’s really no legitimate way for an individual to purchase a supermarket-quality shopping cart.”

Supermarkets can have 200 to 300 shopping carts per store, while large retail chains can carry up to 800. Depending on the size and model, carts cost up to $250, says Alex Poulos, a sales director at RW Rogers Company, which supplies carts and other equipment to stores.

Stores and wheelwrights have increased the size of the carts over the years to encourage shoppers to buy more items.

Stores have introduced a variety of safety and theft prevention measures over the years, such as carts and, more recently, wheels that automatically lock if a cart strays too far from the store. (Viral videos on TikTok show Target customers struggling to push carts with wheel locks around.)

Gatekeeper Systems, which provides shopping cart controls for the nation’s largest retailers, said demand for its “SmartWheel” radio frequency locks has increased during the pandemic.

Wegmans uses Poortwachter wheel locks at four stores.

“The cost of replacing carts and the cost of locating and returning missing carts to the store led to our decision to implement the technology,” said a Wegmans spokesperson.

Aldi, the German supermarket chain that is growing rapidly in the United States, is one of the few US retailers that requires customers to deposit a quarter to unlock a cart.

Coin-operated shopping cart systems are popular in Europe, and Poulos said more U.S. companies are asking for coin-operated shopping cart systems in response to the cost of runaway shopping carts.

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