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Wheels Of Fortune

[whitespace] short picture description Pushed to the Limit: Shopping cart theft is the latest cause célèbre for grocery store managers, who say they lose $8,000 to $10,000 per year in missing carts.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

While grocery stores across the valley employ stealthy technology to keep shopping carts from rolling away, a young cart repo-man tries the gentle approach

By Kelly Wilkinson

Chano Mendoca is an empathizer. As manager of F&J Cart Services in San Jose, the 26-year-old is in the business of collecting abandoned grocery carts with a fleet of Chevy trucks. It's a job, he says, that requires him to understand the positions of several disparate constituencies: grocery stores, the police and the cart thieves.

Grocery store clerks, for example, are instructed not to confront suspected cart thieves, lest they risk losing a customer. The police, often, have better things to do.

Then there are the cart thieves themselves. Often homeless and carrying their possessions in a cart, they are surprisingly willing to listen when Mendoca explains why he has to take the cart back.

"Normally they give it back right away," he says. "If they don't, I explain to them how much they cost. We have a high success rate with confronting the homeless directly."

Mendoca's seen the carts--which cost between $75 and $100--used as barbecue pits, go-carts, laundry trolleys and shelters.

"They wind up mostly in apartment complexes, low-income housing and bus stops," he says. Or anywhere else where the person doing the grocery shopping is unlikely to own a car.

For Robin Webb, manager of the Safeway on Wolfe and Old San Francisco roads in Sunnyvale, the carts represent an $8,000 to $10,000 cut into his profits each year. But Webb is one of a growing number of grocery store managers employing new technology to keep carts from rolling away.

Smart Carts

IN APRIL, Webb's Safeway installed a front-wheel clamping system that activates when a cart is wheeled over a yellow spray-painted line. Webb figures since he's been manager, he's lost 50 to 100 carts every six months due to theft. Since Webb installed CAPS (Cart Anti-Theft Protection System) on 150 of his 200-cart stock, not one of the protected carts has disappeared. Of the 50 unprotected carts, 35 have been stolen.

And Webb isn't alone in his cart frustrations.

Mike Deubert, manager of Pak'n Save Foods on Capital Expressway in San Jose, says their cart thefts are enough to necessitate both a locking system in the parking lot and the use of a retrieval service paid to drive through the city on the prowl for abandoned carts.

"The system kind of curtails [the thefts], but it's still quite a problem and has been for a couple years now."

According to the Food Marketing Institute in Washington, D.C., annual losses total more than $800 million globally and $15 million in California. San Francisco, incidentally, loses more carts to theft than any other city. The infamous Marina District Safeway loses more carts than any other Safeway in the nation.

In response to those statistics, John French, a creative San Diego businessman, spent more than two years developing the CAP system that Webb and well over 100 other grocery stores around the country now employ.

"We learned that this was a huge problem and about all the money associated with it," French said. "So we nosed around and determined there wasn't a good solution."

In theory, the system French developed is similar to the electric fences that give dogs' necks a yank when they cross an underground boundary. It's composed of a 1-inch wire loop running under the perimeter of the parking lot that connects to a low-power antenna. If the cart strays over the bright boundaries painted on the property, a signal prompts a boot to lock over the wheel, thus preventing it from rolling any further. French said the debilitated carts need an electric zap from store personnel to deactivate the clamp and return it to stock.

California Cartin'

WITH THIS INVENTION, an entire cottage industry now may be disrupted, says Debra Lambert, corporate director of public affairs for the Pleasanton-based Safeway chain.

"This is something that tends to be a phenomenon in California," she says. "It floors people that it's such a problem here."

Lambert says Safeway and other retailers that provide carts for their customers often turn to retrieval services to round up strays. "The retrieval services are a necessity," she says. "But unfortunately, on their own, they're not improving the situation."

According to Lambert, the retrieval companies make their money by honing in on where grocery carts are usually dumped, collecting them in vans and returning them to their home bases. She says stores employ their services as often as their needs require.

But this measure, which is reactive instead of proactive, can become quite costly and does nothing to deter cart hoarders.

And not all cart repo-men have as strong a sense of morality as Mendoca. Webb says his store's security cameras caught one of the retrieval services picking up carts on the store's property and then bringing them back as strays at the end of the day.

"I'm sure that's the exception to the rule," Lambert said. "For the most part, they're very helpful and honest."

Other industry-tested solutions include a laser-triggered locking device, a fifth-wheel system that, to the consternation of law-abiding shoppers, sometimes engages unexpectedly in the grocery store aisles. But according to Webb, the various stabs at solutions have largely been ineffective, awkward or clunky.

Webb says he and other grocers have also tried a quarter loan fee for the carts, whereby shoppers insert a quarter into the cart bay and get reimbursed when the cart is returned. But Webb said it failed because of inconvenience.

"How many times do you always have a quarter on you when you go shopping?" he asks.

Lambert says that in her experience, cart theft transcends social status.

"A lot of the perception is that it's an economic issue or connected to homeless," she said. "But that's a very minor part."

The only commonality she points to is the location of stores. Ones in dense areas where most shoppers need to walk or where parking is tight tend to be the stores hardest hit.

Cartesian Dilemma

SUE JOHNSON, a member of a neighborhood association that includes 500 homes, lives in a corner house a 10- to 15-minute walk from the Lucky's on Maude and Mathilda in Sunnyvale in what she describes as a middle-class neighborhood.

"I take pride in my home and my neighborhood, and I just don't like seeing [the carts]," she says.

Johnson said her association has been working with a police officer to try and curb the problem. She remains in contact with the Lucky's management, but so far, because of what she called Lucky's refusal to cooperate, she boycotts the chain.

Representatives from Lucky stores refused to comment on Johnson's concerns.

Johnson tells of the bright green-and-red carts sitting on her corner for weeks. She says kids use them to play on and teenagers will pile into the baskets and take them for joy rides, racing down the street on often-wobbly wheels.

So far, she says, members of her association have requested that the store increase its retrieval rounds and have suggested the store purchase various disabling mechanisms.

Now she says people in her neighborhood have decided to directly confront the suspected carts thieves and report them to an officer. Grocery cart theft is a misdemeanor, but Sunnyvale code enforcement officer Doug Spinelli says the legislation is cumbersome and seldom enforced.

San Jose has no specific legislation addressing grocery cart theft.

"We don't have any individual ordinance that I'm aware of, but I would imagine the district attorney would prosecute theft as theft," says San Jose City Attorney Joan Gallo.


FOR HER PART, Johnson doesn't look forward to taking matters into her own hands. "It will definitely be awkward because I'm sure people will want to know who's squealing on them," she says.

Cupertino Councilman Wally Dean took a similar broad aim in calling the abandoned grocery carts "a blight on the city" and asking for aggressive city legislation.

"If you look at the bus stops, the streets and the sidewalks, it looks like a refuge," he said.

Dean says that the way state law is written, grocery stores and other retailers have 36 hours to respond to the notification of a hot cart outside their property limits.

"You can't go after the retailers, but we'd at least like to meet with them," he said, calling the situation a catch-22 because the retailers cannot be cited, which would leave enforcement of any potential legislation and all costs up to the city.

Dean said he unsuccessfully attempted to get the item on the City Council agenda six months ago, but said it failed because other councilmembers suggested it wasn't enough of a problem to act on.

"We've reached the point in time where the rubber needs to hit the road," he said, speaking of creating a violation specifically for cart criminals. "It's not theft, but it's the same thing. It's brutal."

Johnson also commended Nob Hill Foods' old-fashioned practice of providing baggers who then walk the groceries to the shopper's car. Nob Hill's corporate spokesperson Susan Kennedy said this service has kept levels of cart theft lower for its stores than other chains'.

"Typically, our courtesy clerks carry them out and then run back so there are no carts in the lot, which means there is no real recovery program," she said.

But for stores that provide a liberal amount of carts in a broad area, French said, the CAP system's success is owed to its transparency and lack of intrusion in the shopping experience.

But Lambert's praise of the new system is much more straightforward.

"Once it crosses that electric boundary, it just stops."

Could this be the undoing of a still-young cart-collecting career? Mendoca doesn't think so.

"There's always going to be a lot of gadgets," he says. "And there's always going to be a rat that gets out of the trap."

Michael Learmonth contributed to this report.

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From the June 3-9, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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