Shopping cart strategies: genuine asset protection, or are they just spinning their wheels?

I don’t think this article will strike too many people as a revelation, and I might be late to the party in making the observation.  At the very least, I’ll try to weave in the broader social/cultural implications of this new (or “new-ish”) device, because it tethers itself to something most people have to do regularly: purchase food.  The newish device is nothing fancy, but it’s likely only to grow in prominence.  Now it’s time for me to stop being cagey: I’m talking about this little gizmo on a shopping cart wheel.

shopping cart asset protection: the wheel can lock if taken outside the perimeter

I just encountered one of these little red “sheaths” for the first time a few weeks ago while shopping.  Maybe they’ve been there for a while, but they’re new to me.  And, instantly upon encountering it, I knew exactly its intended purpose: to guard against shopping cart theft by causing the wheel to lock up upon activation.  Not surprisingly, a locked wheel makes a shopping cart extremely difficult to push, thereby deterring a potential thief from absconding with merchandise, or (more likely I think), simply continuing to walk away at least some legally obtained groceries, carrying the cart as car as needed for maximum convenience: perhaps to a bus stop, a faraway car, or back “home”.  And yes, the word “home” clearly deserves those irony air quotes.  Shopping carts are deceptively heavy; without the assistance of those four wheels, they become harder to lug around than most people will justify, so it’s an effective deterrent.  But as long as the shopping chart wheels all work as intended, they make a great tool for the homeless and indigent to schlep their stuff around.

Exploring this particular shopping cart a bit further, the deterrent feature involves more than just the red sheath on that one wheel.  I’m pretty certain this rectangular plate attached to the basket plays a role:

At first blush, this plate reminds me of the devices we have long seen attached to certain high-value department store items (usually more expensive clothes) to help prevent theft.  Embedded in the plate is a signal that triggers alarms if the thief attempts to purloin the product by concealing it amidst other packages or material.  These plastic plates are deceptively difficult to remove without the necessary tools, which a storefront clerk will possess, so the clerk can validate that the purchase is complete by snipping the plastic plate and giving the $150 shirt to the customer.  If thieves attempt to remove such a device on their own, chances are they will struggle to the point of destroying the shirt in the process.  (I’m not sure if it’s still the case, but an improperly tinkered theft-deterrent device in the past could unleash a stream of ink, ruining the stolen product.)

shopping cart asset protection

These plastic plates on shopping carts communicate to the red sheath on the shopping cart wheel, using a signal that, I suspect, works under much the same logic as the Invisible Fence device used to keep collared dogs from venturing too far outside their owners’ property.  At a certain distance—“the perimeter of the parking lot”—the deterrent kicks in.  Unwittingly, I tested that deterrent.

From where I was standing in the above photo, my car was about ten paces further behind me.  The dock for returning carts is there in the photo, upper-left.  And the entrance to the supermarket is just cut off from the upper-right edge of the photo.  In other words, I parked a bit far from the source grocery store here in the shopping haven of Springfield, Virginia.  And about ten paces farther than tracking device would tolerate.  So the shopping cart wheel froze, and I was force to carry the grocery bags from the cart to my car’s trunk.

So I parked too far.  Lesson learned.  But it wasn’t remotely close to the “perimeter of the parking lot”, and I’m sure other people have made the same mistake, thereby triggering the theft-prevention measure despite having no intention of stealing.  The device is more cautious than it needs to be.  But I don’t object.  After all, everyone has seen the consequence of grocery stores that lack good theft prevention devices.

stolen shopping carts in neglected private lot

Carts like this litter the landscape: though most common in neglected public land (particularly around interstate exit ramps), they are easy to find in the overlooked corners of privately managed spaces.  Any space where the public consensus includes the tolerance of dumping.  It’s sad for the supermarket owners because it just gets added to the recorded “shrinkage” of stolen merchandise—except that a single shopping cart is more expensive than just about anything else at a grocery store.  Since they are deceptively heavy, shopping carts are labor intensive to retrieve.  And the situation has become widespread, in conjunction with the massive increase in supermarket theft (which I have covered frequently on this blog) as well as escalating levels of homelessness (a topic I’ve only featured obliquely so far).  Perhaps I’m going out on a limb here, but it has almost reached the point where a homeless person toting belongings in an overstuffed shopping cart is a cliché of our Whimpering Twenties.

But not all shopping carts reach the point where the thief permanently claims one as the primary device for lugging around his or her remaining belongings.  A lot of them end up like this:

In this instance, the one metallic cart in the distance, under the tree (to the left of its trunk) is less of a concern; it belongs to BJ’s Wholesale Club and is still standing on the edge of the BJ’s property, which includes the massive parking lot in the background of this photo.  The other two carts near the bus stop—beige, plastic—are venturing into “stolen” territory.  They belong to a Safeway Supermarket, and the closest Safeway is on the opposite side of this street (outside the frame on the right), and then a good 500 additional feet away.  Most likely the Safeway customers took these shopping carts with the most benign of intents.  They had to walk the length of the service drive below:

And, not owning cars, they had to carry their groceries to the closest bus stop.  This would be a prohibitively long distance for many people to carry plastic grocery bags (or canvas totes).  So, as an alternative, they pushed the cart that full distance from the Safeway entrance, wheeling their way past cars and businesses in the strip mall, then crossed the street to gain shelter at the bus stop.

It would have been an easy and understandable solution for a person in a suburban area who lacked a car, at least until recently.  But now—why didn’t those wheels freeze up?

These beige Safeway carts have the asset protection devices that stopped me a few nights earlier.  Either they’re much more generous in their permissible territory, or they don’t work: once the carts crossed to the opposite side of the street with the bus stop, they were on BJ’s Wholesale Club property—not Safeway, or the strip mall where the Safeway is an anchor tenant.  And somehow, despite the distance being far greater than the example with the red sheathes where I got zapped, these people never faced the penalty.

It’s just a couple of shopping carts; much ado about nothing (as is often the case on my articles)!  All these two locations demonstrate is that grocery stores are setting widely different boundaries for what constitutes “perimeter” that triggers the shopping cart wheels to freeze.  And while a tightly defined perimeter almost certainly helps prevent theft more effectively than  a generous one, it does run the risk of thwarting people who are making a good-faith effort to convey their groceries, but who lack the income for a private vehicle.  I’m not sure anything more than a custom-fit approach will work, since some supermarkets should indeed make certain that bus and metro stops still fall within the range of permissible travel for their shopping carts.  I guess the one real scapegoat are all the bad-faith actors—the genuine thieves—who have made this asset protection strategy necessary across American cities.  Up until around 2015, I can recall seeing the occasional abandoned shopping cart, but it wasn’t a “thing” the way it is now.  Then again, I can think of something else that, less than a decade ago was merely an occasional sight rather than a normal occurrence:

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