Monday, March 05, 2007

How To Start A Local Cart Retrieval Business

Arizona Cart Retrieval Co

Despite alert store personnel, sophisticated anti-theft systems and other precautions, shopping carts seem to have lives of their own, disappearing like magic from Valley retailers.

Enter Tom Martinet, whose company, Arizona Cart Retrieval, operates every day of the year except Christmas to locate and return the carts to area businesses.

"I knew there was a cart problem," Martinet said, "but I didn't realize the extent of it until we started this service."

When Martinet began working in grocery management in the 1970s, cart theft wasn't much of a problem, he recalls. "We'd send a bagger over to the nearby apartment complex to pick up a cart or two," he said. "That was about it."

Things have changed.

In an average week, one of Martinet's contractors will have dispatched crews to round up and return close to 15,000 carts to Arizona retailers.

The retrieval service employs 18 flatbed trucks that serve more than 30 retailers and about 460 stores in the state. Clients include Fry's, Safeway, Albertsons, Wal-Mart, Family Dollar and Lowe's Home Improvement.

Martinet is philosophical about some customers' need to roll home with a private set of wheels.

"Households in certain areas buy a lot of groceries," he said. "They need a way to get them home."

Sometimes, cart-napping can even have health benefits.

"We've seen older people leaving the lot with their cart; at least they're getting a little exercise," he said. "Some of them are even using the cart as a walker. You wonder if they could make it without the cart."

Often, a single cart attracts others, Martinet adds. Recently, the company got a call from a landlord in Avondale. "He had evicted his tenant from the house and found 17 shopping carts."

"They were all in good shape; we just returned them to Wal-Mart."

Jim Oliver of OT Cart Service, a contractor for Arizona Cart Retrieval, is unflappable after 35 years in the business. Oliver said most folks are unperturbed about returning the carts.

"You get a few who have a temper, but most people realize they're not supposed to be in possession of them in the first place."

Oliver has found the carts used as unique home storage and decor solutions, too.

"People turn them on their side, lay a plywood top on it and use it for a dining room table. We've picked up carts that have been used to wheel out trash, sort the laundry, and do other household chores. They're pretty handy," he said.

Once captured, the carts are steam-cleaned or refurbished on-site using equipment loaded onto the flatbeds. Most of the repair work is limited to replacing handles and seat straps and welding wheels. Carts that can't be fixed are parted out.

A percentage of carts is retrieved from desert washes, alleys and other areas that serve as temporary homes for transients, but that number has remained steady over the years, Oliver said. "We haven't really seen an increase in the number of carts used by the homeless, especially if you compare Arizona to states like California," he adds.

Even the carts with anti-theft locking systems built into the cart's wheels are not a deterrent to a determined cart bandit.

"One guy rigged up a block of wood underneath the wheels with wire and tape. He had it sliding across the parking lot, just like a sled, and he got his groceries home that way," Oliver said. "It's kind of amazing the solutions people come up with."

Business can only continue to increase for the cart service, especially as the Valley becomes more congested. "In areas that are built up with apartment complexes, office buildings and condos, you're going to see this continue," Oliver said.

Fast-growing sections like Arrowhead are exceptions because much of the residential growth is confined to single-family homes.

The average steel shopping cart costs about $100. Custom styles, such as the plastic race car kiddie carts, cost $400 to replace. The firm works on a contract basis with retailers to retrieve carts.

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