Santa Fe, New Mexico paid a local contractor $47,000 to assemble nearly 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 pull away from their stores, emptying taxpayers’ coffers, causing problems and frustrating local authorities and retailers.
Abandoned shopping carts are a scourge for neighborhoods as unruly carts block intersections, sidewalks and bus stops. They take up handicapped spaces in parking lots and end up in creeks, ditches and parks. And they clog municipal drainage and waste systems and cause accidents.
There is no national data on lost shopping carts, but US retailers lose about tens of millions of dollars each year replacing lost and damaged carts, shopping cart experts say. They pay vendors to retrieve lost carts and pay fines to municipalities for violating shopping cart laws. They also lose sales if there aren’t enough carts for customers during peak shopping hours.
Last year, Walmart paid $23,000 in fines related to abandoned shopping carts for the small town of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, said Shawn McDonald, a member of the city’s Selection Board.
Dartmouth public servants spent two years corralling more than 100 Walmart carts across town and storing them in one of the town’s warehouses. 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 going down the hill. I had one that was left on the road while I was driving,” he said. “It got to the point where I was upset.”
More municipalities across the country are proposing laws to crack down on lost carts. They are imposing fines on retailers for abandoned carts and fees for recovery services, as well as orders that stores lock their carts or install systems to contain them. Some localities are also fining people who remove carts from stores.
The city council of Ogden, Utah, this month passed an ordinance fining people who take or are in possession of a shopping cart. The measure also authorizes the city to charge retailers a fee of $2 per day for storage and handling fees to recover lost carts.
“Abandoned shopping carts have become a growing nuisance on public and private properties across the city,” the council said in its summary of the bill. City officials “are spending considerable time picking up and returning or disposing of carts.”
Matthew Dodson, president of Retail Marketing Services, which provides cart recovery, maintenance and other services to major retailers in several western states, said lost shopping carts were a growing problem.
During the busy 2022 holiday season, Retail Marketing Service leased extra carts to retailers and recovered 91% of their approximately 2,000 carts, down from 96% a year earlier.
Dodson and others in the shopping cart industry say the increase in lost carts can be attributed to a number of factors, including homeless people using them to store belongings or for shelter. Homelessness has increased in many large cities due to skyrocketing housing prices, a lack of affordable housing, and other factors. There have also been incidents of people robbing scrap metal carts.
Some people, especially in cities, also use shopping carts to bring their groceries home. Other carts move away from parking lots if not locked during bad weather or at night.
Of course, the problem of rebellious shopping carts is not new. They started rolling out of stores soon after they were released in the late 1930’s.
“A new threat is threatening the safety of drivers in stores,” warned the New York Times in a 1962 article. Another New York Times article in 1957 called the trend “Cart-Napping”.
There’s even a book, “The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification,” dedicated to the phenomenon and an identification system for lost shopping carts, much like guides to birding.
Edward Tenner, a distinguished scholar at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, said the misuse of everyday items such as shopping carts is an example of “deviant ingenuity”.
It’s similar to talapia fishermen in Malaysia who stole pay phones in the 1990s and connected the receivers to powerful batteries that emitted a sound to attract fish, he said.
Tenner hypothesized that people pick up shopping carts from stores because they are extremely versatile and not available anywhere else: “There really is no legitimate way for an individual to buy a supermarket shopping cart.”
Supermarkets can have 200 to 300 shopping carts per store, while the big chains carry up to 800. Depending on the size and model, carts cost up to $250, said Alex Poulos, director of sales for RW Rogers Company, which supplies carts and other equipment for stores.
Stores and cart manufacturers over the years have increased the size of carts to encourage shoppers to buy more items.
Stores have introduced various 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 wheel locks.)
Gatekeeper Systems, which provides shopping cart control measures for the nation’s largest retailers, said demand for its “SmartWheel” radio-frequency door locks has increased during the pandemic.
In four stores, Wegmans is using Gatekeeper wheel locks.
“The cost of replacing carts, as well as the cost of locating and returning lost carts to the store, drove our decision to implement the technology,” said a Wegmans spokesperson.
Aldi, the German supermarket chain expanding rapidly in the United States, is one of the few US retailers to require customers to deposit a quarter to open a cart.
Coin-lock shopping cart systems are popular in Europe, and Poulos said more US companies are ordering coin-lock systems in response to the costs of out-of-control shopping carts.