Penny-pinching shoppers are thieving from Jackson’s four large grocers, walking off time and again with the prized food-toting devices known as handheld baskets.
The problem is so acute that some of the grocers who refill empty pantries and refrigerators throughout Jackson Hole are at risk of totally running out of the conventional shopping cart’s smaller wheelless sibling. As to the cause, all signs point toward the town of Jackson’s plastic bag ban, instated nearly five months ago along with a 20-cent charge for each paper bag.
At Lucky’s Market, Assistant Manager Matt Wall changed up his checkout counters to accommodate the bag ban and made it into the early summer before he connected the dots.
“I didn’t expect it to happen,” Wall told the News&Guide Monday during a break from restocking greens. “Two months in, we started to realize that we had like half the baskets that we started the ban with. We realized that they were walking out the door.”
Store management discussed doing away with handheld baskets, but opted not to because of their unrivaled convenience for shoppers who need no more than a dinner’s worth of items. Instead, Lucky’s customers who opt to load their basket with their groceries are now given a friendly reminder to return them to the store.
“The cashiers started doing it on their own,” Wall said. “They’re just like, ‘Hey, can you please bring that back? We really like our baskets.’ ”
Wall is stopping short of running down grocery shoppers who he sees flouting the rules, because the loss of a basket isn’t worth a confrontation.
But at Smith’s, shoppers who stroll through the automatic sliding doors with a basket in hand are soon likely to be electronically shamed.
“Since the bag ban went into effect, we have placed security tags on our hand baskets,” Smith’s spokeswoman Aubriana Martindale said from the corporate command center in Salt Lake City. “We just needed to find a solution to figure out how we can retain those baskets.”
To get to that point, Smith’s managers first had to hit rock bottom. Or, at least, they nearly ran out of baskets. Although Smith’s operates 132 stores in seven western states, none of them had to confront a basket-disappearance problem or resort to an electronic solution like in Jackson, Martindale said.
Jackson Whole Grocer General Manager Tom Scott concurred with that assessment. Before coming to Teton County he owned and ran grocery stores in the San Francisco Bay area, where plastic bag bans were also put into place.
“When it occurred, we didn’t lose the baskets,” Scott said.
Jackson Hole has plenty of unique qualities, but it is not alone in bag-ban-driven rashes of handbasket theft. A quick Google search shows that shops like the Countdown Market in Orewa, New Zealand, and the Lake City Grocery Outlet in Seattle have dealt with the same problem.
Whole Grocer’s higher-end products tend to attract a high-dollar client, and presumably they’d be less inclined to steal a basket in order to avoid paying 20 cents for a bag. Not so. Whole Grocer also has a nicer basket, and those too started going missing with unprecedented frequency.
“There’s a certain amount of attrition with those anyway,” Scott said. “But all of the sudden it was like, ‘Wow, there’s none.’ ”
Whole Grocer recently put in its annual order for a refill of baskets, which Scott guesses dwindled to around 30 from its normal stock of about 100. In response to people pilfering its baskets, the family-owned store started a policy of requiring a clerk to escort shoppers to their vehicles when baskets leave the store. They’ve also started stocking cardboard fruit and vegetable boxes at the counter for grocery hauling, which are being taken for free at a rate of around 100 a day.
Albertsons is still grappling with how to respond to its own case of mass basket theft. It’s currently the only Jackson Hole grocer with an abundance of handheld baskets, but that’s only because Store Manager Bonnie Stalenski put in a summer order for a couple hundred to supplement her depleted supply.
“They always walk away, but this summer has been worse,” Stalenski said. “I’ve talked to my corporate office to try to figure it out, but we haven’t really come up with a good solution.
“I don’t know why people would need to have those,” she said. “What do they do with them afterward? ... Maybe they have good intentions, but I don’t see them coming back.”
At Lucky’s, meanwhile, the hand baskets have become a bona fide endangered commodity.
“We had about seven last week, and I think we’ve got five now,” Wall said. “They’re still disappearing.”
This story has been updated to correct the names of Whole Grocer employee Tom Scott and Lucky's Market employee Matt Wall. -Eds