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— Despite the various means stores employ to retain control, unauthorized use of shopping carts is growing. According to California Shopping Cart Retrieval's Dave Reid, one factor is that "recycling rates just about doubled last year." But it is the increasing number of people not using cars that fuels the problem most of all. "Imagine a mother with a couple of kids going to the Laundromat or to get her weekly groceries," he says. "If she lives more than a block or two away, what alternative does she have? Mexican immigrants are used to buying drinking water where they come from, so you'll see them pushing away two five-gallon water bottles. In certain areas, where the store is far away, people have to take carts home."

And Reid believes that strategies to keep people from walking off with shopping carts may backfire on stores. He tells me of a market in Wilmington that he was servicing before it went to electronic cart locking. "The security companies will say that locking reduces cart loss by 80 percent," says Reid. "Over a two-year period, the Wilmington store was very proud that it had lost only four carts. But shortly afterward, they closed the store," he claims. "Look, when you lock up your carts, you're telling people that if you have to walk, then we don't want your business. Now, it's different, of course, if you have a captive audience of driving traffic. Then you can probably afford to lock up the carts."

Economy of scale is what allows the shopping-cart-retrieval business to succeed. In most urban settings, where there are multiple stores, says Reid, "we bill on a regular-delivery basis and use a predetermined schedule set by customers. Every so often -- once a day or several times a week -- we bring carts back and are paid by their numbers."

The fee sometimes has to rise above the standard $2, however, to serve stores in such outlying areas as El Centro and Calexico -- or even Alpine. "Then we negotiate," says Reid, "depending on factors like our travel time and how many carts we can pick up. The price per cart may go as high as $3. Sometimes stores will quit using us then."

Neither stores that lose carts nor residents who find them on their property can expect much help from the police, despite a California law that is supposed to be written on every cart. "Unauthorized removal from premises," reads the law, "or unauthorized possession of this shopping cart is a violation of state law.... Any removal must be by permission of store management." Says Dave Reid, "Cops could literally give tickets all day long."

Near the Adams Avenue Vons store, a formerly homeless man tells me of the time a cop stopped him for pushing around a Home Depot cart. "The cop asked where I got it, and I said, 'In an alley down the way,' which was true. I think he wanted to bust me. But just about then, a woman pushing a cart loaded with her laundry went by us. And the cop just told me to keep moving along."

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