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Why Not Charge for the Use of a Shopping Cart, to be Refunded When the Customer Returns It?

Every few years, some American grocery will experiment with a deposit/refund system, with limited (read: zero) success.

Regarding your Freddy’s column [”Dr. Know: Where Are All the Shopping Baskets at Fred Meyer?” WW, Oct. 6, 2021): Why not charge for the use of a cart (say, a dollar), to be refunded when the customer returns it? Rounding up carts that have left the premises would also get you a dollar each. —Stuart H.

My first inclination upon reading your letter, Stuart, was to hit you with a banana cream pie and write “fathead” across your forehead for not knowing the difference between a shopping basket and a shopping cart. But that was before I saw the avalanche of mail this column inspired.

It was a small avalanche—six responses—but pretty impressive considering most of my fans can’t read. Fully 50% (do the math) assumed I wasn’t talking about plastic baskets with handles, but metal cages with wheels, like the one I’m going to live in after I retire.

To be clear: There are still plenty of shopping CARTS at Fred Meyer. Brutal as the last year has been, you’re in no danger of having to use your actual, physical arms to carry sacks of frozen entrees to your car, like some kind of caveman. We’re not animals.

Anyway, while we’re on the subject of shopping carts, I guess I can try—what the hell—to answer your question. You’re not wrong that having these carts walk off the property is a major headache for grocery chains. Not only are they expensive to replace—$250 is pretty average—but some jurisdictions levy fines against stores that don’t retrieve abandoned ones.

Every few years, some American grocery will experiment with a deposit/refund system, with limited (read: zero) success. However, the German-based discount chain Aldi does use a coin-operated system—think of those airport luggage trolleys—at its U.S. stores.

This is not so much to discourage theft, however, as to allow the famously penny-pinching chain (it claims to beat Walmart’s prices by 42%) to avoid paying someone to collect carts from the parking lot. Apparently the 25-cent deposit—that’s right, a quarter—is enough to convince thrifty customers to return the carts themselves.

You can witness this triumph of Teutonic frugality for yourself, provided you’re willing to travel to Aldi’s nearest location: Fresno. Still, for the kind of cheapskate who’ll walk a mile to save a quarter, maybe it’s worth the trip.

Questions? Send them to dr.know@wweek.com.