Abandoned shopping carts cost taxpayers thousands of dollars

New York

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

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

Carts continue to wander away from their stores, emptying taxpayers’ coffers, causing damage and frustrating local officials and retailers.

Abandoned carts are a nuisance to neighborhoods, as wayward carts block intersections, sidewalks and bus stops. They occupy disabled spaces in car parks and end up in streams, ditches and parks. And they clog municipal sewage and waste systems and cause accidents.

There is no national data on cart losses, but U.S. retailers lose an estimated tens of millions of dollars each year replacing lost and damaged carts, cart experts say. They pay sellers to salvage carts and fine municipalities for breaking cart laws. They also miss out on sales if there are not enough trolleys for customers during the busiest shopping times.

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

Shopping carts on the loose.

Dartmouth public employees spent two years collecting more than 100 Walmart carts scattered around the city and placed 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.

“There is a safety issue with these carts going down the hill. I had one that got stuck in the road while I was driving, he said. “I got to the point where I freaked out.”

Several municipalities around the country are proposing laws that crack down on patrol vans. They impose fines on retailers for abandoned carts and fees for collection services, as well as mandates for stores to lock their carts or install systems to contain them. Some localities also fine people who remove trolleys from shops.

The Ogden, Utah, city council approved an ordinance this month that fines people who take shopping carts or are in possession of one. The measure also authorizes the city to charge dealers a $2 per day storage and handling fee to retrieve lost carts.

“Abandoned carts have become an increasing nuisance on public and private properties throughout the city,” the council said in its summary of the bill. City officials “spend significant amounts of time retrieving and returning or disposing of the carts.”

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

During the busy 2022 holiday season, Retail Marketing Service leased extra carts to retailers, and recovered 91% of its roughly 2,000 carts, down from 96% the year before.

Dodson and others in the cart industry say the increase in lost carts can be attributed to several factors, including people not being at home, using them to hold their belongings or as 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 wagons for scrap metal.

Some people, especially in cities, also use supermarket trolleys to bring their groceries home from the store. Other carts drift away from parking spaces if not locked in rough weather or at night.

To be sure, the problem of wayward carts is not new. They started leaving stores soon after they were introduced in the late 1930s.

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

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

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

It’s similar to talapia fishermen in Malaysia who stole payphones in the 1990s and attached the receivers to powerful batteries that emitted a sound to lure fish, he said.

Tenner hypothesized that people take shopping carts from stores because they are extremely versatile and not available elsewhere: “There’s really no legitimate way for a person to buy a supermarket-quality shopping cart.”

Supermarkets may have 200 to 300 shopping carts per store, while big-box chains have up to 800. Depending on the size and model, carts cost up to $250, said Alex Poulos, director of sales for the RW Rogers Company, which supplies carts and other equipment to stores.

Over the years, stores and cart manufacturers have increased the size of their carts to encourage shoppers to purchase more items.

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

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

At four stores, Wegmans uses Gatekeepers wheel locks.

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

Aldi, the fast-growing German grocery chain in the US, is one of the few US retailers that requires customers to deposit a quarter to unlock a shopping cart.

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

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