Hot wheels

When shopping carts leave the store parking lot, they end up the most unusual places


Herald Writer

Some days, Steve Mullen just knows they’re out there — waiting for him, at the corner, in an alley, at the bus stop.

When the store director gets that old, familiar itch, he hops into his two-tone, red 1968 Ford pickup, and like a steely-eyed bounty hunter, hits the road in search of his prey.

It’s a big game hunt. And the game is: Where are they hiding this week? The dozens of shopping carts abandoned along city streets.

Once a week, Mullen, a store director at Cost Cutter, is sent to retrieve shopping carts. It’s a critical part of his job; especially now, during the Christmas season when shoppers are abundant and carts are in short supply.

Mullen knows all the haunts: bus stops, alleys, dead-end streets,

"I just know a couple of kids are riding the hills with them," Mullen said.

But not all of them are recovered. Some disappear forever.

Nationwide, $100 million worth of shopping carts disappears every year, a loss that is passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices at the checkout stand.

Shopping carts aren’t cheap. The plastic kind cost $100 apiece. A 30-pound steel model costs anywhere from $200 to $300; while the lanky, shallow built "high boys" are a $400 investment, Oscar Lizotte said.

"It’s the greatest unreported theft in the United States," he said, pointing to a recent food industry report.

Lizotte’s company, Kart Saver Inc., a Sacramento firm, sells alarms designed to prevent cart theft.

Worldwide, more than $1.3 billion worth of carts disappears annually, more than twice the 1999 gross national product of Djibouti, Africa.

In Northern California, where the problem is epidemic, stores pay bounty hunters up to $2 for every cart returned.

The only bounty Mullen offers, however, is the occasional baker’s dozen.

"I work with an apartment group in south Everett, and if they have five or six carts, I’ll pick them up — and drop off a dozen donuts for their trouble."

Talk of rewards makes Mark Cornelson nervous.

"I would be afraid it might cause some people to wander off with them and bring them back so they could collect the money," said Cornelson, a supervisor at Everett Costco, which has 500 shopping carts.

Other local stores, including Safeway, Costco, QFC, Fred Meyer and Albertson’s, regularly send staff to retrieve carts.

But how they come to be parked crazily along the road or tossed drunkenly at a bus stop is still a mystery.

"We never see them disappear," said Everett Kmart manager Dave Blumenstein, who keeps track of more than 350 steel models.

That’s because knicking a shopping cart is an art, Steffanie Perez of Everett said.

Perez admitted to "borrowing" a cart a week ago, and afterwards to feeling no guilt.

"It’s only a cart," she explained.

The trick, Perez said, is to look purposeful — as if you’re taking it to a car.

For shoppers who don’t live on a bus route or don’t have a car, borrowing a cart is one way to avoid bad knees or back strain.

A cart is the only means by which Alta Reed of Everett can get her groceries home.

"I only take it as far as the bus stop," Reed said, as she wheeled her cart through the Fred Meyer parking lot.

It’s bad enough customers take carts without permission, Fred Meyer spokesman Rob Boley said.

Worse is the treatment the carts endure once they’re out on the road.

"When carts start going on long trips over rough sidewalks it reduces the life of the cart," Boley said.

Which explains why some carts never seem to roll right.

"If you’ve ever been irritated by a cart that doesn’t run as smooth as you would like, it’s a good bet it went on a long trip," he said.

Sometimes the trip ends at a chop shop. Minus its wheels, a shopping cart makes a great rabbit hutch or bird cage. And their rugged ball-bearing wheel assemblies are prized by scooter enthusiasts, go-cart aficianados and other do-it-yourselfers.

While stores hate to lose them, homeowners hate to see them roll through the neighborhood.

"I see carts littering the streets. I think it’s disgusting," Jim Rooney of Everett said. "Anyone that takes a cart off the parking lot should be charged with shoplifting."

Most store officials look the other way when someone "borrows" a cart.

"The attitude the supermarket has taken since the shopping cart was invented 77 years ago is that if a customer wants to borrow the cart, he can," Lizotte said.

But rising replacement costs and the advent of alarm systems have store executives rethinking their response.

The Kart Savers alarm system uses infrared transmitters placed at the entrance and exit of a supermarket. When an unwitting customer "borrows" a cart, pushing it farther than a pre-determined distance, an audible alarm goes off. The system then sends a signal that disables the left front wheel, locking it at a 17-degree angle.

"Once that wheel is locked, you can continue to push the cart, but it will only go in circles," Lizotte said.

Like killer bees, Kart Saver alarms are moving north. Stores in Sacramento were among the first to install the device; now a Fred Meyer store in Portland, Ore., is considering installing the system, which costs about $100 per shopping cart to install.

Why the fuss over wayward shopping carts?

They’re unsightly. They’re an eyesore, and they act as magnets for other litter and trash, said Zeno Oh, manager of Everett’s Topper Motel. Oh regularly deals with dozens of carts stashed near his business.

Cities with clusters of apartment buildings tend to be plagued by shopping carts, said Bud Wessman, Everett’s director of code compliance.

"We have pockets of problems," Wessman said.

Lynnwood’s maintenance manager, Larry Benfield, said the city is free of carts, except for the Fred Meyer near 196th Street SW and the 175th Street QFC.

"They both have a pretty strong pick up program," Benfield added.

Stray carts make their way into some "pretty bizarre places," said Mike See, who surveys stream habitat for Adopt-A-Stream.

"The urban streams are littered with shopping carts," See said.

While carts may not directly harm the environment, they compromise a stream’s aesthetics, See said. "When people see a shopping cart in a stream it affects how they think of a stream — negatively."

Every week, hundreds of carts are plucked from local streets, Mullen said. But not all the carts find their way home. Nationwide, more than 300,000 disappear every year.

"People take a cart one day, don’t bring it back, and then come in the next day and take another one," he said.

"It’s not borrowing if they’re not returned."

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