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Springfield, MO

Opinion: Wal-Mart tech amounts to carts on a leash

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Since moving near the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market at Campbell Avenue and Grand Street this year, I’ve noticed something interesting and a bit perplexing.

After shopping, some customers simply wheel the cart off the premises, presumably because they don’t have a vehicle to carry groceries home like others – or, I suspect, out of a self-created convenience. It’s made me wonder what Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest corporation, could do to stop the activity. There presumably are not enough employees to keep a constant watch. And, even if customers brought the carts back, wouldn’t they just use them for the same purpose during the next grocery shopping excursion?

Answers began to surface recently.

This Wal-Mart store put in place a simple but technologically neat solution: locks. That may sound rudimentary, but it gets better.

The locks on the wheels connect wirelessly to on-site sensors, forcing carts to come to a full stop through a brake system if they are pushed past certain boundaries.

Each cart has a warning sign: “Our shopping carts will lock when taken beyond our parking lot. While entrances and exits are marked to show the boundaries, the whole lot is secured.” Exit door signage repeats the message.

I tried it for myself to see how well it works. Attempting not to look like a thief, I grabbed a cart and nonchalantly walked it toward the exit. A yellow line marked the barrier, and sure enough, when I passed it, the cart locked up, rendering itself immovable.

It’s simple but genius, in the same way wireless pet fences keep our furry friends close to home. Essentially, what Wal-Mart has here is an electronic leash for carts.

If people really want to take a cart, I suppose they could drag the heavy hunk of metal along the sidewalk, though I imagine they would get some strange glances – and perhaps police attention. One also could throw the cart into the back of a pickup, for instance, to get away with the nefarious deed. But that seems to defeat the purpose.

Checking out electronic shopping cart locks online, it seems this system has been used for several years. At Aldi stores, a coin system is in use: Put a quarter in to rent the cart and receive your money back when you return it. But, according to the company’s website, that’s more of a way to cut down on costs by not hiring cart retrievers than it is to prevent theft.

I suspect Wal-Mart’s mechanism is the type of system a store in a larger city with more crime might use. Near downtown, where I’ve seen homeless folks using shopping carts more than once, this type of device makes sense.

Looking on Amazon.com, shopping carts run in the hundreds of dollars. I’d imagine buying in bulk helps lower those prices, but Wal-Mart still dishes out dough for customers to carry their groceries. Wal-Mart spokesman Khim Aday was unable to provide detailed information about the system or its use locally, but said, “It’s costly for us to lose carts, so we’re willing to invest in programs and technology to prevent this from occurring.”  

It’s an annoyance when people don’t bring their shopping carts to the designated areas for employees to pick them up. Instead, they leave them standing where they may. Taking them off the grounds entirely is a whole other thing. Wal-Mart has fixed at least one of these problems with its locking system.

It may seem pedantic, but shopping cart etiquette has unwritten societal rules. Wal-Mart and other grocery stores don’t have to supply shopping carts. People who abuse that can ruin things for the rest of us.

Good for Wal-Mart for finding another way to deal with the issue than taking away the carts altogether.

SBJ Web Producer Geoff Pickle can be reached at gpickle@sbj.net.

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