ATASCADERO — As the homeless population in the North County grows, it's become more common to see people walking down the street pushing shopping carts full of belongings or to see the carts abandoned on the side of the road, in parks or just about any place else.
The carts can cost as much as $130 each to replace and as such, local grocery stores have been putting preventative measures in place to prevent cart theft.
Grocers say offenders vary depending on location, but most often are the homeless, elderly, people who don’t drive and people who live in neighboring areas. Carts have even been stolen for things other than transport such as for use in laundromats, hardware stores and even restaurants.
“We haven’t really had a big problem in regards to grocery cart theft, but then again we’re all the way down here,” said Pete Novak, the owner of the Grocery Outlet Bargain Market, located at 2100 El Camino Real. “The Paso location has it worse than us because of the higher number of homeless up on the north end of town.”
While not all stores are facing cart theft problems, most are working to implement preventive methods and organizing other concentrated efforts in regard to retrieving lost carts.
“We don’t lock our carts up at night, but do use Carttronics,” Novak said. “That means the wheels of carts essentially lock up when they reach the yellow line that forms the perimeter of our store’s parking lots.”
Carttronics, an inventory management software system, allows grocers to track and count carts in regards to use by the hour, day, season and via individual cart type. The San Diego-based company developed a device equivalent to car alarms that locks carts' front wheels when they roll outside of the store's parking lots, which are noted by a stripe of paint. The only way for the cart to move after its front wheels have been locked is by dragging it. The system is controlled by a low-frequency radio signal. An antenna is installed in the ground around the store's perimeter and emits a low-frequency radio signal which, when the cart passes over the stripe of paint, triggers a plastic cover to drop over the wheel. The wheel then becomes useless.
Other stores, like Smart & Final, located at 8200 El Camino Real, use more traditional methods.
“We try to keep most of our carts inside,” Smart & Final’s service manager Raymond Deleon said. “Not all of them fit so some are outside, but we also have a night crew on the clock that works to keep an eye out for carts and signs and things of that nature.”
The preventative methods used are not typically costly and can save stores money in the long run.
“The carts we buy cost roughly $130 brand new and $60 used,” Novak said. “Even though theft isn’t too big of an issue for us that is still fairly expensive and of course, an unwanted loss.”
Novak and Deleon both agreed that carts that are stolen are rarely ever returned to the store.
“I don’t usually take carts back unless I have the right transportation,” Deleon said. “But those I am able to return are completely sanitized and all that before they're made available for customer use again.”