SINGAPORE: Abandoned shopping trolleys are a problem that never seems to go away.
Supermarkets - both in Singapore and overseas - are constantly grappling with the issue, as they try to minimise the cost from lost trolleys or the extra time spent having to retrieve them.
Last month, CNA reported that supermarket trolleys are abandoned daily along the road at Sengkang's Rivervale Crescent.
Residents told CNA that the abandoned trolleys, which come from a nearby NTUC FairPrice, have been an issue for years, despite the supermarket chain's efforts at public education.
A spokesperson from Singapore’s largest supermarket chain told CNA then: “Last year alone, we received over 3,300 reports of unreturned and abandoned trolleys.”
It is a problem that seems to have grown over time.
In 2016, NTUC FairPrice in a press release said that it lost about 1,000 trolleys in 2015, costing the organisation more than S$150,000 in replacements, repairs and manpower required for retrieval of abandoned trolleys. This was an almost 20 per cent increase from five years before, when more than 800 trolleys were lost for the year.
In the same press release, the supermarket chain announced a Trolley Enforcement project at FairPrice outlets at Jurong Point Shopping Mall, where customers would be informed that the supermarket would take action against shoppers who wheel trolleys out from the mall.
While public education seems to be the main strategy in Singapore, could there be other methods to nudge more shoppers into returning their trolleys?
AN ELECTRONIC WHEEL LOCK AND A NATION-WIDE RETRIEVAL SYSTEM
Supermarkets overseas have tried measures including an electronic wheel lock system in Australia and a nation-wide trolley retrieval service in the UK.
In 2015, the Cairns Post reported that Australian supermarket giant Coles installed an electronic wheel lock system on trolleys for its stores located in the city of Cairns. The system clamps down on a trolley’s front wheels when it is pushed to the perimeters of shopping centres.
In response to CNA’s queries, a Coles spokesperson said that the organisation spends a “significant amount” maintaining its trolley fleet each year, which includes the cost of collecting trolleys that have been removed from store premises.
“Abandoned trolleys are a nuisance to local communities and we are actively working to make this better across the nation, including regular collections of abandoned trolleys with vehicles on the road daily and installing wheel lock systems where suitable.”
However, the spokesperson noted that the electronic wheel system is not suitable for all store sites, as the layout of a site could mean that installation is “not technically or operationally feasible”.
UK media reported in 2013 the launch of an app to track abandoned trolleys. The Trolleywise app allows people to report abandoned supermarket trolleys by taking a photo, while a GPS signal gives its exact location.
A Trolleywise collection team, funded by supermarket retailers, will pick up the trolley and return it to the right supermarket chain.
Other than Trolleywise, UK residents can also report abandoned trolleys to their local city council. Many city councils have pages on their website dedicated to reporting abandoned trolleys.
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Could these methods work in Singapore? Locally, FairPrice told CNA that it has previously tried solutions such as installing proximity auto-locking systems and collecting identity cards in exchange for trolley usage.
“However, recalcitrant and socially inconsiderate customers would find ways to bypass these measures, which were costly to implement and affected the majority of shoppers who would responsibly return trolleys,” the spokesperson said.
“The crux of the issue is the need for greater responsibility and civic-mindedness among the community. Shopping trolleys are provided as a value added service for customers and we continue to urge the public to return them after use.”
However, a Sheng Siong spokesperson said that the launch of the OneService app in 2016, which allows people to report abandoned supermarket trolleys, has helped them “a lot”.
The Dairy Farm Group, which runs the Cold Storage and Giant supermarket chains in Singapore, declined to respond to CNA's queries.
WHAT MORE CAN BE DONE?
Public education might still be the best way to deal with the issue, agreed behavioural experts.
National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said that public education and constant reminders “should continue”, adding that trolley stations placed near mall exits could help.
Meanwhile, Temasek Polytechnic’s Dr Tan Wah Pheow, who heads the polytechnic’s Centre for Applied Behavioural and Social Sciences, suggested that supermarkets can deliver groceries to those who may find it challenging to return shopping trolleys. These customers include people with disabilities and the elderly.
However, he suspects that people who abandon shopping trolleys are doing so because they think it is “harmless” or that they are “providing a job for supermarket staff”.
“One way is to try to appeal to people’s goodness and try to educate them on the potential harm that their actions may bring,” he said, as supermarket staff may have to work extra hours or the abandoned shopping trolley may inconvenience residents or other customers.
Correcting misconceptions, including the fact that supermarket staff will still be “gainfully employed” even if customers return their shopping trolley could help, he added.
While the OneService app and the FairPrice customer hotlines have been “useful”, public education is still the “best approach” to address the issue, said FairPrice’s spokesperson.
“We will continue to look at ways to enhance our efforts to reduce trolley abandonment, particularly through engaging and educating the community and once again remind errant shoppers to be responsible and return our trolleys after use.”