They appear in my neighborhood, abandoned on the sidewalk, miles away from the store whose name is printed on the handle. In the Jordan River, they rise like shipwrecks at low tide, exposed by low, late-summer flows of murky water. Where the down and out gather, you see them laden like packhorses with the essentials of street life. Whoever killed Debra Grabner in 1992 used one to move her body to a vacant South Temple lot, where she was covered with debris. Tennis teachers fill them with balls. An estimated 25,000 children were injured in them in 2005.
The shopping cart—beneath the notice of most of us until one sends a kid to the emergency room or dings our car in a parking lot—has a story to tell. It’s the kind of quirky story that the late 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney could have told well. He had a knack for finding insight in the ordinary.
The story begins in the late 1930s. A grocer in Oklahoma began to experiment with baskets, wheels and folding chairs. The subsequent patent for a “Folding Basket Carriage for Self-Service Stores” made him a wealthy man. Since then, the carts have evolved. They have become larger, as have stores and customers’ appetites, and many are now made of plastic in China. Modern carts nest in space-saving ranks orderly enough to make a drill sergeant smile. Toddlers are accommodated in rear-facing perches—equipped with seatbelts, of course—and kids at Home Depot can work the steering wheel of a plastic jalopy while Mom and Dad load hardware into a rooftop basket.
Underlying the evolution in cart design is—no surprise here!—the profit motive. Studies have shown a correlation between carts and sales: The bigger and better the cart, the more inclined customers are to fill it. However, shopping patterns have changed, too. “People used to shop once a week on Saturday,” says Frank Lundquist, vice president of store development for Harmons Grocery. “Now, they stop in four or five times a week.” The trend favors the smaller, double-decker carts, he says.
There are a couple of problems with shopping carts. Thousands of kids are injured every year when they fall out of a cart or a cart tips over. According to Dr. Gary Smith from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the majority of the injuries are to the head and neck of kids 5 years old and younger. Four percent of the accidents require hospitalization, and some injuries are fatal.
Lundquist says another problem with shopping carts is that “people steal them.” He estimates that a store loses between 25 and 50 carts a year to theft. Given that each cart costs about $125, the Harmons chain of 16 stores could lose upwards of $90,000 in a worst-case year. And that doesn’t include the many hand baskets that are also stolen, he says.
The problem is serious enough that Harmons is “pro-active rather than reactive” in addressing it, Lundquist says, adding that he is always looking around the country to get new ideas for safeguarding carts. The most promising one is an electronic system that operates like the invisible fence for dogs. When a cart crosses its underground cable, the wheels lock up. The electronic perimeter has been installed at Emigration Market, City Creek and two other Harmons stores. “We are in the testing phase,” Lundquist says, “but we like what we are seeing.” (They are also seeing a reduction in shoplifting, which Lundquist attributes to the high-tech system.) “In time, I think we will retrofit all our stores,” he says. He estimates the cost of installing a system at $30,000.
In the meantime, a Harmons employee patrols the neighborhoods around each store to find missing carts. Other stores pay Birrell Services, a company in Bluffdale, to pick up and return their pilfered carts. A call to the shopping-cart hotline on the Salt Lake City government website (801-446-7984) results in retrieval by Birrell employees, who criss-cross the valley every night. According to Birrell Services accountant Cindy McMullin, there are enough calls every day to keep a full-time crew busy.
I wish I could channel Andy Rooney to conclude this urban story cleverly. I do think that the carts are not so much stolen as they are borrowed in most cases, the sole purpose being to move purchases from store to door. That borrowers feel no obligation to return the carts is the nub of the problem. These people probably don’t consider themselves thieves, nor do they realize that by taking a cart on a one-way trip they impose a retrieval cost on the store that owns it and an irritant on their neighbors.
Here is what Rooney might say: “These are probably the same people who toss beer cans in the gutter because they had mothers who always cleaned up after them.” When it comes to dumping carts in the Jordan River, I envisage him looking directly into the camera and asking, “Why would you want to do that?”