Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Trouble with Electric Shopping Carts (Part II)

This is the second part of the article series I wrote in 2005 for my column in the Arizona City Independent/Edition about the original problems with electric shopping carts:

Going the Distance (Part II)

In the first part of this article, I introduced the fact that working electric carts for disabled people are often unavailable at large retail stores. The problem is compounded by the attitude of many employees. That’s why I’m suggesting some changes to better accommodate the needs of disabled customers. A little common sense and courtesy can help stores keep a significant number of their patrons happy, so they’ll spend more money there.

The solution to the cart problem falls into two major areas: cart maintenance and customer relations.

The task of maintaining carts is fourfold: Cart “wrangling,” regular tuneups, emergency care, and cart location.

Wrangling is done by door greeters or other people posted near where carts wait for pickup and delivery. Most grocery stores correctly do this in an area with an electrical source, so unused carts can be plugged in as much as possible and remain charged most of the time.

Sadly, in newer discount stores, this isn’t usually the case. Carts are charged in an area off the foyer where regular carts are stored, but they often sit idle next to the front doors, far from an electrical source. Since the most common problem occurs when they run out of “fuel” in the middle of a huge store, carts should be attached to a “fueling station” whenever they’re not in use.

But even well-charged carts break down. I was prompted to write these articles when a cart I was using stopped moving in the middle of a local discount store. The battery light showed a good charge, and the soft mechanical purr when I pushed the handle indicated the engine was working, so I knew the machine had probably slipped its gears.

Breakdowns can be avoided through regular maintenance, but no amount of upkeep can prevent every emergency. Dealing with the problem in a timely manner is the responsibility of management, at the store as well as higher up the corporate ladder. Of course, it’s also the wrangler’s duty to report ailing carts immediately, so the “little cart doctor” can repair them quickly!

I’ve made one more logistical suggestion to both local and corporate people at one company, but haven’t seen any action yet. Since so many “snow birds” move south for the winter then fly north when things heat up, the company should do the same with a percentage of their carts. It wouldn’t be difficult to manage, since trucks move all around the country, and many trips are “deadheads,” with little or no cargo when rigs must move to distant pick-up locations.

Dealing with the cart issue can be problematic because of the negative attitudes of some people toward disabled people. It’s important for store employees to remember that customers keep them in business, even disabled ones. So the first rule of customer service applies, even in this situation: Every cart request must be taken seriously.

Problems can occur because greeters are often older and/or disabled themselves. When a working cart isn’t available for someone who manages to walk into the store, employees sometimes give the impression they don’t believe it would hurt them to continue walking instead of using a cart. No one can judge how much stamina another person has or what the medical consequences would be if they overdo, so greeters should do everything possible to locate a working cart--and leave their personal opinions to themselves.

One problem occurs because many large stores have two entrances separated by a significant distance. There might be no working carts at one end, while several carts could be idle at the other entrance. Once I entered a door with no carts in sight, and the greeter used a walkie-talkie to learn that a cart was available at the other door. Even better, an employee drove that cart down the long front hall to meet me, so I didn’t have to walk the width of the store to get that cart. Now that was service!

Unfortunately, that was a one-time event. The next time I came in, the greeter on duty said her walkie-talkie wasn’t working. Translation: She didn’t feel like bothering to help me! So I walked the store and made myself sicker than usual for a couple of days. Believe me, my “normal” is bad enough!

Once when I came into the store, several carts were busy sucking up tasty electric “juice,” and the greeter said they wouldn’t be ready for at least a couple of hours. When I limped out through the same door less than an hour later, I noticed that all those “thirsty” carts had long finished their “snack” and were on the job again. So much for “a couple of hours” of recharging!

These problems wouldn’t be so bad if the staff showed real concern for disabled customers. Their attitude hurts more than the fact that walking around the store makes me so much sicker than usual. A simple declaration that they’ll find the next available cart at either door would assure me that it’s worth my time to sit on the foyer bench and wait for that next cart. The fact that I’ve only heard that promise once is the reason I don’t do that.

Another problem occurs because the baskets in those electric carts fill up quickly. One time I needed some large items, so in the middle of my shopping trip, I drove back to the entrance and asked the greeter if I could leave my first load in a regular cart where she could keep an eye on it. She didn’t seem thrilled about the idea, but she reluctantly agreed. Though it meant my spending more money, she acted as if I was imposing on her. As a result, I now deliberately plan my shopping to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

But it’s in everyone’s best interest to accommodate that request, since it would benefit non-disabled customers as well. Stores should designate an area where shoppers can park extra cartloads of goods until they’re ready to check out. If it’s very far from the entrance--in the customer-service area, for instance--they should keep a couple of empty regular carts there so no one has to haul any carts from the front--especially since people in electric carts can’t manage that task anyway.

The problem with small baskets leads me to another issue. I own an electric cart which is smaller than the ones in stores, especially the basket. I got it some years ago, so it’s not as light as newer carts. It’s difficult for me to move in and out of my car alone, even with the electric hoist, so when I shop alone, I don’t bother to bring my cart along. Instead, I hope to find a working cart at the store, but I’m usually disappointed lately.

If I knew someone would help me move my own cart in and out of my car before and after I spend money at their store, then I’d have Jim put it in the car the night before I go out. Of course, that also depends on whether there would be a place for me to park some of my overflow goodies until I’m ready to check out, as explained above.

I wonder if it’s possible to get that kind of service at my local discount store. Maybe when they realize that the money disabled people want to spend there is just as green as everybody else’s, they might decide to do something about it! It never hurts to dream!

Be sure to check back soon because I’m going to post the next article I wrote a few years later about even worse problems with electric shopping carts. Watch for it!

Part I: Going the Distance (Part I)
Part III: Disarming the Carts
Part IV: The Trouble With Electric Shopping Carts (Part IV)

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