Between ongoing global economic uncertainty, terrorism threats, hurricanes, earthquakes, and so-called Mayan apocalypse on Dec. 21, the end of the world is on some people's minds.
That creates a business opportunity – but the customers may not be quite who you’d imagine.
"My customer base is not the militia type who are out in the woods practicing for the end of the world," says Vic Rantala, owner of Safecastle, which has been servicing the survival market for over 10 years. "Our customers are really a good cross section of the American population. … We have people of all incomes and a lot of professions: Doctors. Lawyers. Business owners."
While the terms doomsdayers and survivalists are the most commonly used, the people who prepare for the worst tend to cringe when they're called that. Fanatics like Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski, have poisoned those words in the general public's minds, they say. The preferred terminology these days is "preppers" or people who practice "crisis preparedness" – and companies that cater to that crowd range from the serious to the silly.
"Preppers are no more crazy than those wacky people who have homeowners insurance," says Phil Burns, owner of the American Prepper's Network. "Seriously, why do people have homeowners insurance? It’s so that if something catastrophic happens to your house you can get money to buy a new one – and not be homeless. Prepping is basically the same thing – we educate ourselves and purchase items that will be essential to continue our way of life in a catastrophic event."
Certainly, some gun shops court the prepper market. After all, should society collapse in some form or fashion, people will want to be able to defend themselves. But shoppers looking to gain a survival advantage if society goes to hell in a hand basket often focus on essential items.
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Canned food from companies like Mountain House, which can last up to 30 years, is a popular item at many survival-themed businesses. So are water filters and things like generators and hand-cranked flashlights. (Rantala notes his best-selling item is Yoder's canned bacon (40-50 slices per can), though he can't figure out why – other than the food's popularity with Americans.)
Other preppers take things more seriously. Miami-based US Bunkers provides concrete and steel structures designed to protect inhabitants from tornadoes and hurricanes to an explosive attack. Fortified with concrete walls measuring from eight to 12 inches thick and weighing between 12 and 18 tons, they have bulletproof windows and marine quality doors. And rather than being set underground, like those in the 1950s, they rest on reinforced legs, which keep them about three feet above the earth.
Owner Jorge Villa spent seven years designing the bunkers after Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida in 1992.
Most preppers, in fact, have natural disasters in mind when they stockpile food or buy a shelter. The confusion that followed 9/11 made many people consider increasing their disaster preparedness. And the government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 cemented some of those people as preppers.
That has meant boom times (pardon the pun) for businesses that specialize in survival.
"9/11 certainly changed the world and the way many people saw their future," says Rantala. "At that point, we saw many people seeing what their future might be seen as being different than what they'd been brought up believing it would be. … Since 9/11, there have been events globally that have goosed our business. It's been solid growth all the way. Even through the economic downturn, crisis preparedness has been solidly growing."
Determining the overall business market for preppers is virtually impossible, given how widespread the community is – and given the lack of a precise definition about which stores they frequent. (Several businesses, such as gun stores, cater to preppers and non-preppers alike.) But those who are serious about crisis preparation can spend a lot.
Storage food can run up to nearly $400 per case (with a 10-month supply costing nearly $8,000). And US Bunkers' products range from $12,000 to $65,000 each. (The company sells about 50 per year, according to Villa.) Other items, like body armor, can cost $800, while basics like a package of 20 water purification tablets run for less than $20.
While most companies take a very serious approach to the prepper community, others prefer to have fun with it. About a quarter-mile off of the Las Vegas strip, you'll find the Zombie Apocalypse Store, a business that claims to have everything it takes "to survive the zombie apocalypse".
The bulk of the customers, as you might expect, are curiosity seekers and tourists, who walk away with nothing more than a souvenir shot glass, coffee mug or t-shirt. Others might pick up a sword or knife or even an exploding target.
But about a quarter of the shoppers buy MRE meals, Israeli gas masks and battery-free flashlights – just in case.
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"It's people from California or anyplace where they're concerned something might happen," says store manager Larry Bohm. "They've lived through tornadoes or hurricanes. Some people are always looking for a slight edge in case something like that does happen, so [they buy] water filtering systems or smoke bombs .. [or] a lot of different kinds of things they want to have in case something does happen to them."
Even some gun stores have fun using the undead to promote their wares. Moss Pawn Jewelry and Guns in Jonesboro, Ga., isn't exactly a prepper-centric store, but its owners are prepared for a zombie attack. In a YouTube video, they show off a heavily modified AR15 semi-automatic weapon that comes equipped with three sites (optimized for different ranges), four flashlights, and nine 30-round magazines.
"Maybe we went a little too far, but that's ok. It's all in fun," says an employee identified as Barry in the video.