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 continue to wander from their stores, draining taxpayers’ coffers, causing trouble and frustrating local officials and retailers.
Abandoned shopping carts are a scourge for neighborhoods as unpredictable shopping carts clog intersections, sidewalks and bus stops. They occupy handicapped spots in parking lots and end up in streams, 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 are estimated to lose tens of millions of dollars each year replacing lost and damaged shopping carts, shopping cart experts say. They pay vendors to rescue stray carts and pay fines to municipalities for violating shopping cart laws. They also miss out on sales when there aren’t enough shopping carts for customers during peak shopping hours.
Last year, Walmart paid the small town of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, $23,000 in fines related to abandoned shopping carts, said Shawn McDonald, a member of the city’s select board.
Dartmouth public employees spent two years corralling more than 100 Walmart carts scattered around the city and storing them in one of the city’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 when those carts are racing down the hill. I had one that broke down on the road while driving,” he said. “I got to the point where I got mad.”
More and more municipalities across the country are proposing laws to crack down on stray carts. They impose abandoned cart fines and take-back fees on retailers, as well as require shops to lock up their carts or install systems to contain them. Some places also fine people who remove carts from stores.
The Ogden, Utah City Council this month passed an ordinance imposing fines on people using or owning shopping carts. The measure also authorizes the city to charge retailers a $2 per day storage and handling fee to locate lost carts.
“Abandoned shopping carts have become a growing nuisance on public and private lands across the city,” the council said in its summary of the bill. City officials “spend a lot of time picking up and returning or disposing of the carts.”
Matthew Dodson, the president of Retail Marketing Services, which provides shopping cart pickup, maintenance and other services to leading retailers in several western states, said lost shopping carts are a growing problem.
During the busy 2022 holiday season, Retail Marketing Service leased 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 a shelter. Homelessness has increased in many major cities due to skyrocketing real estate 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 will drift away from parking lots if unlocked in inclement weather or at night.
The problem of unpredictable shopping carts is certainly not new. They began going out of business 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 1957 New York Times article called the trend “cart-napping.”
There is 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 shopping carts, similar to bird watching guides.
Edward Tenner, a distinguished scholar at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, said misusing everyday objects like shopping carts is an example of “deviant ingenuity.”
It’s similar to what happened in the 1990s, when talapia fishermen in Malaysia stole payphones and hooked up the receivers to powerful batteries that would emit a tone to attract fish, he said.
Tenner hypothesized that people take shopping carts out of stores because they are extremely versatile and not available anywhere else: “There really is no legitimate way for a person to buy a supermarket 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, shopping carts cost up to $250, said Alex Poulos, sales manager at RW Rogers Company, which stores shopping carts and supplies other equipment.
Stores and cart manufacturers have increased the size of carts over the years to encourage shoppers to purchase more items.
Stores have implemented several security and anti-theft measures for shopping carts over the years, such as: (Viral videos on TikTok show Target customers struggling to push carts around with wheel locks.)
Gatekeeper Systems, which provides shopping cart control measures for the country’s largest retailers, said demand for its “SmartWheel” radio frequency locks has increased during the pandemic.
Wegmans uses Gatekeeper wheel locks in four stores.
“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,” said a spokesman for Wegmans.
Aldi, the German grocery chain that’s rapidly expanding in the United States, 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 US companies are demanding coin-lock systems in response to the cost of runaway shopping carts.