SHOPPING CART FACTS
• Sylvan Goldman, owner of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain in Oklahoma City, Okla., is credited with inventing the shopping cart in 1937.
• There’s an average of 200 to 250 shopping carts in each of the 100,000 grocery stores in the United States.
• U.S. retailers buy between 2 million and 3 million shopping carts annually.
• Shopping carts last four to six years in high-volume stores — longer if they’re kept inside, less time if they’re not maintained.
Source: Progressive Grocer magazine
Joy Williams is jealous of the shopping carts that Bi-Lo has at its East Ridge supermarket on Ringgold Road near Camp Jordan.
People have a hard time stealing the Bi-Lo carts, because they’re equipped with wheels that lock up once a cart gets pushed past a wire antenna buried in the parking lot. It’s the same concept as a buried “invisible fence” that triggers a dog’s shock collar.
Meanwhile, Williams, who manages the Family Dollar store next door to Bi-Lo, has seen her shopping cart supply dwindle.
“Ours don’t lock,” said Williams, who blames losses on people living nearby in a residential hotel and at a homeless encampment. “They steal ours all the time.”
Shoppers may take the humble shopping cart for granted.
But Bi-Lo is not the only retailer trying to thwart the theft of the sturdy workhorses that cost $100 to $200 to replace.
And local governments, fed up with stray carts abandoned near bus stops and dumped into creeks and rivers, are requiring retailers to control shopping-cart loss or face fines. Officials in Savannah, Ga., for example, recently considered plans to round up stray carts and hold them until retailers pay a fee.
“It’s enough of an issue that there’s probably 350 to 400 cities in the U.S. requiring retailers to use [cart-retention] systems,” said Karryn Lurock, spokeswoman for Gatekeeper Systems, an Irvine, Calif.-based company that began in 1998. Gatekeeper has sold about 2 million of its locking shopping-cart wheels worldwide, including to retail giants Walmart and Target.
“The top 20 retailers in the U.S. with shopping carts are all our customers,” Lurock said.
Bi-Lo uses Gatekeeper locking wheels at its store in St. Elmo. Bi-Lo also has carts with locking wheels made by another company at its stores in Rossville and in East Ridge near Camp Jordan. Bi-Lo spokeswoman Michelle Lisotto wouldn’t comment for this story.
Jessica Johnston, 21, who was putting her 3-year-old daughter, Kylee Carden, into a shopping cart seat Thursday at the Bi-Lo near Camp Jordan, was surprised to hear the cart’s wheels would lock if someone tried to take it.
“Wow. I had no idea,” she said. “I guess it’s a pretty good idea.”
Lurock said most customers don’t notice the carts are equipped with wheels that lock up. Once the mechanism is triggered, though, the wheel remains locked until a supermarket employee waves a wand to free the wheel up.
The average price for a supermarket to put one Gatekeeper locking wheel on each of its shopping carts is about $20,000, Lurock said. Small supermarkets may spend only $5,000, while the biggest stores can invest $50,000 on the locking wheel system.
Hundreds of thousands of shopping carts are stolen, lost or destroyed annually in North America, she estimates, costing retailers millions of dollars.
Some retailers opt for low-tech solutions.
One is an anti-theft pole that’s taller than the store’s door, said Phil Goodell, president of Good L. Corp, a shopping basket manufacturer in La Vergne, Tenn..
“It’s very effective,” said Goodell, who has spent 40 years selling shopping carts and baskets.
The downside is that shoppers can’t use pole carts to get to their cars. Some supermarkets get around this, Goodell said, by having shoppers transfer goods from nice, new carts inside the store to older, more-expendable carts in the parking lot.
The German-based Aldi supermarket chain requires customers to put a quarter into a lock to unchain a shopping cart. Customers get the quarter back when they return the cart. Aldi says it saves by not hiring employees to round up carts and it passes that savings on to customers.
“It doesn’t bother me a bit to save money,” said Helen Hill, who returned her cart after shopping Thursday at the Aldi at 5706 Lee Highway. “You get your quarter back, and everyone needs exercise.”
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at email@example.com or 423-757-6651.
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.