ISSAQUAH — On a busy holiday shopping day at Issaquah Commons, some shopping carts had gone rogue. Three from Target were left in a coveted empty parking spot. One from Trader Joe’s was inexplicably outside the doors of REI. Another, unlabeled, was sideways on a grassy mound.

There may have been cart chaos within the retail area, but the buggies wouldn’t go much farther beyond the expansive parking lot. Some, affixed with locking systems or metal poles, didn’t even make it out of the store.

That’s by design: In early 2022, Issaquah began holding large retailers responsible for their carts after city staff recovered more than 1,000 abandoned from 13 stores over a six-month period. Stores are required to contain their carts, and retrieve them, if they’re left elsewhere in the city. Businesses that don’t comply could face fees and need to come up with a formal containment and retrieval plan.

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The regulations appear to have made a difference. Since March, city staff recovered nearly 90% fewer abandoned carts than they did before, according to the city. Shopping cart theft is already outlawed in Washington state, but Issaquah is one of several cities in the Puget Sound region that have taken a heavier-handed approach toward retailers or the people pushing the carts.

The cities’ measures often hinge on a balance between communities that don’t want carts strewn over areas where they don’t belong, and a rise in homelessness and numbers of vulnerable people who use carts for survival.

New regulations in Federal Way that went into effect in December ban pushing or possessing a cart in a city right of way, like a sidewalk. Everett introduced a shopping cart recovery program in September, where residents can report abandoned carts. Other cities such as Auburn and Bellevue have ordinances related to shopping carts and how retailers should contain them.


“Just like if you see a pile of garbage in a parking lot, it implies no one cares enough if an area is clean. It sends a wrong message that no one cares about the community,” said Paul Hintz, principal planner for the city of Renton, which in 2016 adopted more stringent regulations that fine retailers $100 for each impounded cart. “This puts a little responsibility on those stores.”

In Issaquah, the number of abandoned cart reports increased beginning in summer 2021, and most were concentrated near the Issaquah Transit Center, according to city documents. The number of people who were taking a cart to a bus or were experiencing homelessness didn’t explain the rise, city officials said.

“As we reached out to stores, it became clear that shoplifting was the main reason for this increase,” Issaquah economic development manager Jen Davis Hayes said at a January 2022 City Council meeting.

The regulations apply to 22 Issaquah retailers — stores with 15 carts or fewer are exempt — and requires them to tag their carts with a label that the cart is the property of the store, that taking the cart is unlawful and a phone number to call if found. Of the 22 stores, 19 are compliant and the remaining three have plans in place to add signs, city spokesperson Thomas Rush said.

Some stores modify their carts for added security. At Ross Dress for Less, carts have tall metal poles extending above the cart that hit a metal bar nailed to the exit doors. Target and QFC provide carts that automatically stop if taken beyond the perimeter of the parking lot.

The modifications can affect the customer experience: Ross buyers have to take their bags out of the cart and carry them to their cars or transit. The label on the QFC carts warn the cart may stop unexpectedly at the store’s exit.


“It’s not ideal for people who aren’t trying to steal the cart,” said Melinda Merrill, lobbyist for the Northwest Grocery Association, which represents chain and independent grocers, vendors and suppliers.

Federal Way’s new rules focus on the people behind the carts with its ban on pushing or using a cart in a city right of way. The city will spend about $250,000 this year to implement the ban, which carries a $50 fine and allows the city to take the cart.

The thefts and abandonments were so prolific that the city has an infamous “shopping cart jail,” where hundreds of carts are lined up by retailer on a fenced lot. Target carts are especially prevalent. The company was also mentioned by Issaquah officials when discussing the city’s rules. A Target spokesperson confirmed the Issaquah store installed signs in its cart system and uses a system called Gatekeeper, which locks carts’ wheels. The spokesperson didn’t respond to additional questions sent by The Seattle Times.

Federal Way resident David Zumwalt, who goes around the city to retrieve carts as a volunteer, reasoned that Target carts are plastic, making them lighter and easier to maneuver. Zumwalt said he was homeless in Federal Way for about eight years.

For people without housing, the shopping carts might be the only method of transporting or keeping track of their belongings.

“They are pushing everything they have owned, or in their mind they still own, and it’s about survival,” he said.


Retailers can be charged to get their carts back, though that depends on what steps they’ve taken to label and contain them. Federal Way City Councilmember Jack Walsh said stores that do take additional steps aren’t at fault.

“If somebody has their car stolen, you’re not blaming the car owner for a stolen car,” he said.

David Harrison, executive director of FUSION, a Federal Way nonprofit, said he understands the intent of the rules, but doesn’t agree with the steps the city took. The people targeted by the rules can’t afford the $50 fine, he added.

“They are the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable, and they get trapped in this cycle where society continues to push them down,” he said. “It’s one more thing that keeps them in the situation they are in.”

Grocery retailers have dealt with cart theft for years, but no one seems to have found a deterrent that works, Merrill said. Even with a wheel-locking system, two people can just lift the cart.

In Oregon, the grocery association has its own cart retrieval system it hopes to bring to Washington this year. Carts are labeled with a QR code that provides the location for a crew to retrieve and return them to the retailer for a fee that depends on the business, location and number of carts. But the fee is less than it would cost to replace a stolen one — a store cart can have a price tag of $100 or more.

“It’s not a cheap loss, or not something we don’t care about, by any means,” Merrill said.