Santa Fe, New Mexico, paid a local contractor $47,000 to bring about 3,000 shopping carts to town in 2021 and 2022.
Fayetteville, North Carolina spent $78,468 collecting carts from May 2020 through October 2022.
Shopping carts continue to drive away from their stores, emptying taxpayers’ coffers, causing havoc and frustrating local authorities and retailers.
Abandoned shopping carts are a blight on neighborhoods, as misplaced shopping carts block intersections, sidewalks and bus stops. They occupy handicap spots in parking lots and are found in streams, ditches and parks. And they clog municipal drainage and waste disposal systems and cause accidents.
There’s no national data on shopping cart losses, but US retailers lose an estimated tens of millions of dollars each year replacing lost and damaged carts, according to shopping cart experts. They pay vendors to rescue errant carts and fine municipalities for violating shopping cart laws. They also miss sales if there aren’t enough carts for customers during peak hours.
Last year, Walmart paid $23,000 in fines tied to abandoned shopping carts in the small town of Dartmouth, Mass., said Shawn McDonald, a member of the town’s Select Board.
Dartmouth officials spent two years rounding up more than 100 Walmart carts scattered around town and housing them in one of the town’s warehouses. When Walmart applied for a new building permit, the company was told it had to pay the city thousands of dollars in daily storage fees, McDonald said.
“It’s a safety issue with these carts going downhill. I had one that stayed on the road while I was driving,” he said. “I got to the point where I got pissed off.”
More and more municipalities across the country are coming up with laws cracking down on errant carts. They are imposing fines on retailers for abandoned carts and fees for recovery services, as well as mandates for stores to lock their carts or install systems to contain them. Some localities also issue fines to people who remove carts from stores.
The Ogden, Utah City Council this month approved an ordinance imposing fines on people who take or own shopping carts. The measure also authorizes the City to charge retailers a $2 per day fee for storage and handling costs to retrieve lost carts.
“Abandoned shopping carts have become an increasing nuisance on public and private property in the city,” the council said in its summary of the bill. City officials “spend a considerable amount of time picking up and returning or disposing of carts.”
Matthew Dodson, president of Retail Marketing Services, which provides recovery, maintenance and other services to major retailers in several western states, said lost carts are a growing problem.
During the busy 2022 holiday season, Retail Marketing Service rented additional carts to retailers and recovered 91% of its approximately 2,000 carts, up from 96% the previous year.
Dodson and others in the shopping cart industry say the rise in lost shopping carts can be attributed to several factors, including homeless people using them to store their belongings or as shelter. Homelessness has increased in many major cities due to soaring housing prices, lack of affordable housing and other factors. There have also been incidents of people stealing scrap carts.
Some people, especially in cities, also use shopping trolleys to bring groceries home from the store. Other carts pull away from parking lots if not locked up in bad weather or at night.
Certainly, the problem of capricious baskets is not new. They began to leave stores soon after their introduction 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 New York Times article in 1957 called the “Cart-Napping” trend.
There’s even a book, “The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification,” devoted to the phenomenon and a system for identifying stray carts, much like birding guides.
Edward Tenner, a distinguished emeritus from 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 sounds like the talapia fishermen in Malaysia who stole public phones in the 1990s and attached the receivers to powerful batteries that emitted sound to attract fish, he said.
Tenner speculated that people take trolleys to stores because they are extremely versatile and not available elsewhere: “There really is no legitimate way for an individual to purchase a supermarket trolley. ”
Supermarkets can have 200 to 300 carts per store, while big-box chains carry up to 800. Depending on size and model, carts cost up to $250, said Alex Poulos, sales manager at RW Rogers Company, which supplies carts and other equipment to stores.
Over the years, stores and cart manufacturers have increased the size of carts to encourage shoppers to purchase more items.
Stores have introduced several cart security and theft prevention measures over the years, such as cart corrals 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 roller 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.
In four stores, Wegmans uses Gatekeeper locks.
“The cost of replacing carts as well as the cost of locating and returning missing carts to the store drove our decision to implement the technology,” a Wegmans spokesperson said.
Aldi, the rapidly growing German grocery chain in the United States, is one of the few American retailers to require customers to deposit a quarter to unlock a cart.
Coin-operated shopping cart systems are popular in Europe, and Poulos said more U.S. businesses are asking for coin-operated locking systems in response to runaway shopping cart costs.