Now Grocery Stores Are Punishing Us for Not Buying Anything

·5 min read
Photo:  pixfly (Shutterstock)
Photo: pixfly (Shutterstock)

There was a time, not so long ago, when using a basket or a shopping cart to do your grocery shopping was a simple act. And a low-tech one, too.

Last weekend, I was out shopping with my two kids at a Price Chopper grocery store in Vermont, my 18-month-old strapped into the baby seat of the shopping cart (which preserves both their safety and my sanity while we shop). I was searching the store for something specific; when Price Chopper didn’t have what I needed, I said, “No worries, we’ll just go to Hannaford down the road and get everything we need in one trip.” My older child lamented having to go to yet another store, but all in all, no big deal.

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Leaving the store, I walked toward the exit at a normal speed—only my cart didn’t leave the store. It locked in place at the threshold, and because I was walking pretty fast, this jarred my 18-month-old in her seat. She wasn’t hurt, but it wasn’t something I would have put her through had I known the cart was going to lock up. Why wasn’t I able to wheel the cart out to my car?

Unbeknownst to me, the store, which I’ve been shopping at for years, has a new trick in its security tool belt: locking wheels that stop you from leaving the store with your cart if you haven’t gone through the checkout lane. I’ve long been familiar with shopping carts that lock when they reach the perimeter of a store’s parking lot—a way to keep people from taking the carts themselves—but a cart locking on my way out of the store was new to me.

Why stores use locking grocery carts

These anti-theft grocery store carts have gotten some good press around the country in recent years. WAFF48 in Huntsville, Alabama boasted about the cart’s ability to stop a man from leaving a store with what was allegedly $600 worth of unpurchased groceries. The news report claims that the man is a “repeat offender,” having successfully shoplifted carts full of groceries prior to the incident with the locking cart.

KOIN6 in Portland, OR ran a feature about the carts and how they work. In the video, an assistant manager for a Fred Meyer store in the Portland area explains that a sensor at the checkout lane acts as a “deactivator” and turns off the locking mechanism in the cart. She says the cart has to be in front of the sensor for about 30 seconds to be deactivated, or “about the time it takes to unload a shopping cart.”

This is, of course, an imperfect system. What if you don’t have 30 seconds’ worth of groceries to unload? The same KOIN6 video also shows an older woman, her groceries in bags, stopped at the door by the cart locks. The assistant manager hurries over with a remote electronic device to free the wheels, explaining, “It just locks up after a certain amount of time.” Translation: You took too long to get out of here.

Then there’s the issue of someone like me, who didn’t buy anything—because the store didn’t have what I needed—and got stuck at the door as a result. An employee came over to unlock my cart; though he didn’t question me, it stands to reason that if I’d had a lot of reusable shopping bags with me (which we’re encouraged to have at all times now), he may have searched them. Even if I’d known my cart was about to lock based on this leaving-empty-handed technicality, there was no way for me to return it to the outdoor cart corral without requesting the assistance of an employee. This dubious loss prevention system seems to give stores an opening to question or even search people who have done nothing wrong.

At Price Chopper, I was using the cart primarily to push my baby around. If there had been sudden danger in that store—a naturally chaotic situation—the fastest way to get out would have been not to fumble with the buckles and straps, but to keep pushing her in the cart out of the store. Would I have been able to? It might seem like a gratuitous hypothetical, but I have been evacuated from a Target for a bomb threat, and as we are all painfully aware, shootings do occur at grocery stores.

“Forget these locking shopping carts,” you might be thinking, “I’ll carry around a hand basket instead.” That might not be so easy, either. Fred Meyer, the same chain from the glowing news segment about theft-preventing shopping carts, took away shopping baskets altogether at its Portland locations in 2021, claiming the baskets were being stolen too often. News stories from New Jersey and Connecticut this summer have also featured grocers decrying basket theft, pointing a finger at new laws that ban plastic bags.

Robert Rybick, president and CEO of Geissler’s Supermarkets, told the Hartford Courant that the problem was so big that the store had lost “65 to 70 percent” of its baskets and would be discussing the matter at its upcoming executive committee meeting. Mary Ellen Peppard, the vice president of the New Jersey Food Council, said a lot of stores weren’t planning on replacing the baskets once they were stolen.

“These baskets are expensive and some stores have decided not to replace the baskets,” Peppard said. The baskets reportedly cost around $8 each.

This, coupled with news earlier this year about ALDI and other retailers upping security measures on some of grocery items, including putting meat behind glass, paints a bleak picture for the future of grocery shopping. There seems to be very little data publicly available on whether such measures even prevent theft by any meaningful margin, especially when measured against the upfront cost of implementing elaborate cart-locking mechanisms. To be sure, loss prevention is a difficult puzzle to solve, but each new innovation seems to degrade the shopping experience for us all—and that includes the employees, who have to run around freeing us from the threshold.