- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Vince Burgher sees shopping carts from the Hyattsville Giant Food store he manages strewn just about everywhere: in yards, on apartment balconies and being pushed by maintenance workers who carry their tools in them.

He is seeing fewer of them in his store, however.

“I probably purchase, at a minimum, 100 carts a year at about 80 bucks a shot,” Mr. Burgher said. “For some stores, it’s worse.”

Shopping cart theft costs supermarkets nationwide an estimated $180 million a year, according to the Food Marketing Institute. It’s why the U.S. Census Bureau had designated February as “Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month.”

“I think it’s probably gotten worse in the last few years,” Mr. Burgher said.

Supermarkets usually don’t bother reporting thefts to police unless a large number of carts are stolen. Police say they receive few complaints.

“If we get them, they’re probably few and far between,” said Cpl. Diane Richardson, a Prince George’s County police spokeswoman.

Police agencies say they don’t keep statistics on cart thefts, which are lumped into the general category of larceny.

Some carts are equipped with security devices to stem the tide of thefts. A mechanism that acts as an invisible fence can cause the wheels to lock up once the cart crosses a designated perimeter.

But those systems are marginally successful at best, Mr. Burgher said.

“People physically pick the cart up and carry it over,” he said. “When I worked in Greenbelt, Safeway carts were ending up in my Giant store, so that didn’t stop them.”

Many people who take the carts don’t think they are stealing, said Craig Muckle, a spokesman for the eastern division of Safeway Inc. The carts often are “borrowed” by customers who live nearby and prefer to push the cart back home.

“It’s not done with the intent of stealing,” he said.

But the carts usually don’t get returned, Mr. Burgher said.

“We’ll get a call with someone saying, ‘I’ve got two carts in my yard’ and such, but usually when they’re gone, they’re gone,” he said.

Even if he could file theft charges against those who walk off with the carts, he probably wouldn’t do it in most cases.

“It’s not good customer relations,” he said.

Thefts also can create a problem for the communities where the carts end up. In the District, advisory neighborhood commissioners often call grocery stores to ask them to retrieve their carts, Mr. Muckle said.

“It’s an eyesore for people,” he said.

Supermarkets do make efforts to recoup some of their losses. Alonzo Griffin, manager of a Safeway store on Maryland Avenue in Northeast, sends out crews in a van to search for carts.

“We go out in the neighborhood and get them ourselves,” he said.

Store managers are always watching for new ideas to reduce the costs associated with cart theft, either by installing security devices or buying cheaper plastic carts. But Mr. Burgher has resigned himself to the fact that it’s just another cost that comes with the business.

“We’ve tried to come up with different solutions, but so far, we haven’t found anything that’s workable,” he said. “It’s just so hard to keep control over them.”

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