In 2021 and 2022, Santa Fe, New Mexico paid a local contractor $47,000 to collect about 3,000 shopping carts citywide.
From May 2020 to October 2022, Fayetteville, NC spent $78,468 collecting carts.
Shopping carts keep leaving stores, draining taxpayer coffers and spelling disaster and frustration for local officials and retailers.
Abandoned carts are the scourge of communities as wayward carts clog intersections, sidewalks and bus stops. They occupy snag points in parking lots and end up in creeks, ditches and parks. They can also clog municipal drainage and waste disposal systems and cause accidents.
Shopping cart experts say there is no national data on shopping cart losses, but U.S. retailers lose an estimated tens of millions of dollars each year replacing lost and damaged shopping carts. They pay vendors to save stray trolleys and issue fines to municipalities that break shopping cart laws. They also miss out on sales if there are not enough carts for customers during peak shopping periods.
Last year, Walmart paid the town of Dartmouth, Mass., $23,000 in fines related to abandoned shopping carts, said Sean McDonald, a member of the town’s selection committee.
It took Dartmouth public workers two years to round up the more than 100 Walmart carts scattered around town and place them in a storage facility in the city. When Walmart applied for a new building permit, the company was told it would have to pay the town thousands of dollars in day-to-day storage fees, MacDonald said.
“It’s a safety issue with these trolleys tipping down the hill. I had one that I left on the road while I was driving,” he said. “I’m getting mad.”
A growing number of cities across the country are proposing legislation to crack down on homeless cars. They fine retailers who abandon carts, charge for take-back services, and require stores to lock carts or install systems to contain them. Some places also impose fines on people who remove trolleys from stores.
The Ogden, Utah, city council approved an ordinance this month imposing fines on anyone who takes or owns a van. The measure also authorizes the city to charge retailers a $2 per day fee for storage and retrieval of lost carts.
“Abandoned shopping carts have become an increasing nuisance on public and private property across the city,” the council said in a summary of its bill. City officials “spend a significant amount of time retrieving or disposing of carts.”
Lost shopping carts are a growing problem, said Matthew Dodson, president of Retail Marketing Services, which provides cart retrieval, maintenance and other services to leading retailers in several western states.
The Retail Marketing Service leased extra shopping carts from retailers during the busy 2022 holiday season and took back 91% of its roughly 2,000 carts, down from 96% last year.
Dodson and others in the shopping cart industry say the increase in lost shopping carts can be attributed to a variety of factors, including homeless people using them to store their belongings or as a shelter. The number of homeless people has been rising in many large cities due to factors such as skyrocketing housing prices and a lack of affordable housing. There have also been incidents of people stealing wheelbarrows for scrap metal.
Some people, especially those in cities, also use supermarket trolleys to bring groceries home from the store. Other trolleys leave the parking lot if they are not locked in bad weather or at night.
To be sure, wayward shopping cart problems are nothing new. They started leaving stores shortly after their introduction in the late 1930’s.
“A new threat is threatening 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 from 1957 called the trend For “Cart-Napping”.
There’s even a book, “Wandering Carts of Eastern North America: A Field Identification Guide,” devoted to the phenomenon and identification system of stray carts, much like a birding guide.
Edward Tenner, a distinguished scholar at the Smithsonian’s Lemerson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, said the misuse of everyday objects such as shopping carts is an example of “irrational ingenuity.”
He said it was similar to Tarapia fishermen in Malaysia who stole payphones in the 1990s and hooked up receivers to powerful batteries that made sounds to lure fish.
Tenner hypothesizes that people buy shopping carts from stores because they are versatile and unavailable elsewhere: “There really is no legal way for individuals to buy supermarket-grade shopping carts.”
Supermarkets can have 200 to 300 shopping carts per store, while large chains can carry up to 800. Depending on size and model, carts can cost as much as $250, said Alex Poulos, director of sales at RW Rogers Company, which supplies carts and other equipment to stores.
Over the years, stores and cart manufacturers have increased cart sizes to encourage shoppers to buy more.
Over the years, stores have introduced several trolley security and anti-theft measures, such as trolley fences and, most recently, wheels that automatically lock the trolleys when they move too far from the store. (A widely circulated video on TikTok shows Target customers struggling to push wheelbarrows with lockable wheels.)
Gatekeeper Systems, which provides shopping cart controls to the country’s largest retailers, said demand for its “SmartWheel” radio frequency locks has increased during the pandemic.
Wegmans uses Gatekeeper’s wheel locks in four stores.
“The cost of replacing trolleys and the cost of locating lost trolleys and returning them to the store led to our decision to implement this technology,” a Wegmans spokesperson said.
Aldi, the rapidly expanding German grocery chain in the US, is one of the few US retailers to require customers to deposit 25 cents to unlock their shopping carts.
Coin-lock shopping cart systems are popular in Europe, and Poulos said more and more U.S. companies are asking for them in response to runaway cart costs.