This was the year that coronavirus fears turned American shoppers into hoarders. There have been widespread shortages on products like toilet paper, hand sanitizer and flour as people prepared for the long stretches of isolation that have become commonplace during the pandemic.
But for one segment of the population, preparing for the worst was a way of life even before the pandemic. "Preppers" or "survivalists," as they're known, have been around for years, buying elaborate survival kits, yearlong supplies of nonperishable foods and even elaborate underground bunkers.
"Prepping is about PREparing for emergencies, not creating a supply shortage because you now suddenly need three boxes of N95 masks for your personal use," a moderator wrote in March on the r/Preppers forum on Reddit, which currently boasts over 208,000 members. Threads focus on everything from Covid and pharmaceutical drug shortages to the benefits of a gas lamps versus candles.
A January survey by personal finance site Finder.com found that 35% of nearly 2,400 people surveyed said they didn't need to buy supplies in the last year because they were already stocked up.
And the financial new website 24/7WallSt.com estimated in 2013 that there were then 3.7 million preppers in the U.S., comprising a market potentially worth billions of dollars.
Here's a look at some of the products that preppers stock up on, plus some big-ticket items that only the most extreme (or wealthy) preppers might spring for:
ReadyWise is a leading brand in the category of "emergency food supplies," where truly committed preppers can spend upwards of almost $9,000 on a 4,320-serving supply of varied freeze-dried food pouches that the company says can last a single person over 500 days, or a family of four (two adults, two children) up to 126 days. The food even has a 25-year shelf life, so there's no need to dig in right away.
"Every day we have people that spend ... tens of thousands of dollars on emergency food...," says Brandon Eriksson, vice president of sales at Wise Company, which owns ReadyWise.
The company also sells smaller volume products, like freeze-dried meats and vegetables and powdered eggs, or even a two-day "Adventure Bag" that costs $49.99 and contains six freeze-dried meals and a couple of snack pouches. Some of its wares are also available through retailers like Amazon and Walmart.
Wise Company estimated in 2018 that Americans were buying between $400 million and $450 million worth of emergency food supplies per year. And, while Wise declined to release any specific revenue figures, Eriksson tells CNBC Make It that the company saw its food sales surge by "probably five or six times" in 2020 amid the pandemic. (In 2017, Bloomberg reported that Wise Company, which also sells generators and other emergency supplies, had seen roughly $75 million in annual revenue.)
He also notes that while the company's sales were previously more concentrated in pockets around the country, like coastal states in the southeastern U.S. that are frequent targets of major hurricanes, orders for ReadyWise foods have been coming from all over the country.
"In 2020, we've seen it feels like everybody's buying ... we're shipping it everywhere," he says.
ReadyWise is far from the only brand in this market, though. There is also Ready Hour, which sells an emergency food supply kit it says will last a year (at 2,000 calories a day) for nearly $2,300. And, wholesale retailer Costco sells emergency food supplies from Chef's Banquet (made by emergency food manufacturer Ready Project) such as the $125 ARK, a 35-pound bucket containing a 30-day supply of foods like oatmeal, cheddar grits and broccoli cheddar rice. (Costco also sells a 28-pound bucket of macaroni and cheese from Chef's Banquet, with a shelf life of 25 years, for $120.)
In January, celebrity marketing executive Simon Huck co-founded Judy, an emergency preparedness kit company, after he says he saw data that the majority of Americans do not have disaster plans in place. Huck's company received an immediate publicity boost when his friend, Kim Kardashian West, posted a March Instagram Story to her nearly 200 million followers in which she posed wearing an N95 mask and shouting out her Judy survival kit.
Huck tells CNBC Make It that Judy has already sold more than 30,000 kits since launching, and the company has customers "across every state in America." (The company's $250 "The Safe" — an 18-pound, waterproof crate filled with enough matches, glow sticks, medical supplies, water packets and meal replacement energy bars to last a family of four up to 72 hours — even snagged a spot on Oprah Winfrey's 2020 list of "Favorite Things" in November.)
Other companies offering pre-prepared survival kits and so-called "bug out bags," include a $389, 72-hour survival kit backpack from Uncharted Supply. And a truly high-end option is the company Preppi's nearly $5,000 "Prepster Ultra Advanced" kit that comes with a three-day supply of food and water in a monogrammed, fireproof bag featuring such luxury survival items like a Garmin satellite messenger, a Biolite solar panel and a night vision scope.
But one of the biggest players in the survival kit market is nonprofit the American Red Cross, which sells kits ranging from a "Safety Tube" ($7.19) that's aimed at commuters and features an emergency blanket, water pouch, light stick, face mask and whistle packed inside a 3-inch plastic tube, to a "4-Person, 3-Day Emergency Preparedness Kit," a 23-pound backpack filled with supplies like flashlights, first aid tools and food bars) that sells for $286.18.
Clyde Scott's Rising S company, for instance, makes an $8.4 million bunker from its Luxury Series, called "The Aristocrat." The bunker can sleep more than 50 people and it features a fitness center, gaming rooms, swimming pool, gun range and a greenhouse. The company also makes a mini-bunker that's eight-by-five-feet for $39,500.
The business brought in $9 million in 2017 building custom bomb shelters and bunkers, he told CNBC Make It in 2018. (In 2017, Scott even said his company was building a luxury bunker for Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, though the couple never confirmed the bunker and a representative for Kardashian did not offer a comment.)
Another company, Del Mar, California-based Vivos, makes "underground survival shelters" that it calls "the backup plan for humanity" in the event of a catastrophe like nuclear war or economic collapse.
Vivos sells private, underground bunkers big enough for families (roughly 2,200-square-feet of space) that start at $35,000 for a bathroom, kitchen and sleeping pods, but which can cost an additional $110,000 to be customized with creature comforts like a pool or home movie theater setup. The company has full bunker complexes in Indiana, Germany and South Dakota, the latter of which consists of 575 concrete and steel bunkers that Vivos says are spaced out across 18 square miles and currently have over two dozen families living there full-time.
Once the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in early-2020, Vivos founder Robert Vicino tells CNBC Make It that demand for his shelters increased 500%.
"They love it," Vicino says of the families already living in their bunkers. "They love being off the grid. They love being so far away from society."
Even retailers like Home Depot sell below-ground storm shelters starting at around $6,700 for a five-by-six-foot bare-bones space.