Tucson’s ubiquitous shopping cart

By Laura Fuchs/Arizona Sonora News

Shaun runs the “cart master” during the morning shift at the Walmart on Wetmore Road in Tucson. The four-wheeled, battery-operated shopping cart pusher is controlled with a hand-held remote. Once he has the first steel cart in place, Shaun can nest up to 20 carts with a long red nylon band to lead them back into the store.

At  $15 an hour, “It’s an all-day long walk, but it’s a good job,” he said. Oftentimes, he stops to wait for an overloaded cart, eyeing a plastic kiddie pool or a bike that he knows isn’t going anywhere. “People put so much into their cart that all of it won’t fit in their car, and then they have to call somebody for help,” he said.

Shaun ferries his train of bumping, jostling carts to an area near the front of the store, where hundreds of them are parked in rows – one nestled into another – and waiting for the streams of shoppers who soon pack a single mega-sized, heavy-duty plastic cart with up to 45 rolls of toilet paper, a 64-pack of diapers, 15 dozen eggs, a 55-pound bag of dog food, a flat of cupcakes… and two toddlers strapped into a pair of blue plastic seats.

The idea for the shopping cart first came from an Oklahoma City grocery store maven named Sylvan Goldman, who in 1937 was one of the first merchants to notice that customers at his Piggly Wiggly markets were struggling to lug their overstuffed hand-held baskets to the cashier. So he stuck some wheels on the bottom of the baskets, and the American shopping experience was never the same again.

“If there were no shopping carts, nothing to roll our children and Campbell’s soup around the store in,” mused Charles Kuralt, the television newsman who told the story of the shopping cart in a 1977 segment of his “On the Road” series on the CBS Evening News, “what would have become of us? There might never have been a supermarket.”

But these days, in towns like Tucson, the shopping cart is turning up well beyond its usual harbor in the parking lots of strip malls and big box stores. Nowadays you are just as likely to find them parked along lonely roadsides or wheel-deep in the sand of a desert wash, abandoned like scuttled ships, often by homeless people and others who hijack them to help navigate their belongings across town.

The abandoned shopping cart has become such a familiar eyesore across the urban landscape that it has generated its own section of state criminal law — Chapter 11, Article 19 of Arizona Revised Statutes, which says that anyone who removes or abandons a shopping cart beyond the “premises or parking area” of a retail establishment, shall be guilty of a class three misdemeanor. A judge decides the fine.

The abandoned shopping cart problem has also inspired a City of Tucson cell phone app, designed specifically to help people report a ditched shopping cart. Click “report a problem,“ upload a picture, and the app automatically sends an email to the Environmental Services department with the location, so a city worker can go and pick it up.

“We’ve all seen our share of abandoned shopping carts,” declares the narrator of a video that the city produced. “There’s something we can do about them.”

On a recent afternoon, a Tucson Parks and Recreation employee stopped his John Deere utility vehicle alongside a desert wash to throw an abandoned Walmart shopping cart onto a pile of other garbage he had picked up while cruising alongside the city’s Rillito Park bike loop.

The nearest Walmart was nearly three miles away, which meant the cart had to cross two major traffic intersections, one bridge and a city park to end up in the wash.

The metal basket was missing the rear flap and was covered with sticks and weeds from recent flooding along the wash. The green plastic plate screwed to the front was faded, but the “Walmart: Save Money Live Better” logo was still readable.

As shoppers and the shopping experience have evolved, so has the shopping cart. For some, like Brandi and Mike Bodine, the ordinary plastic cart is not enough. They are fans of what are called “flats” — heavy duty metal slabs with industrial strength rubber tires.

The Bodines travel into Tucson every three weeks to stock up on supplies for their market and deli in Safford. Barely two aisles into the day’s shopping excursion at Sam’s Club, a big box store, they had already piled twelve one-gallon pickle jars, eight one-gallon mayonnaise containers, a case of Peppermint Patties and two 80-ounce boxes of fudge brownie mix on to the cart. “Flats are a lot better,” said Brandi Bodine, who said she usually needs to use two regular-size shopping carts a Walmart.  

And then there are the Cadillacs of the shopping cart fleet –- the motorized Model 37’s — electric carts with an 18-inch wide sturdy plastic seat mounted on a heavy frame with a one foot deep, two-foot square basket, and capable of top speeds of two miles per hour. Three of them were parked just inside the entrance of the Walmart on Wetmore Road recently.

A red-and-white sign on the basket of each cart read: “IN-STORE USE ONLY… FOR OUR VALUED CUSTOMERS.”

A bright green, palm-sized, octagonal button with the word “READY” is stuck on the rear of the cart, to indicate that the cart’s batteries are fully charged. But some shoppers who say they need the sit-down carts to navigate the big store complain there are never enough fully-charged carts to meet demand. Russ Hawk, a shopper at Sam’s Club, was vexed.

“I hate the damn thing,” he said, complaining the battery was nearly drained and he just drove over from the front of the store. “They never have enough of them.”

A Walmart greeter standing nearby and wearing a nametag that identified her as Franky said the carts cost about $4,000 each, and whenever anyone needs to head out into the parking lot to unload, a store employee accompanies them. “If someone wants to go outside, we have to escort them because they’ve been stolen,” she said.

And then there is the story from Wichita Falls, Texas, where employees at a local Walmart last January asked police to help them with a customer, after they caught her drinking wine from an empty Pringles can while riding her electric cart around the store. The battery must have been fully charged.

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