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Stores and shopping carts: Don’t punish the victims

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Sep. 27, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
September 27, 2011 5:13 pm

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

A Tacoma City Council member’s proposal to rein in wayward shopping carts strikes some as a solution in search of a problem. But in parts of the city, abandoned carts are a problem, adding blight to neighborhoods people are working hard to turn around.

Pay attention the next time you drive around and you’ll spot them: abandoned at bus stops, by the side of the road, in ditches. Some were left by nondriving shoppers who needed a way to transport their purchases home or to a bus stop. Others were used by homeless people to lug their belongings. Still others may have been taken by kids just for the heck of it.

Councilman Ryan Mello, responding to concerns from the Central Neighborhood Council, wants to create incentives for store owners to take more responsibility for their carts, preferably with electronic systems that prevent carts from working if they leave the store property.

Under his proposal, the city would contract with a private vendor who would collect abandoned carts upon being called. Businesses would have to pay a fee of $25 to $100 for the cart’s return. With those kinds of costs, the thinking goes, they’d be motivated to use an electronic theft-prevention system.

Because nonprofits like Goodwill, stores with fewer than 36 carts and stores that employ electronic theft-prevention systems would be exempt, Mello’s proposal would affect only about half of the city’s businesses that provide carts to customers.

Store owners argue that the proposal would penalize them for being the victims of theft. They have a good point. But in neighborhoods where abandoned carts have become a problem, stores should do more to make it harder for them to be taken – or more attractive to return them.

One idea is a cart rental system, like the kind commonly used at airports for baggage carts. Customers would insert a quarter, say, and a cart would be released. Upon return, the customer would get the quarter back.

The discount grocer, ALDI, has long used such a system at its more than 1,000 stores in 31 states. According to its website, “This system cuts down on the labor of collecting carts left in the parking lot, damage to cars and we pass the savings on to (customers).”

Presumably, people sometimes still make off with ALDI carts, if they’re willing to forfeit their deposit. But it probably does reduce theft, and neighborhood children can earn money by returning wayward carts to the store.

The Central Neighborhood Council’s concerns are valid ones, and stores need to do more to prevent cart theft. But slapping them with high costs and fines could have unintended consequences: Stores might pass those costs along to customers in steeper prices or decide not to do business in lower-income neighborhoods. No one wants to see either happen.

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