Why are so many shopping carts missing from my grocery store? An investigation

Washington Post photo by Rachel Manteuffel
Left: An abandoned Safeway shopping cart in Washington, D.C.
Right: A Safeway shopping cart in Washington, D.C., that’s been reclaimed by the Earth.

It is a nice Safeway, located on 14th Street in Southeast Washington, D.C.; indeed, it is going to great pains to be nice. This grocery store has an oyster bar. You can get gelato scooped to order. Ask employees where to find an item, and they will leave what they’re stocking to escort you there. Nice.

This is dispatch No. 98,742 from the files of why we can’t have nice things. The fact is, something is very wrong here. It is something you discover as soon as you enter the store.

Likely as not, there’s a shopper loitering furtively in the empty lobby. Maybe two or more. These people have no groceries, though they clearly came to shop. Deborah Park is one such customer. She’s waiting in the empty lobby because there are no shopping carts and no hand baskets. Park is lying in wait for customers as they exit, hoping to claim their cart. There are simply no carts. It’s been like this for weeks and weeks, Park says. Maybe people are stealing them for scrap metal? Park’s husband, Eric Terzuolo, walks up to her, pushing a cart. He’d been lurking in the downstairs parking lot, doubling the couple’s chances of snagging a cart, and he vultured one. During their explanation, they keep glancing at the cart Terzuolo found, in case someone tries to grab it for themselves.

The drastic cart shortage goes as far back as April, one employee tells me. People just walk out, pushing carts full of groceries they’ve bought. They walk them home, sometimes for miles, laden with groceries, and then leave the carts in the street, on their lawns, wherever. (The worker, who like other employees said she was forbidden by Safeway to talk to the media, would not give her name.) She says she’s seen one of the store’s electric-powered wheelchair carts – they used to have four and now have one – abandoned on Pennsylvania Avenue.

It’s a problem for lots of grocery stores, in D.C. and elsewhere; some customers here bring carts that were stolen from Giant. This Safeway – which I consider my Safeway – buys hundreds of new carts every month, another employee says, and almost all of those walk out the door and never return. Among shoppers you can witness exasperation over missing carts, and contention over available carts, rising to shouting matches. You can witness grown men, tall men, in shamed desperation, using those one-foot-high “Customer in Training” kiddie carts.

After the last 2 1/2 years we’ve had, it apparently can feel like we’re teetering on the edge of being a community, like we’re not all in this together. Like maybe you could just keep pushing the cart home and never bring it back. Like maybe no one else is counting on your cart returning.

Dmitry Orlov, author of “The Five Stages of Collapse,” posits that the disintegration of a society has stages, like grief, as people lose their trust in the status quo. Stage 2 is commercial collapse: “Faith that ‘the market shall provide’ is lost. … Commodities are hoarded, import and retail chains break down, and widespread shortages of survival necessities become the norm.”

How dire is the problem? On recent long walks with my dog, I counted 11 abandoned grocery carts in our neighborhood alone: five clumped together as if the result of five separate trips; one behind a locked fence at the local rec center; one covered in vegetation in a weedy lot, as if being reclaimed by the Earth; one that seems to live at the bus stop; and one, incongruously, with a new car tire in it, wrapped in plastic, outside a school.

Here I would give you numbers and statements from Safeway, a corporate explanation about dedication to customers, costs of replacement, plans, etc. But I can’t do that, because the person whose job it is to answer media questions about area Safeways declined to do so, instead referring me to a trade association because she said it is an industry-wide problem, and ignoring all further efforts to communicate. No figures. No quotes. No defense. The trade association referred me to a company that sells cart security systems.

It is, in short, a grim situation, and one that no entity seems to want to take responsibility for. And yet, the thing about teetering on the edge of civilizational collapse is that we could end up falling either way. Farther from one another – or maybe, just maybe, closer.

Recently, an older man was leaving with a full cart; a middle-aged woman was waiting in despair. The man looked at his cart. It would be tough to get it all to his car in one armload. Still, he looked at the woman. Would you like this cart? he asked gallantly. I’m done with it. She looked at him and understood. Then they were hugging.

I also witnessed, on my block, a woman pushing small children in an abandoned shopping cart. They were loving it.

And a community has its truth-tellers, willing to put themselves at risk. Outside Safeway one evening in September, Steven Powe, a Safeway customer service worker, stood in his Safeway uniform and Safeway nameplate, sourly regarding the lobby. There was one forlorn shopping cart in it.

“What’s the story with the carts?” I asked Powe.

“The story? The story is that the boss is an idiot.” He seemed to mean a proverbial boss, like “the management,” rather than a person.


“They spent all their money buying new carts, which were stolen right away. They should have spent money on carts with security that you can’t steal.”

“But … why did they do that?”

“Because,” he said, patiently, “the boss is an idiot.”

“Do you mind if I quote you in The Washington Post?”

“No, the public needs to know.”

“Are you sure it is okay? They might …”

“I don’t care. I retire in six months.”