Santa Fe, New Mexico, paid a local contractor $47,000 to round up 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 keep wandering away from their stores, draining taxpayers’ coffers, causing blight and frustrating local officials and retailers.
Abandoned shopping carts are a scourge to neighborhoods, as wayward carts block intersections, sidewalks and bus stops. They occupy handicap spots in parking lots and wind up in creeks, ditches and parks. And they clog municipal drainage and waste systems and cause accidents.
There is no national data on shopping cart losses, but US retailers lose an estimated tens of millions of dollars every year replacing lost and damaged carts, say shopping cart experts. They pay vendors to rescue stray carts and fork over fines to municipalities for violating laws on shopping carts. They also miss out on 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 to the small town of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, said Shawn McDonald, a member of the town’s Select Board.
Dartmouth public workers spent two years corralling more than 100 Walmart carts scattered around town and housed them in one of the city’s storage facilities. When Walmart applied for a new building permit, the company was told it had to pay the town thousands of dollars in daily storage fees, McDonald said.
“It’s a safety issue with these carts careening down the hill. I had one that was left in the road as I was driving,” he said. “I got to the point where I got pissed.”
More municipalities around the country are proposing laws cracking down on stray carts. They are imposing fines on retailers for abandoned carts and fees for retrieval services, as well as mandates for stores to lock up their carts or install systems to contain them. Some localities are also fining people who remove carts from stores.
The city council in Ogden, Utah, this month approved an ordinance fining people who take store carts or are in possession of one. The measure also authorizes the city to charge retailers a fee of $2 a day for storage and handling fees to retrieve lost carts.
“Abandoned shopping 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 “are spending considerable amounts of time to pick up and return or dispose of the carts.”
Matthew Dodson, the president of Retail Marketing Services, which offers cart retrieval, maintenance and other services to leading retailers in several western states, said lost shopping carts is a growing problem.
During the busy 2022 holiday season, Retail Marketing Service leased extra carts to retailers, and got back 91% of its approximately 2,000 carts, down from 96% the previous year.
Dodson and others in the shopping cart industry say the rise in lost carts can be attributed to several factors, including unhoused people using them to hold their belongings or as shelter. Homelessness has been rising in many major cities due to skyrocketing housing 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 bring their groceries home from the store. Other carts drift away from parking lots if they aren’t locked up during rough weather or at night.
To be sure, the problem of wayward shopping carts is not new. They started leaving stores soon after they were introduced in the late 1930s.
“A new menace is threatening the safety of motorists in stores,” the New York Times warned in a 1962 article. “It is the shopping cart.” 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 a system of identification for stray shopping carts, much like guides for bird-watching.
Edward Tenner, a distinguished scholar in 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 stealing payphones in the 1990s and attaching 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 aren’t available elsewhere: “There’s really no legitimate way for an individual to buy a supermarket-grade shopping cart.”
Supermarkets can have 200 to 300 shopping carts per store, while big-box chains carry up to 800. Depending on the size and model, carts cost up to $250, said Alex Poulos, a sales director at RW Rogers Company, which supplies carts and other equipment to stores.
Stores and cart makers over the years have increased the size of carts to encourage shoppers to buy more items.
Stores have introduced several cart safety 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 around carts with wheeled locks.)
Gatekeeper Systems, which offers shopping cart control measures for the country’s largest retailers, said demand for its “SmartWheel” radio-frequency locks has increased during the pandemic.
At four stores, Wegmans is using Gatekeeper’s 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 German grocery chain that’s rapidly expanding in the United States, is one of the few US retailers to require customers to deposit a quarter to unlock a cart.
Coin-lock shopping cart systems are popular in Europe, and Poulos said more US companies are requesting coin-lock systems in response to the costs of runaway shopping carts.