Security rolls in, carts don't roll off

Stores: Electronic containment systems help keep shopping carts from getting beyond the parking lot.

May 13, 2002|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Sylvia Kiwakowski has noticed something different about her neighborhood: no more abandoned shopping carts.

"You used to see the kids taking them and using them for everything," the 72-year-old Canton resident said after shopping at the Safeway on Boston Street last week. "I don't see them around anymore."

Thanks to electronic technology, Safeway Inc. and other retailers are doing a better job of keeping shopping carts in their parking lots. But it isn't just about alleviating a common neighborhood eyesore - it's also about protecting an investment. One shopping cart costs $80 to $125, and supermarkets typically keep around 200 at a store.

By some industry estimates, cart losses hit retailers worldwide with several hundred million dollars in losses every year in replacement costs or from having to send employees out to round up carts.

The Canton Safeway sent employees to neighborhoods to fetch carts before it installed a containment system that acts as an electronic fence for carts. The grocer also installed the system at other city stores and at Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard County stores, a spokesman said. About 20 Safeway stores in the mid-Atlantic region use them, he said.

It works like this: A base unit inside the store transmits a radio signal along a buried wire on the parking lot's perimeter. When a shopping cart crosses over the underground wire - denoted by a yellow line around the parking lot - a hard plastic shell slams down over a wheel and immobilizes the cart.

A handheld battery-powered device about the size of TV remote control sends a signal that frees the wheel.

Made by Carttronics LLC of San Diego, a system installed at an average supermarket costs $18,000 to $20,000, depending on the number of carts at a store and the size of the parking lot. The company has installed the system at 750 stores for 120 clients, ranging from supermarket chains to retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Home Depot Inc., Carttronics President Art Salyer said.

Cost savings are a big incentive to install the system, but maintaining good community relations is also high on the list, Salyer said.

The technology has also attracted international interest. One-fifth of Carttronics' business is in Europe, and the rest is in the United States and Canada, he said.

Retailers "don't like the image of an abandoned cart with their name on it," Salyer said.

Gatekeeper Systems LLC of Irvine, Calif., makes a similar system used by such companies as Kroger Co., the nation's No. 1 grocer, and discounter Target Corp. Its system ranges in price from $5,000 to $30,000.

The growth in retailers' use of such systems stems partly from communities getting tougher on the problem of abandoned shopping carts. Some have passed ordinances requiring retailers to keep their carts in their lots or face fines.

Before the Safeway store in Canton installed the Carttronics system, losing carts was a chronic problem, store manager Patti Hutchison said. By December 1996 - four months after the store opened - 100 of the store's 300 shopping carts were missing.

"I had to order another 100 carts just to get me through the holidays," Hutchison said.

Since the store installed the security system a year and a half ago, Hutchison said, she has had to replace around 50 carts, mostly because of wear and tear.

A sign at the entrance to the store explains the system to customers. And smaller signs on shopping carts say: "Caution: Cart will stop suddenly if taken beyond yellow line."

"When I leave at night, it always gives me this warm feeling to see these carts stopped at the yellow line," Hutchison said.

Giant Food Inc. is testing the Carttronics system at two Washington stores and two New Jersey stores, said spokesman Barry F. Scher. The Giant on Reisterstown Road had such a problem during the Preakness that it now keeps its carts indoors on that weekend "because a lot of kids will take them and use them to help unload attendees' cars" at Pimlico Race Course, Scher said.

Older people who walk to stores sometimes take carts intending to return them, but they end up being left in apartment complexes or neighborhoods, Scher said.

"We do have significant losses from shopping cart theft," said Scher. "The problem is everywhere, not just in urban areas."

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