Who Stole all the Grocery Shopping Carts?

A recent Washington Post Magazine article  described the pervasive disappearance of shopping carts as a “mystery.”  Yet that is no mystery.  The sundry knaves of hearts who steal the carts include the elderly, the poor, homemakers, and college students.   A more gruesome culprit, known as the “Shopping Cart Killer,” lured women to hotels, murdered them and loaded their bodies into shopping carts.

Some of the wandering carts end up polluting local waterways, including the Potomac and Patuxent Rivers.

Grocery carts were invented in 1936 and marketed for $7 each.  Today, 25 million carts are in use in the U.S.  The Food Industry Association estimated that a typical supermarket loses 12% of its carts every year.  It determined that over two million were stolen in 2020, at an annual cost of $800 million.  A Giant Food in Hyattsville reported needing to buy over 100 replacement carts in 2007 alone.  Merchants pass on these costs to consumers through higher prices.

Various consciousness-raising approaches have tried, in vain, to solicit community involvement.

Has anyone heard of Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month, an annual campaign, launched in February 1969 by a frustrated grocer in Chicago and later adopted by the Census Bureau?  An equally obscure project is the tongue-in-cheek Center for Prevention of Shopping Cart Abuse, which illustrates the problem with photos of a 33-foot Christmas tree made up of 86 carts.

the author of the Post Magazine article laments that we are “teetering on the edge of civilizational collapse.”  She writes that “on recent long walks with [her] dog, [she] counted eleven abandoned carts in [her] neighborhood.”  Yet she does not say whether she, herself, returned any to the store.

Legislative avenues have, likewise, failed to tackle the problem.

Maryland’s attempt to combat grocery cart theft is a law that classifies it as a misdemeanor with a $25 fine, but only if the cart is clearly marked with the store’s name and address and if notice of the fine is prominently displayed at each store exit.  This law, enacted in 1957, actually discourages enforcement.  A $25 fine in 1957 equals about $265 in purchasing power today, according to the Consumer Price Index.  Further, many stores seem unaware of this law and fail to implement its stipulations.

Maryland saw eleven cases of wheeled cart violations during fiscal 2011.  In an online search of police and court records, I found only six arrests—which may be an incomplete list—for grocery cart theft in Maryland from 2013 to 2022.  Two involved multiple carts being loaded onto a truck for re-sale as scrap metal.  Only two cases resulted in a meager $35 fine or a criminal citation.

In 2013, Kirill Reznik, a Maryland delegate, sponsored a bill to increase the $25 slap-on-the-wrist penalty — a fraction of the roughly $150 price of a car — to $100.  The bill passed unanimously in Maryland’s House Judicial Proceedings Committee, with the amendment to repeal the weak shopping cart provision and include shopping cart theft under the General Theft Statute, punishable with up to 18 months imprisonment and/or a more intimidating fine up to $500.

However, a companion bill died in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, with an unfavorable vote of 8 – 3.  No similar bill has been proposed since then.

A Virginia Senate bill, introduced in 2019, would have authorized Fairfax County to hold businesses responsible for their stray grocery carts.  It, likewise, died in committee.

Given the dismal failure of these efforts—both voluntary and legislative–the real mystery is figuring out an effective battle plan to conquer this costly and demoralizing scourge.

One thought on “Who Stole all the Grocery Shopping Carts?

  • January 3, 2023 at 12:58 PM

    We struggled with this in our small Poconos town, where the carts often ended up down steep hills, left in the waterways, and otherwise far far away from their stores. And charging the stores for retrieving them seemed to be charging the victims.

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