Serious baskets: The shopping cart economy in South L.A.

July 5, 2011, 9:19 a.m.

Photo by Alexandra Schmidt

This story was funded in part by the community at Spot.Us

George Rios’ mother sometimes gives him a hard time about his work. When she arrived from Mexico, she’d push her kids around in shopping carts, or use the carts to take laundry to the laundromat.

“That was me,” she’ll tell him.

But George has a job to do, and that means confronting the women who use the carts the way his mom did. “I say, ‘You know what, you don’t have no groceries. You gotta take your kids out. Let ‘em walk, get some exercise’,” he’ll say. “One thing, I got a sense of humor. You have to. You can’t let these people get to you. ‘Cause, like I said, this job – it will get you sick, if you let it.”

George works for a shopping cart retrieval company in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Los Angeles – his area extends from Martin Luther King, Jr Boulevard, south to Imperial Boulevard, and between Avalon Boulevard on the east, and West Boulevard, near the border with Inglewood, to the west.

His job is to get shopping carts back to the markets that own them. So, on another level, his work is a constant judgment call about whom to get tough with. To many folks, after all, carts are more than just a vehicle to drive through grocery aisles.

Serious baskets

In a city with poor public transportation, and in neighborhoods where many can’t afford cars, shopping carts are truly useful items.
“They take the baskets serious,” George says.

There are enough carts on the streets of Los Angeles to support the 40 drivers Hernandez Cart Service, George’s employer, pays full-time, as well as Hernandez’s two competing shopping cart retrieval companies. George picks up a cart every five minutes or less. On some days, he collects as many as 200.

Most of the guys who work for Hernandez Cart Service don’t want to work in the neighborhood where George works. Some people around there don’t react too kindly to having carts taken away — George has had guns pulled on him. But he grew up in gangs, among white people, black people, all kinds. From his days in a Venice gang, he has a tattoo on one of his calves that says “West” and a tattoo on the other that says “L.A.”

He knows how to defuse violence.

“You have to talk to these people, you have to relate to these people,” he says. “My method is, ‘Hey I’m doing a job dude. I’m goin’ straight’…They tell me I’m mean. It’s not that. It’s just that I need to do this job. This is what I live off of. I gotta earn mine.”

George has seen carts used for pretty much everything: moving appliances, taking laundry to the laundromat, storing personal belongings, sitting on, taking out the trash, selling tamales, taking bottles to the recycling center and getting groceries home from the market.

That last use is the main reason George has a job.

Carts: Made to raise the bottom line

Shopping carts, however useful in other settings, were invented as a way to get people to buy more.

Sylvan Goldman, a grocery store owner in Oklahoma, noticed people were having trouble carrying things. In 1937, he created the first shopping cart prototype, attaching baskets to a folding chair with wheels. The market for shopping carts in the U.S. is in the high tens of millions of dollars, according to Unarco, one of the country’s leading manufacturers.

Carts are a service stores offer buyers as a convenience, but it’s one that helps the businesses come out ahead because they encourage people to buy more goods.

In South L.A., the retrieval service is another level to the shopping cart service itself. Supermarkets would lose money if the carts stayed on the streets since they cost about $100 each. At El Super, on Slauson and Vermont, the market runs completely out of carts multiple times a day because of how many people take them.

But the cart service helps the market for another reason: since many folks don’t have cars, they might buy less or not at all if they couldn’t take the carts off the premises to get the goods home.

An ideal gig

George was born and raised by the beach, but he got out of the crime life a long time ago. He’s worked in cart retrieval for over 20 years, in nearly every neighborhood of the city. When he was working in Santa Monica and Culver City, he’d say “Hi” to people, and got used to hearing them say it back.

“Over here, I say good morning and these people think I’m crazy. It’s a whole different world over here,” he said.

George lives with and helps support his aging parents, who got priced out of Venice and bought a house in this neighborhood.

George cannot abide certain things about the neighborhood where he lives and works now, like the people who leave trash in the carts, expecting that he’ll remove them from their property.

He’s not a garbage man, he says, though his work outfit might suggest otherwise: it consists of a T-shirt, loose black pants, tennis shoes, a reflective vest and dirt-caked gloves. He buys a new pair every two months.

George has had a handful of other jobs, but the carts are, by far, his favorite. He works 10-hour days because he likes it. He can work at his own pace, which is quick. Driving around with the windows down, scanning the landscape for the thing that most other people ignore, he pulls over fast and turns on his hazard lights.

He collects the carts by stomping down on the back bar, and bouncing the front noisily up onto the bed of his low slung pick-up truck.

George’s boss gets paid each time George makes a delivery, which consists of 15 carts. The more deliveries George makes, the better his boss pays him (though he won’t say how much that is). And, with all the carts out there, there’s no end to how much he can make. The sky’s the limit.

A changing cart economy

There’s a chance George’s job is at risk. More supermarkets are putting in technology that prevents carts from being taken off retail premises. The systems – like Gate Keeper and Cartronics – place a locking wheel and sensor on carts, and electronic monitors around the store.

If the cart is taken beyond the perimeter of the store, the wheels lock. More supermarkets are adding these, and that would be bad news for the Georges of the world, and the consumers who depend on the carts, especially in this neighborhood.

Yet, if that were to happen, it could pave the way for manufacturers to sell the carts to consumers. Given the usefulness of the items, it seems puzzling that they don’t do it already. But Jerry Scott, an account director at shopping cart manufacturer Unarco, says it’s a question of margins – it just makes less economic sense than selling them in bulk. Plus, it seems unlikely that people would pay $100 for the carts when they can take them from stores at no cost at all.

With the current system, individuals find endless ways to use the carts. Shopping carts in South L.A. represent the creativity of folks with extremely limited means to close the gaps in the challenges of their everyday lives.

Ironically, so does George’s company. What he does is a secondary market built on top of a secondary market, sometimes reversing the gains of those who were creative in the first place. It’s no wonder he feels ambivalent about his work.

Enforcing sharing

In a way, George is enforcing sharing. The carts are a never ending, shared resource in a resource-starved area, thanks in great part to cart retrieval. People know there will always be carts at the stores for them to take, and that’s why it doesn’t matter where they leave them on the streets.

George is constantly being asked for sympathy: by people who want to keep the carts, by folks hungry for food or just for a quarter. But he’s working to replenish their baby strollers, moving equipment and tamale stands every single day, 10 hours a day.

Still, on his route recently, he saw a woman walking on the sidewalk with a child in a cart and no groceries.

He asked respectfully out the window, “Va a el super?” – Are you going to the market? She replied, unworried and absentmindedly, “Si,” as if the interaction had taken place before. “She’s on her way to the market," George said. He didn't really believe her, but drove on anyway.

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