Shopping Cart Wash Lets Customers Get Groceries, Not Germs

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Kirsch brothers want you to know: At Chevy Chase Supermarket, it is now safe to lick the shopping carts.

Not that they recommend it, mind you, but as co-owners, along with their dad, of the venerable independent grocery store on Connecticut Avenue, Jason and Kevin Kirsch know how common it is for their youngest customers to treat cart handles like lollipops. Worse, they know how unnerved folks have become in recent years over alarmist reports that rank shopping carts right up there with public restroom toilet seats in terms of germs.

And so the brothers yesterday installed what they say is the Washington area's first full-scale shopping cart wash, a push-through device that sprays a misty peroxide solution over each cart between every use. It dries in a few seconds, leaving behind a faint whiff of beauty parlor and a cart promised to be 99.9 percent germ free for the next customer.

"It kills all the nasty stuff, salmonella, staph, E. coli," said Bob Schwei, a technician with PureCart Systems, the Wisconsin-based manufacturer of the glossy white machine, which looks like an airport X-ray machine. "They're very popular in Korea -- bird flu."

As Schwei finished installing the unit next to the row of checkout aisles, customers stopped to see the first sanitized carts roll through. Suzi Walsh, a self-described germ-phobe and a regular shopper from Kensington, said she had been waiting for the new system since the store announced it was coming several weeks ago.

"I'm the kind of person who uses a bit of paper towel to open the bathroom door," said Walsh, who said she prefers shopping in the winter when she can leave her gloves on. "This is great. I see the kids scratch their diapers, then grab the cart. No, no, no. I'm way beyond that."

But Jason Kirsch said parents with young children are likely to be the most excited by the prospect of a clean cart. He made sure that his collection of kiddy carts, the ones with big plastic police cars and firetrucks bolted to the front, would fit through the machine. "Hey, I'm the father of three," he said. "I know the first thing they want to do is chew, touch, feel."

A few aisles over in the pasta section, Marti Robey of Kensington, a mother of five, said she knows all about the powerful magnetic draw that shopping cart handles can have on toddler tongues.

"You turn back with something from the shelf, and they've got their mouth wrapped around it," Robey said.

Still, she said shopping cart bacteria wasn't high on her list of Things to Worry About. The two she had riding in the red pickup truck kiddy cart yesterday, Betsy, 6, and Jake, 3, would have no trouble finding other ways to get germy in the normal course of a kid's day.

"After rolling in dirt and mud and stuff, I don't worry about the shopping cart so much," she said.

Like all grocers, the Kirsches have seen concerns over cart cleanliness grow over the years. They used to pressure wash the carts on a monthly basis and more recently added sanitary wipe dispensers near them so customers could scrub their own handles, and more.

"We'd see people out in the parking lot trying to wipe down the whole cart," said Walter Kirsch, who has worked at the store since 1963 and owned it, with his sons, since 1985. "We're a small family business. This is just another way that we're taking care of the neighborhood."

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