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— 'Paying a company to return shopping carts that people were taking off our lot got too expensive," says the manager of a supermarket in San Diego. "The truck driver who brought the carts back said he was finding them everywhere. Some idiot left one in a canyon. Don't mention my name or my store, though," he tells me, stepping from behind his checkout stand. "I don't want to piss off my customers."

In a Normal Heights neighborhood, I go looking for abandoned carts. The first one I see sits on the sidewalk across Cherokee Avenue from the Adams Avenue Vons store. But wait, I think, this Vons is known in the neighborhood to use an electronic system for locking the wheels of shopping carts that are taken off the store lot. How did the cart I'm spying get out there?

Over on the Vons lot, 18-year-old Chris Garrene, in his senior year at Cathedral Catholic High School near Del Mar, is doing a 25-hour-per-week job pushing trains of carts into their holding enclosure. He agrees to demonstrate how the wheel locks work. "See these dots on the concrete?" he says, pointing to a line of circular orange marks in the Vons driveway several yards before the street. "There is something in the ground under them that triggers a lock in the wheels if the cart rolls over them." Sure enough, when Garrene pushes beyond the dots, the cart's wheels freeze inches before the sidewalk. Using a handheld device akin to a television remote control, he then releases the lock.

At my closer approach to the cart across Cherokee, I see that it is not a Vons but a CVS/pharmacy that owns it. There isn't a CVS store within two miles. About then, a haggard-looking man pushes by me a cart loaded with bulging trash bags. Must not be a Vons cart either, I think.

It all lends credence to a theory that Dave Reid explains to me by phone from Burbank. Reid is the executive vice president of the California Shopping Cart Retrieval Corporation. According to the company's website, it opened for business in 1993 with 200 client stores. Today it serves 2500 stores in California and Nevada. Reid estimates that his company retrieves 65,000 shopping carts annually in the city of San Diego alone.

"What happens," Reid tells me, "is that as soon as a store starts using a system to keep its carts on the lot, there will be people who leave the area to find carts at other stores, even if those stores are far off. We've found carts five miles from the stores that own them. When those folks get the carts, they bring them back into their neighborhoods, collecting bottles and cans along the way. They then take the loaded carts to the nearest recycling center." One of those recycling centers is in the parking lot at the Adams Avenue Vons.

This analysis does not comfort Mira Mesa resident Mary Moeller. To get my attention, she wrote in an e-mail: "Do you live on a corner lot like I do? My yard is not fenced all the way to the sidewalk, so has become the dropping off point for shopping carts for stores in my area. Currently I have Ralphs, Rite Aid, Babies R Us, and two Seafood City carts on my lawn."

Moeller, a retired schoolteacher, worries about children jumping in the carts and crashing if they roll down the hill. Her street, west of Miramar College and south of Mira Mesa Boulevard, slants slightly downhill. The Seafood City and Rite Aid stores are in a shopping center on Mira Mesa a half mile straight north of Moeller's home. From there Babies R Us is west on Mira Mesa and the Ralphs is east, at the corner of Mira Mesa and Black Mountain Road. Both stores are approximately one mile from Moeller's house.

On a visit to Moeller's neighborhood, I see two shopping carts tipped over on the sidewalk next to her house. "Somebody I know said not long ago," she tells me, "that when lots of shopping carts start appearing, it's a sign your area is becoming ghettoized. I'd say the problem up here is coming from a proliferation of group recovery homes that have moved in nearby. Then those folks go out collecting things they can make a little extra money on."

"Yesterday," Moeller continued in her e-mail, "I saw a woman pushing a cart full of groceries down our block and, since the cart looked familiar, I walked her home, which turned out to be two houses from mine. 'What are you going to do with the cart?' I asked her. 'Leave it on the corner,' she said. 'The store told me they will pick it up.'

"Lies! I walked her to the corner where she left the cart," writes Moeller, "and visited the lady who lives on that corner. She is also plagued with carts dumped in her yard. I called Seafood City and spoke [twice] with the manager. He [said] he never gave anyone permission to take carts home and doesn't have them picked up on any particular corner. I drew a map and brought it to the store a week later so they could find the [carts] on our street. [When] I visited the store [again]...the manager was 'off for the day.' I feel like I'm being seen as a chronic pain in the you-know-what for complaining. Three carts are still here three weeks later.

"The police department tells me the only thing I can do is tell the store. The store manager complains because it costs $2 per cart to get them returned. Can't clerks take shifts outside and make sure no one takes their carts? I'd get a ticket if I pushed them into the street, I don't want to litter someone else's yard, and my car isn't large enough to transport them back to the stores. Can I bill for lawn space rental?

"I do have sympathy for people who have no transportation and need to get their groceries...home," writes Moeller, "but they could park the carts in their garages and reuse them the next time they go shopping instead of stealing and abandoning them."

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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