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Putting the brakes on runaway shopping carts

by Jonah Lowenfeld

September 5, 2012 | 11:31 am

Grocers typically spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars each month retrieving carts from around the neighborhood and shell out even more to replace dozens that go missing each year. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

Grocers typically spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars each month retrieving carts from around the neighborhood and shell out even more to replace dozens that go missing each year. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

On a recent Friday afternoon, Mariz Mosseri went shopping for groceries, as she does on most Fridays. She trolled the aisles of Elat Market and Glatt Mart, Pico-Robertson’s two largest kosher supermarkets, which sit side-by-side on Pico Boulevard. 

Mosseri bought meat, vegetables, sliced bread and other necessities for Shabbat, and when she finished at the checkout, she pushed her black-metal shopping cart, brimming with plastic bags, out into the street and continued with it down the alley that runs behind the markets, and then turned onto Wooster Street. 

After speaking to this reporter, she headed home with her cartful of goods. Twenty minutes later, the cart was sitting empty in the driveway in front of her apartment. 

“They have a truck, they pick it up,” Mosseri explained. 

These days, Mosseri’s actions are standard practice in the neighborhood. 

But talk to the grocers, who typically spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars each month retrieving carts from around the neighborhood, and also shell out even more to replace dozens that go missing each year, and you’ll learn that they wish they could find a way, perhaps using technology, to keep those same carts from leaving their stores’ premises at all. 

These stores face a problem that larger groceries do not — parking is seriously limited in their lots. So they’ve tolerated the practice of people walking off with the carts — and paid dearly — to accommodate their customers.

In May, the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance sponsored by Councilman Tony Cardenas mandating that no new stores will operate the way these stores do. The ordinance requires that all newly built and significantly remodeled stores with six or more shopping carts implement a retention system to keep them on site, and a spokesperson from Cardenas’ office said the city plans to study whether and how to expand the law to include existing stores as well. Such a plan could force the Pico-Robertson markets to change their shopping-cart usage policy. 

For now, however, well-dressed people pushing shopping carts up and down sidewalks, and leaving those carts on the streets, are as common a sight in this densely populated and very Jewish neighborhood as the temporary booths that will pop up on lawns when Sukkot arrives in October. 

The carts get picked up quickly, so what in other neighborhoods might immediately become unwelcome urban blight, in Pico-Robertson is more likely a potential hazard to a parked car’s paint job.

What for regular customers at the four major kosher grocery stores in Pico-Robertson is a welcome convenience is, for the owners, one more cost of doing business. New shopping carts go for about $100 apiece, and the owners know what the current “release and retrieve” system is costing them. 

“This is the biggest problem we have in the store,” said Kevin Novin, who has managed Elat Market since it opened more than 25 years ago. He estimated that over that time he has spent more than $1 million for carts, and that he spends about $100,000 a year just on cart retrieval. 

The owners of the other supermarkets in the heart of the neighborhood — Glatt Mart, Livonia Glatt Market just a few blocks to the west, and Pico Glatt Mart, which is about a mile away — told much the same story. 

“I’m supposed to have 40 [carts], but every six months, I usually have to purchase 20 more,” said Farzad Kohanzadeh, owner of the 2,300-square-foot Livonia Glatt Market. 

The missing carts often don’t turn up — Kohanzadeh said he once saw an unfamiliar truck come through the neighborhood late at night, picking up carts off the street, never to return. 

But when missing carts do reappear, it can be in very unlikely locations. 

“We have people who call us from the Hollywood Hills, ‘Come and pick up your shopping cart,’ ” Glatt Mart owner Meir Davidpour said. “We had one by Dodger Stadium.”

For now, the “one-way rental” of a store’s shopping cart has proved popular among customers, so much so that all four of the stores have hired an independent contractor to retrieve the carts from around the neighborhood, at a cost of $2 a cart. 

On a Tuesday afternoon, a beat-up truck pulled up to the driveway of Elat Market laden with carts collected from driveways, alleyways and doorways, as well as sidewalks, front lawns and street curbs. The carts sat on the truck’s wide, low flatbed, held in place by a mixture of straps and chains. 

The driver pulled the carts off the back of the truck, one by one. 

“Twelve,” he called out to Mordechai when all the yellow-handled carts were on the pavement. 

Mordechai, who gave only his first name, manages the market’s loading dock (which doubles as rear entrance) on a part-time basis; he made a note on a sheet of paper, and the truck, which also unloaded a couple of Glatt Mart’s red-and-black carts, turned back into the street, away from Glatt Mart, to continue its rounds. 

All the stores’ regulars know about the cart-collecting truck. 

Mermell Nicholas, 93, travels by bus from his apartment in Beverly Hills to shop at the kosher markets twice a week. On a Tuesday afternoon, he was sitting on a bench near a bus stop at the intersection of Pico and Robertson. Next to him was a Glatt Mart cart with a few bags inside. 

He said he’d seen the cart-collecting truck the previous week, and said that watching the workers lift the heavy steel carts onto the truck’s flatbed was “amazing.” 

“You push it down, the back wheels, and the front end flies up,” Nicholas said. 

Of course, not everybody likes the truck — or the carts it collects. 

“The only time we have peace is Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Sunday morning. Other than that, you park your car at your own risk,” said Lisbeth Caiaffa, who has lived three doors down from the Elat Market parking lot since 2003. “It’s a war zone during the week.”

Spotting a reporter taking notes, a few neighbors stopped for a moment in front of Caiaffa’s lawn. 

“They’ve hit my car,” a broad-shouldered man wearing a baseball cap said, before continuing down Wooster. “Those trucks are wide.” 

But if the trucks and the carts are an annoyance to some, the biggest complaints from the neighbors relate to parking. Caiaffa expressed frustration at having to compete for street parking with the customers from Elat Market and Glatt Mart. 

Some will even park a cart in the street, “as a strategy to block off a parking space,” Caiaffa said. 

She is just as annoyed with customers who idle in their cars in the middle of the street, waiting to make the turn into the Elat or Glatt parking lots. 

“The LAPD needs to come down here and start ticketing people for blocking the street,” said Brooks Thomas, who lives on Wooster. 

Paul Neuman, director of communications for Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz, who represents the district, said that some neighbors have contacted the office. 

“There have been some constituent calls and comments, but they have lessened a bit as of late,” Neuman said, adding that the markets had increased their staffing of their parking lots recently. 

The new city ordinance doesn’t apply to existing stores — although the city has instructed its planning department to conduct a study on how to apply the requirement to keep carts on grocery properties. And, if that requirement were implemented, it could require the owners of the Pico-Robertson markets to hire additional staff to escort every shopping cart that went out their doors, no matter whether the customer wanted assistance or not. 

The stores already do some of this, to varying degrees. Moreover, in addition to paying the independent cart collector for his services, the groceries’ owners also periodically instruct their staff to pick up any carts left outside in the area immediately surrounding their stores. 

But the other “containment systems” — physical barriers and electronic wheel-locking mechanisms — aren’t options for these grocers. 

For one, all four stores have parking lots that are not immediately adjacent to their buildings, which means customers must cross city-owned or private property — streets and alleys, for example — so erecting a physical barrier to prevent the carts from leaving the stores would also cut off customer access to the parking lot. Furthermore, according to Elat Market’s Novin and Glatt Mart’s Davidpour, the city will not allow the grocery store owners to install the electronic perimeters that are necessary to run a wheel-locking system that would cross those city-owned sidewalks or alleys. 

And as for the truck that currently trolls the streets in Pico-Robertson, that wouldn’t satisfy the new ordinance as written. 

“That’s not a containment system. That’s a retrieval system,” said Tom Rothmann of the Los Angeles City Planning Department. “The point is to not let them go off the site.”

Rothmann said that the future for Pico-Robertson shoppers might look something like other cities, where folding carts — “granny wagons” — are sold at the register “for a nominal fee.” 

“People in New York walk more than half a block with their groceries,” he said. 

“We would love to set up barriers,” Glatt Mart’s Davidpour said. He and his co-owners also own Cambridge Farms, a kosher grocery store in Valley Village, and there they use a wheel-locking system for the store and its adjacent lot, Davidpour said.

“We have about 300 shopping carts and we haven’t lost a single one in the last four years,” Davidpour said.  

According to a leading manufacturer of cart-retention systems, what Los Angeles won’t allow has already been done in other cities in California, including Sacramento, San Francisco and Long Beach. 

“It’s a matter of what the particular design calls for — where the perimeter stopping point is to be placed — and what are the city’s proclivities,” John French, the founder and CEO of Carttronics, said. His San Diego-based company has installed 3,000 cart retention systems in 35 counties. “In the case of L.A., I would think that they would be willing to be accommodating.”

In the meantime, many customers appear to be doing what they can to make sure that the carts don’t go missing. One Friday afternoon, I saw a woman heading toward Pico Glatt Mart pick up a cart on her way to the store and push it down the block, into the store. 

And it turned out that Mermell Nicholas, the 93-year-old on the bench at the neighborhood’s eponymous intersection, wasn’t waiting for the bus that stops on the south side of Pico. He got up, took his bags out of the shopping cart and carried them across the street to the stop for the bus that heads north on Robertson. 

Nicholas explained that pushing the cart across Pico would make it more difficult for the cart to make it back to the store. 

But was it really necessary to take the cart down the block in the first place? 

Nicholas — who was carrying 20 pounds of fruit and vegetables, not to mention eggs, soup mix, and some other items — put it this way.

“Every bit helps.”

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