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Sherri Richards, Published August 01 2012

Thursday review: Mall’s new carts cute, but clumsy and costly

FARGO – A favorite pastime on the hottest of summer days – and in the depths of winter – is to stroll West Acres Regional Shopping Center with my two little ones.

I’d rent a double stroller from guest services for $3, getting $1 back when I returned it. It was convenient and inexpensive, a nice alternative to purchasing a double stroller I otherwise wouldn’t use.

So I was a bit dismayed when I saw last month that the mall was replacing some of its stroller rentals with a Smarte Carte vending service.

Instead of borrowing a double stroller for $2, it now costs $6.50 ($7 for a two-seat firetruck, with 50 cents back when returned). Single strollers, decorated like police cars, are $5 to rent, with 50 cents back.

Mall Manager Rusty Papachek told me that the self-serve Smarte Carte racks were added because of guest services’ recent move. Its new spot just off the front entrance doesn’t have room to store as many strollers, he says.

“That’s why we chose to go with a vendor, like the majority of malls in the country,” Papachek says. “It does have the convenience for people to get strollers at multiple locations and at the entrance where they need them.”

The front entrance features racks of single and double strollers. Single stroller racks are also found at two other entrances.

The guest services desk will still rent infant strollers, car seat strollers, wheelchairs and smaller shopping carts, but not the single and double strollers, Papachek says.

Smarte Carte sets the $5 and $7 price tag for those, he says. The vending racks accept cash or credit cards.

Papachek says the old strollers were likely underpriced compared with other shopping centers. Plus, he says, the theme-based strollers are a different experience for the kids.

“Our strollers are just strollers. These are mall patrols and fire trucks,” Papachek says.

Some people have complained about the price increase, he says. I was among them.

Before passing judgment, though, I decided to take one for a spin.

As 4-year-old Eve, 1-year-old Owen and I made laps around the mall Monday, we received many curious and appreciative looks. I’m positive we were the envy of anyone under the age of 8.

The long, double-seated fire truck was surprisingly light to push, and it maneuvered easily in the corridor, even with one hand. Not so much in crowded stores, though. I bumped into several display racks, knocking down merchandise on a couple of occasions, and even ran over a little boy’s shoe at the pet store (oops). The fire truck just barely fit in the mall’s elevator and lower-level family restroom.

The cup holders were conveniently placed and sturdy. The underneath storage bag was large, with a divided pocket. It pulled out a little for easier access. It also contained a comical warning: “Do not put child in bag!”

Eve and Owen truly seemed to enjoy the ride, steering their wheels as I pushed. Eve stayed in the fire truck far longer than she did the old double strollers.

Afterward, an employee helped me return the stroller to its rack. It was tricky to line up the front wheel with the track while juggling two kids.

I grudgingly have to admit the Smarte Carte concessions provide nice, though bulky, strollers. They are a fun option, especially for travelers.

But the rental price is too steep for regular use. I’ll probably use my single stroller and have Eve stroll alongside me from now on.