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End of world? Zombie apocalypse? Retailers have goods for you

Sun., March 18, 2012


Survivalists – or “preppers,” as they refer to one another – immediately recognize those initials as standing for “the end of the world as we know it.”

But savvy entrepreneurs translate them as “business opportunity.”

Take Costco, for instance. A recent mailer featured six large cans of chunk chicken and ground beef with a shelf life of 25 years – 288 total servings – for $159.99. Not the sort of thing you’d pick up for next weekend’s barbecue.

Other specials included canned cheese (265 servings), a month’s food supply (330 servings) and enough seeds to plant a one-acre “emergency garden.”

Customers walking into the Spokane Valley Wal-Mart traverse two 30-foot-long racks of bulk food packaged for stockpiling: large tins of granola, soup and sliced potatoes; plastic buckets of cornmeal, oats and sugar.

One employee referred to the aisle as “our end-of-the-world section.”

Well, at least the end of the world as we know it.

Many people – particularly those who frequent websites such as – are preparing for serious disruptions in what passes for normal social order, and businesses are happy to accommodate them.

What’s to panic about? Pick your poison.

Washington has at least five potentially active volcanoes, including Rainier, Adams and St. Helens. Scientists also say the Northwest is overdue for an earthquake.

And a year after Japan’s nuclear disaster, who hasn’t wondered about risks posed by Hanford, two hours to the southwest of Spokane?

The list goes on: pandemics, civil unrest and financial crises, not to mention Mayan prophecies, electromagnetic pulses and Armageddon.

What’s a doomsayer to do? Spend those greenbacks while they’re still legal tender.

Emergency kits popular

One place preppers head is REI, the Kent, Wash.-based outfitter.

John Gardner, a sales specialist at REI’s North Monroe Street store, is accustomed to people reacting to worrisome news by stocking up on survival gear.

“In fact, I thought that might happen today, after the solar flares,” he said earlier this month. “I figured people would worry about the power grid shutting down because the sun’s doing its thing.

“Every time something like that happens, we’re the first places people hit – us, Army surplus, the General Store, White Elephant, Mountain Gear,” Gardner said. “People come in looking for emergency blankets, stoves, freeze-dried food, water filters in case the water supply is contaminated.”

A popular item is the REI Emergency Kit ($165), a backpack stuffed with enough survival supplies – food, blanket, tools, personal hygiene and first-aid items – to get one or two people through a couple of tough days.

“A month ago, I sold 15 to Jehovah’s Witnesses,” Gardner said. “They came in together and said they weren’t satisfied with the way the world was going and wanted to be a little more prepared.”

Some customers buy larger backpacks and have Gardner help them choose survival items that best fit their needs. Those setups can run $400 or more. He also helped assemble one for a Colville man who was riding a mule all the way to Mexico.

Gardner said the fear of disaster can be good for business. “But only to a small degree for us,” he said, “because we mostly sell recreational equipment. It’s not like if a tsunami hits, people are going to come in and buy kayaks to go play in it.”

Asked if he personally is prepared for a disaster, Gardner said he’d be fine “with all the gear I have already. And the way I eat – lots of raw food – I think I’d have access to that.”

Ammunition sales strong

Earlier this year, groups of people showed up at the General Store on North Division Street seeking survival-related products, store manager Jon Evans recalled.

The shopping spree wasn’t precipitated by an event. “It was mandated by their church,” Evans said as he rummaged through a stack of papers on his desk, searching for the list one of them left.

The list, titled “2012 Disaster Preparation Supplies,” included household items such as fire extinguishers, flashlights, duct tape and plastic sheeting. The list also included essential items for an evacuation “go bag,” including a lighter, sanitary wipes and a Bible.

Based on the list, Evans ordered more emergency candles, nonperishable foods and air-filtering face masks.

“We sell whatever people need, depending on what they’re preparing for,” he said. “If they’re preparing for a natural disaster, then they’ll want to get whistles, so they can get someone’s attention is a large crowd. And everybody should have a roll of quarters,” he said, “because you never know what you’ll need money for – pay phone, bartering, whatever.”

Demand for survival items is cyclical, Evans said.

“Just before Y2K, huge generators were flying out of here,” he said. “Propane fuel, sleeping bags, tents. I wasn’t here then – I was 16 – but managers who were said this latest trend reminded them of that time, though not nearly to the same extent.”

Except for one item: ammunition.

“Ammunition sales are great,” Evans said. “It’s an election year, and every time there’s the possibility of someone pro-gun-control being elected, ammunition sales go through the roof. 2008 was one of the best years we ever had for ammunition sales. Paranoia, really. Some people called it the true Obama stimulus plan.”

Or maybe they’re worried about … zombies!

One of Evans’ suppliers, Hornady, actually makes something called Zombie Max Ammunition, including a 12-gauge “Z-Shot” load, “and you can’t even get that one now,” Evans said. “They’re back-ordered.”

Evans laughed about his own lack of preparation for an emergency – zombie or otherwise.

“No, I’m not. And I should be. I talk about it with my girlfriend all the time. It’s the smart thing to do.”

Costs of insurance vary

And once the crisis is upon us, it may be too late.

That’s what people discovered when they flocked to local Mother’s Cupboard nutrition stores after last year’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster, seeking potassium iodide tablets.

“The idea,” explained general manager Scott League, “is that if you fill up your thyroid with potassium iodide, it buys you some time to reduce the risk of getting thyroid cancer from radioactive fallout.”

Mother’s Cupboard quickly ran out of it during last March’s scare. League estimated his five stores could have sold another 150 bottles.

“We typically only carry a small supply for people who want some in their survival kit,” he said. “And it only protects you from thyroid cancer. You still have the potential of getting other cancers from a nuclear disaster.”

But at $7 for 60 tablets, some see potassium iodide as cheap insurance.

The same can’t be said for insurance against a collapse of the energy grid.

Nadine Sullivan, co-owner of Eco Depot on East Sprague Avenue, occasionally gets inquiries from survivalists interested in self-sustaining energy systems, but they balk at the price.

“We just did a quote for someone who wanted solar panels with a backup battery system, and it came to almost $100,000,” she said. “Forty-eight sealed industrial batteries alone cost $16,560.

“But it all depends on what your loads are going to be. Someone who just wants to cover basic needs – refrigerator, lights, TVs and radios – could get by with a $20,000 to $30,000 system,” Sullivan said.

Or they may want a well pump powered by batteries and panels, she said. Such a package runs $5,000 to $6,000.

But however you look at it, Sullivan said, preparing for the end of the world “isn’t cheap.”

Doomsday currency

Which brings up one of the most essential items to pack when it’s time to GOOD (“get out of Dodge”).

The item? Precious metals.

Steve Baldwin has survived almost four decades at Spokane Coin Exchange by adapting with the times.

“I used to be in the coin business,” he said. “Now I’m in the gold and silver business.”

When Baldwin started out in 1973, silver dollars sold for $1.25. They soared to $36 in 1980, then fell to $8 before climbing again to around $31 today.

Baldwin links the recent gold and silver run-up to events surrounding the October 2008 financial crash – “Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, Washington Mutual … you name it,” he said.

When customers visit his downtown shop, the first thing Baldwin asks is whether they see precious metals as an investment or what some might call a doomsday currency.

“For those who want safety in the event of total societal breakdown, I recommend silver rounds, silver dollars, American Silver Eagles (the official U.S. silver bullion coin) and 90-percent-silver U.S. coins,” he said.

Baldwin acknowledges that fear is great for business. “When things are cruising along and everybody’s happy, gold and silver dealers starve.”

But like many others who profit from preppers, he doesn’t share their apocalyptic views.

“I do not believe that people will ever go into Rosauers with silver dimes to buy a loaf of bread,” he said, “or go to the gas station with a silver dollar to fill up the tank. I just don’t see that happening.”

Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached at

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