From produce aisle to checkout lane: All things grocery in Washington

Correction:

Several TBD readers pointed out that there are, in fact, two cart escalators in D.C. grocery stores. The Harris Teeter at 14th and Pennsylvania SE and the Harris Teeter at 1201 1st St. NE both have cart escalators in their parking garages.

Get ready for cart escalators, D.C. shoppers

September 2, 2011 - 11:23 AM
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The cart escalator at the Foggy Bottom Whole Foods. (Photo: TBD Staff)

Escalators are a sensitive topic in D.C. Between the etiquette of walk left/stand right and Metro’s mechanical woes, escalators occupy a particular corner of the Washington psyche, one layered in annoyance and apprehension.

And now, adding to the noise, come cart escalators. They aren’t unheard of in the District—the Columbia Heights Target has one, along with some suburban big-box stores and two Harris Teeter parking garages—but the new Whole Foods in Foggy Bottom marks the first true grocery-store experiment with cart escalators in D.C.

The new two-level store places grab-and-go type items on the street level along with cash registers; groceries are downstairs. The set-up guarantees that if you’re stocking up on anything more than a basketful of items, you will be taking that cart escalator from the lower floor to the top to check out. Jared Earley, regional marketing project manager for Whole Foods, says the store was designed for convenience and the “dash in dash out mentality” of students and hospital employees who will likely comprise their staple shoppers. He calls the escalators “really fantastic” but adds there’s an elevator for shoppers disinclined to try them. Of course, should that cart escalator malfunction, everyone will be taking that elevator.

But the escalator manufacturer responsible for Whole Foods’ system, Pflow, isn’t worried about a major malfunction.

David Dux, vice-president of sales and marketing at Pflow, says the company has an “excellent user history.” The machines were designed with simple mechanisms for reliability and quick, on-site maintenance. “Usually it’s the public that causes the problem,” Dux says. “They walk into the machine too far.” Should a customer step onto the escalator while loading his or her cart, the machine shuts down. Employees can quickly reset it with a code on a small touch screen at the top or bottom of the escalator.

The cart escalator is still a relative novelty in D.C., despite a decade-long history and heavy use in other major cities, notably L.A. and San Francisco. Dux says the Cartveyor, the proper name for the cart escalator, was developed to meet the needs of growing urban retail stores. A big-box or large-format grocery or retailer has plenty of room to sprawl in the suburbs, but in dense urban areas, have nowhere to go but up. “To make it work with the grocery stores using shopping carts, they needed a method for moving the carts up and down,” he says.

Some stores experimented with moving ramps—carts wheels would lock as shoppers rode with their cart up a floor—but those proved a poor solution. “They take up a lot of room and they’re very dangerous,” Dux explains. “Baby carriages do not have the locking wheels. People were falling on them.” A few retail stores were already using Pflow products in their back warehouses, so the company decided to develop a machine for the front of the house.

The escalator had to be reliable and able to transport carts levelly so groceries wouldn’t topple out. “There’s some trick geometry that has to take place,” says Dux. “The shopping carts need to have certain dimensions and wheel base.” He describes the mechanics of the escalator as simple, with a motor gear reducer, a drive sprocket, and a heavy-duty chain.

The first Cartveyor was installed at a Great Indoors, a division of Sears, in 2000. The initial design, Dux says, was more industrial than chic. “The majority of our products go into factories,” he says. “We’re used to building big and beefy.” Now in its fourth generation of design, the Cartveyor’s look “has been cleaned up a lot from the early days.”

“Nowadays, they’re much cleaner in fit or finish,” Dux says. The mechanics haven’t changed much, though some of the safety devices have been improved—like a locking safety gate that prevents people from putting an improperly locking cart on the belt.

Walmart and Target followed Sears, and then came the grocery stores. Today, Pflow sells units to Publix, Whole Foods, Harris Teeter, Safeway, Trader Joe’s, Winn-Dixie, Ralph’s, and a number of local or regional chains, including L.A.-based Korean grocer HK Town and St. Louis wunderkind Dierbergs. With so many of these companies already operating in the District, we’ll surely see more cart escalators. Dux says Wegmans recently ordered one for its Columbia, Md. store.

He insists they pose little threat of mechanical failure and are easily reset—indeed, I have witnessed the cart escalator jam at the Columbia Heights Target, and employees had the problem resolved within minutes. That’s good news for Foggy Bottom shoppers. There’s no telling what madness would ensue should a spilled bag of quinoa cause an hours-long escalator shutdown.

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