By Mary Spicer
Bob Brooks has worked in supermarkets in a variety of places, but when it comes to shopping carts walking away from a store, the manager of Tops Friendly Markets in the Downtown Mall has never seen anything like Meadville.
“This problem is unique to this area,” Brooks told members of Meadville City Council during a special meeting convened at Wednesday afternoon at 4:15 to allow council to discuss the wandering cart situation with owners and managers of stores that provide shopping carts for the convenience of their customers. “I’ve never seen anything like this in any other location.”
Joy Gemmel, manager of the Dollar General store in the Downtown Mall, agreed, recounting how she’s gone so far as to pursue shoppers down the street to retrieve shopping carts being taken off mall property.
“We’ve tried putting conduit pipes on the carts to make them too tall to get out the door,” she said, going on to describe how people would simply bang the pipe against the top of the door until it broke — and then leave with the cart.
There was agreement among all present that Meadville has a management problem when it comes to shopping carts. What to do about it, however, wasn’t quite as clear.
Three weeks ago, Assistant City Manager Andy Walker told the group, a frustrated councilmember LeRoy Stearns brought it to council’s attention that there were a lot of abandoned shopping carts sitting around in plain sight in the City — 14 were spotted during a short tour on a single night, to be exact, and more were added to the list the following day.
“From a staff perspective, if Gary (Johnson, the city’s code enforcement officer) and I were to make a recommendation,” Walker said, “it would be that carts must be labeled with the store name and stores would be required to post signs indicating that carts must not be removed from the property.
“The ordinance might provide for the registration of carts authorized to be removed from the premises — if a registered cart is abandoned, the person who removed it from the store could be traced,” Walker said. “The city could provide notification to owners that carts are in a certain location — owners would be given notice to move them.”
“The last thing we want to do is make it punitive for you,” Mayor Christopher Soff told the cart owners. “If there’s a better way to have carts leave the store and come back, we want to hear about it.”
Two points quickly emerged: At $80 to more than $200 each, shopping carts are expensive enough that their owners are very interested in keeping them in their stores where they belong; and they’re already working hard to do just that.
Tops, which employs a contractor to go out every other day and retrieve carts, has between 50 and 150 carts located and returned each week.
Garth Valesky, owner of Valesky’s supermarket on Water Street, said his staff is out collecting carts three days per week — and if someone calls, they’ll go out and pick up the cart within 24 hours. His carts walk away, Valesky noted, even though his store also spends a lot of money offering home delivery.
Gemmel, whose store only has about 10 carts, said she spends time picking up carts herself — either on foot or in her car, which will hold a maximum of two carts per trip.
On an annual basis, Valesky reported that about 25 carts simply disappear.
Brooks estimated that Tops loses 100 carts altogether each year. In fact, the problem has become so serious that he’s started buying used carts “because we know they won’t be around for long.”
That said, Brooks expressed concern for customers who don’t have cars. So concerned, in fact, that when his corporate headquarters gave the go-ahead to set up a cart security system, he canceled it before implementation because they couldn’t figure out how to extend the system to the bus stop on the Water Street side of the mall, Brooks said.
Throughout the discussion, Brooks stressed that if a plan is developed, all cart-owning stores would have to be on board.
Councilmember Nancy Mangilo-Bittner stressed repeatedly that “there are people who lean on the cart to get to and from the store. I watch people lean on these carts.”
“The stores can’t have it both ways,” retired Meadville businessman George Flowers said. “Valesky’s can’t call the police when someone shoplifts from the store and then ignore it when someone steals a shopping cart. They are both stolen property. The police should enforce the laws — arrest people who have stolen property.” Philadelphia, where the police do just that, doesn’t have this problem, Flowers said.
While some store owners hesitated to take it that far, Gemmel is already on board. “If it leaves the Downtown Mall parking lot, it’s stolen,” she said.
In the end, a committee consisting of councilmembers Stearns and Bob Langley was formed to, as Stearns put it, “Work with businesses to make it safer and more pleasant to drive through town.”
Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.