How Missing Shopping Carts Impact Grocery Prices

By: James Flippin · January 27, 2023 · Reading Time: 3 minutes

Case of the Missing Carts

As businesses face higher production costs, prices tend to rise. That’s been especially true for the retail sector these past 12 months, and for grocery stores in particular. In fact, while recent data suggests inflation is easing, grocery prices remain way up: the category rose 12% year-over-year in November of last year, while overall inflation rose only 7.1%.

Part of that rising cost, and a longtime thorn in the side of grocers, is shopping cart theft. It’s estimated that US retailers lose millions of dollars annually replacing carts that are stolen, damaged, or otherwise lost.

Some towns have even taken to fining companies for littered carts or the safety issue they pose. Dartmouth, Massachusetts billed Walmart (WMT) $23,000 over the issue last year.

Carting Away Cash

Per Food Marketing Institute estimates, 2 million carts are stolen every year.

It’s not a new problem. A New York Times (NYT) article from 1957 even coined a term for the phenomenon: “cart-napping.” But it is an expensive one – and it seems to be on the rise. A local cart maintenance company, Retail Marketing Services, leased retailers extra carts during the 2022 holiday shopping season. While 91% were returned, that’s down 5% from the year prior.

The impact for grocery stores and other retailers is vast. For one thing, if there aren’t enough carts, shoppers could shy away from the store itself, impacting its bottom line. Not to mention, carts cost up to $250 a pop. Add in the fines, as well as the money spent to workers or third-party vendors who have to retrieve the carts, and you start to see how significant this seemingly trivial issue can be.

Stores Strike Back

A typical supermarket will have between 200 and 300 shopping carts at each location. Big-box chains can sometimes have an additional 500. Maintaining these fleets takes some creative thinking, especially considering the recent rise of cart-napping.

Many stores have installed wheel locks on carts, which activate if the carts are taken off the property. Other locations install barriers in parking lots to that effect. An increasingly popular option is requiring a quarter deposit in order to take a cart, which almost works like a key. German grocer Aldi is well-known for this approach.

Unfortunately, any issue for grocers is one for consumers, who tend to end up footing the bill, one way or another. This might mean price rises today, but who knows? It could simply mean keeping a roll of quarters in your car tomorrow.

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