Stores frantically shopping for solutions to cart thefts

An answer? Invisible fence that locks their wheels

Denny Plumb, a retired cop, considered himself lucky in a recent trip to Bremerton’s Fred Meyer.

He managed to grab the last shopping cart at the north entrance, while other shoppers could be seen entering the store and immediately backtracking to the parking lot to get their hands on one of the few carts strewn about. There was no major sale, simply a Monday afternoon, not even peak shopping hours, and carts were still scarce.

“It ticks me off,” Plumb said bluntly, managing a chuckle all the same. “When you have people stealing things, they’re doing things that they have no business monkeying with. From my perspective, maybe I’m a little more harsh with it.”

The city of Bremerton and surrounding jurisdictions have become hubs for unregulated and unprosecuted shopping cart thefts, leaving customers and retailers more often than not playing the least fun game of scavenger hunt imaginable.

Unfortunately, the majority of what they are looking for is no longer on site, with carts scattered across public roads, parks, trails and private property. Identification tags showing what store they belong to are often stripped off, and either occupied or not, it’s not uncommon to find plenty of unpleasantries inside the baskets.

One man living off Highway 303 said he had around five carts in front of his property, blocking the driveway. John Peterson’s calls to the State Patrol, he said, proved unfruitful in getting them removed, leaving him to do the task. “Somebody came one day and swapped carts over the weekend,” he said. “They took a blue one and left another one.”

Cart theft was already an issue growing out of control in 2022, linked to a similarly growing homelessness crisis, and both have ballooned over the past year. Why the proliferation? Officials said shoppers simply are not returning carts, there is a lack of security and state law makes it nearly impossible to prosecute offenders.

With no changes in sight, businesses are left picking up the bill, and customers pay more at the register to make up the difference. “We’re hopefully trying to get a grant to get these (carts) because they’re like, $150 to $250 just for a cart,” said Melinda McMullan, store manager at St. Vincent de Paul. “We try to watch all our dollars.”

St. Vincent de Paul’s new superstore inside Wheaton Mall opened months ago with around 25 carts donated, McMullan said. Now there are five, forcing the store to use volunteers to make sure carts are coming back.

Ironically, the store has been left with a number of stolen shopping carts from various homeless people, which has helped ease their burden. However, McMullan said it’s really nothing to feel good about. “We have to protect our carts. It’s so bad. We just don’t get them back,” she said.

The crisis has led some companies to explore investing in cart security systems. Paul Morgan, general manager for Bremerton’s Grocery Outlet, said the store already locks up its carts nightly but still finds more and more stolen every week. “It’s really a matter of not noticing if somebody comes and grabs it during the day—during what is already busy work,” he said. “It’s like being robbed.”

However, upon moving into its future location just down the road at Bremerton Station, Morgan said the store has been OK’d to install an invisible fence and locking wheels on carts would be triggered when taken outside established boundaries. “They won’t be able to get off the lot unless they carry them, and that kind of defeats the purpose of getting something with wheels,” he said.

Locking wheels have already seemed to have some effect at stores like Winco, its Silverdale property often seen with carts right at the edge of the parking lot. Morgan expects his store to not be the only one to make the move in future months, saying he believes it could cease the majority of cart thefts. Until then, however, it’s a frustrating game for everybody, especially those not in a position to purchase the anti-theft technology. “I’m not sure what it would cost, with all of that on,” McMullan said. “We just want our carts back.”