On a Saturday afternoon, outside the Giant Food market on Connecticut Avenue NW in Van Ness, deli clerk Mike Green takes a cigarette break on a bench and watches the last four available shopping carts disappear into the store. The empty cart rack is a familiar sight, he says.

“People are always asking me, ‘Where did all the shopping carts go?’” Green says.

Throughout the storefront pickup area, signs hint at an answer:

“Attention Shoppers: Please Do Not Remove Shopping Carts From Our Premises, So Other Shoppers Will Have A Basket To Shop With.”

“Residents: Removal of Shopping Carts from Giant Food’s Premises Is Illegal In Wash, D.C. & Is Punishable By Up To One Year In Jail / Or A $500 Fine.”

“I’m Lost!” (Sign shows illustration of cart.) “Have you seen any shopping carts in your neighborhood?”

Shopping-cart theft, a crime traditionally associated with the down-and-out set, is epidemic in this upscale neighborhood. The culprits, Green says, are often apartment dwellers.

Some adjacent apartment buildings are linked to the Giant parking garage through elevators and underground corridors, he explains. The layout makes it easy for neighbors to wheel their carts right up to their front doors, if they so choose.

On Nov. 20, a total of 15 shopping carts, secured by chain and lock, line the loading dock at nearby Van Ness South Apartments. Housekeepers and service personnel routinely round up stray carts from the building’s garages, hallways, and common area restrooms, apartment workers say.

“If we don’t chain ’em up,” says one loading-dock attendant, “the residents will take ’em.”

Most of the carts carry the “Giant Food” logo. But a few originate from the local CVS and nearby Calvert-Woodley Liquors.

“Sometimes we get carts from Safeway in Chevy Chase Circle,” the attendant says. “You know how far that is?”

According to the dock attendant, housekeepers last year found a dozen carts inside a single apartment, where a tenant was using them for extra storage.

Once they’re rounded up, the carts are brought down to the dock for owners’ collection. For Giant, that happens almost daily, workers say.

“We are constantly retrieving carts,” says Giant spokesperson Barry Scher. “People take them and don’t return them. It’s a problem at many of our stores, especially near apartments and condominiums.”

Chester White, a greeter at the Giant on Wisconsin Avenue NW in Cleveland Park, says that earlier this month, the number of carts in his store’s fleet had dropped from around 180 to “15 or 20.” Some 30 new carts were ordered to help fill the gap.

Replacement carts are “a major expense,” Scher says, costing about $100 each. “A sizable number” disappear each year, he says.

New hi-tech carts, equipped with devices that lock a wheel if the cart strays too far from the store, are being tested at larger Giant stores, including the company’s location in Shaw, Scher says. But the company has no immediate plans to install the new technology west of Rock Creek Park.

Despite posted warnings of fines and jail time, Giant hasn’t brought charges against any known cart offenders in the District. “We don’t do that,” Scher says.

On the loading dock, some workers say they wish Giant would press charges.

“They should prosecute just one person, so the word will get out,” says one attendant. Otherwise, he adds, “Nothing’s gonna stop ’em.” CP