Hot Wheels

Farm implement, barbecue grill, delivery truck: Meet the real American sport utility vehicle

Enter Guest Services Team Leader Tom Pellitier, who team-leads at the Target store on West Broadway in Minneapolis. Because of Pellitier's initiative, as of September 14 last year, the Broadway Target no longer permits shopping carts to be taken out of the store. Not even to cars in the parking lot, unless you're disabled or have some other good reason, in which case you will be escorted by an attendant. All other "guests" are to drive up to the store entrance and have an attendant help them load their purchases.

Pellitier says 85 percent of the Broadway Target's guests are low-income and most do not have cars. Still, "after a two- or three-week learning curve"--during which he says taxi traffic has picked up--"there have been few complaints." With those kinds of results, it figured that other urban Target stores would soon take a closer look at the Pellitier approach.

On November 16 Bob Davis, Pellitier's counterpart at the Target on East Lake Street and Minnehaha Avenue, instituted his own "no carts outside" policy. After two weeks the rule was suspended because it was quickly becoming apparent that more attendants would be needed to handle the melee of cars waiting to get loaded. The upcoming holidays boded chaos anyway, and customers were mad as hell. Davis, who sends an employee out to collect carts in the neighborhood a couple of times a week, says he will likely try the policy again after things settle down a bit.

Bounty hunters: Qasim and Janeha Edwards recover stray carts for Cub Foods
Bounty hunters: Qasim and Janeha Edwards recover stray carts for Cub Foods

 

By now you have come up with a solution to the cart problem, right? Like: If you can push a cart full of stuff home, why can't you push it back empty next time you go to the store? Why, if you can just get another cart? (See "absurd practicalities," above.)

Fine, then why can't stores reward and/or punish everybody into returning the carts? Some malls and airports have systems under which you deposit coins each time you take a cart, and get it back when you return. According to the cart manufacturer, when tested in grocery stores the idea infuriated shoppers. Not poor folks, but affluent customers who resisted digging out quarters for something they expected for free, and were insulted by the notion that they would actually walk off with a cart.

What about technology? Some Minnesota stores have tested an electronic tracking system: A sensor, placed on each cart's back wheel, caused the wheel to lock when the cart went 20 feet beyond the store's property line. The cart seller says the system didn't get much of a reaction. First, it was expensive. Second, lots of cart wheels wobble or get stuck even without a lock. Third, Minnesota salt and slush quickly destroyed the sensors.

But you have yet another great solution. Okay, then, why don't you test it at cart chaos ground zero; the Midway shopping area, a 10-block stretch along University between Snelling and Syndicate in St. Paul. Within this expanse lie a Cub and a Rainbow, a Target, a Kmart, a Mervyn's, a PetsMart, an Office Max, a Paper Warehouse, half a dozen smaller stores like Walgreen's, Family Dollar, and Big Top Liquor, all of which have carts, plus a dozen smaller stores that don't. Several managers claim that more than 1,000 carts move an estimated $10 million worth of merchandise across Midway's asphalt prairies every week.

For a closer look, let's you and I take a stroll. We begin at a bus stop near University and Snelling. Nearby, a cart rack holds eleven green Rainbows. Strewn across the parking lot nearby are more Rainbows, five Cubs, two PetsMarts, an Office Max, a Big Top Liquor and seven Targets. A hundred paces away, Rainbow attendants Mike and Jerry jam a few dozen carts together and snake them through the slush.

"What do you do about carts from other stores?"

"We just leave them. At night after most of the cars leave, it makes them easier to spot in case some other store comes by to pick them up."

"Who picks them up?"

"Some guy from Cub does theirs. Mostly it's people who get off the bus and pick up a cart on their way to shop somewhere. Don't make any difference to them whose it is."

Rainbow has a posted policy warning that there is a $10 fine for anybody caught off the premises with a Rainbow shopping cart. Has anybody ever had to pay up?

"I don't know of anybody," Jerry says. "We've got enough to do just to collect in the parking lot, never mind chasing people down the streets." Still the notice must have some effect. There are not many Rainbow carts in the surrounding neighborhood.

We take a few hundred steps east past McDonald's (three Targets, two Rainbows, a Walgreen's, and a Big Top). Midway Center is a busy urban bazaar, and because all stores open to the outdoors, the cart traffic is constant. Motorists negotiate narrow lanes between shoppers, cars, and carts with the aplomb of Hong Kong cab drivers.

We pass Walgreen's and a scattering of their small, dark-gray carts. The grays don't show up elsewhere in great numbers; too small for cross-country hauls. The only other megastore in this section of the mall is Office Max, where an assistant manager offers up the training-manual line: "I'm not authorized to talk to you about that subject, but I'll give you a number at our corporate headquarters in Cleveland." Office Max carts, while not plentiful at the bus stops, are bright yellow and stand out like nudes.

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