Navigating one's way through the parking lot of a grocery-anchored shopping center requires an Olympic effort these days. The combination of vehicular traffic, pedestrians and shopping carts makes it an obstacle course that tests a motorist's nerves and driving acumen.

St. Louis-based Verlok, a leading manufacturer of shopping cart locks, aims to corral that problem through a shopping cart management program that fosters good customer habits and helps businesses run more profitably.

How it works The Verlok access and return system requires a customer to insert a quarter into a Verlok unit to detach a shopping cart from a nest of carts. To retrieve the deposit, the shopper simply returns the cart to its station and inserts a key that links it back to others in the nest.

Such systems offered by Verlok and its competitors are universal in Europe and nearly so in Canada, says Thomas Hizar, president of Verlok. In Europe, shopping cart management systems have been in place for nearly 20 years.

In the United States, Hizar adds, the concept was introduced much later and is gaining acceptance on the East and West coasts. The Verlok system can be found in the United States, Canada, Europe and South America.

"Generally, better than 90% of customers see the benefits of the Verlok system," says Hizar. "About 5% or 6% of consumers are mildly negative. That problem can be resolved by having someone explain to them how it works so they can become familiar with the system."

Verlok, which is Italian for "true lock," was founded in 1990. The company's locking devices are sold to retailers such as A&P, Kmart, Big Bear Stores, Kroger, Piggly Wiggly, Safeway, Wal-Mart, Sobeys, Toys 'R' Us and Bigg's.

Careening out of control? New research indicates that problems with shopping carts may be the single biggest frustration that shoppers face, according to Verlok (see chart at right).

Results of a survey commissioned by Verlok show that more than 90% of respondents believe retailers should take action to solve the problem of shopping carts that hit vehicles, block parking spaces or are hard to push because of faulty wheels. Interviews were conducted among heads of households who regularly used shopping carts in late 1998.

While it's common knowledge that shopping cart clutter is a nuisance, the costs historically haven't been well documented by retailers, says Hizar. A typical store operating with 300 shopping carts, for example, needs to ring up more than $12 million in annual sales to cover the cost of purchasing and maintaining a shopping cart fleet, according to Verlok. Cart replacement, repairs, labor and claims are among the costs of doing business.

Return on investment The Verlok shopping cart management system saves retailers money by reducing cart theft and damage, say company officials. Customers who are provided an incentive to reclaim their deposits are less likely to abandon carts at their cars or remove carts from the lot.

Also, when carts are in their corrals, they avoid run-ins with cars and customers. A parking lot free of shopping cart clutter may also mean a drop in insurance premiums for business owners, say Verlok officials. And with carts in conveniently located corrals, employees will spend less time collecting carts from far corners of the lot.

Ultimately, an improved cart management system might help retailers earn repeat business.

For more information, please contact Verlok at 314-427-5600.