Survivalist businesses surge in uncertain times
Increasing numbers of mainstream Americans are preparing for disasters, many of these companies say.
Four years ago, after years spent working in construction administration, Viola Moss wanted to leave Florida. She was looking for a home that offered her and her family a chance to grow their own food and live free of dependence on society. But realtors kept showing her homes in retirement communities.
Ms. Moss finally found what she was looking for in a home in remote Libby, Mont.: room to raise crops, distance from big-city crime, and proximity to good hunting and fishing, just in case hard times – or a disaster – made food hard to come by. Knowing she wasn't alone in her desire to live a "prepared" lifestyle, Moss decided to turn her interests into a business and set up shop as a realtor herself.
Her offerings on survivalrealty.com include a five-acre, three-bedroom property with the trappings of practical survivalism: a 10,000-gallon cistern for cultivating organic fruit trees, a 250-foot fire hose, and a dual-use root cellar/fallout shelter with "essential living quarters" and a backup generator.
"I've had inquiries from people all over the country, from professionals – doctors, lawyers, commodity brokers – to blue-collar workers like mechanics and nurserymen," says Moss. "Some people really do want a lifestyle change."
Once seen as a radical and paranoid ideology, survivalism is expanding as a business, and growing fast.
Lehman's, an Ohio retailer of home self-sufficiency equipment, has recorded large sales increases, with water-pump sales up 95 percent and sales of home agriculture equipment up 50 percent from last fall. The growth is coming from across the preparedness spectrum, from the curious buyer to the serious die-hard, says Glenda Ervin, the firm's vice president of marketing.
Minnesota-based Safecastle, which markets home shelters for protection against disasters like hurricanes and chemical attacks, has seen revenues more than double since 2007, says founder Vic Rantala. KI4U Inc., a Texas-based seller of products like meals ready-to-eat, personal radiation-detection devices, and potassium iodide, a compound known to protect the body from some effects of radiation exposure, has seen business surge after the terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, a month ago.
"If most people think of a survivalist as an armed loner with extreme views – there are folks like that out there, but there are many more in America who are simply involved in preparing for down times, lean times, or disaster," says Mr. Rantala, a former US intelligence analyst. "It's logical. It's common sense."
The number of businesses marketing survival products is hard to pin down, in part because many are smaller, family-owned operations. The market for survival goods like agricultural tools, seeds, and emergency food, moreover, blends with growing consumer demand for homesteading products. Still, the emergence of preparedness-specific businesses and marketing suggests that survivalism is going strong.
"We have seen an increase in survival-related businesses," says Doug Ritter, executive director of the Equipped to Survive Foundation, a consumer advocacy organization that has been assessing survival gear since 1994.
Popular interest in survivalism took off in a big way in the late 1990s, amid concerns about the much-discussed Y2K computer bug said to threaten world information technology. Since then, Mr. Ritter says, newer businesses have entered the disaster-preparation market to provide a variety of goods and services to survive a range of crises.
"Fear is a factor that often draws people into preparedness," Rantala writes in an e-mail. "Pandemic, economic disaster, climate change, world war – these are some big-picture threats that some folks want to be able to counter."
Industry businesses' sales pitches are often equal parts professional marketing presentations and public service announcements. Survival skills author and instructor Cody Lundin has a website that includes a biography, video clips, training course descriptions, and a full-color résumé, complete with photo. Shane Connor, president of KI4U, distributes free nuclear-disaster survival guides, instructing people to keep rain ponchos, dust masks, and honey (a high-calorie food that doesn't spoil) on hand at all times.
While survivalist offerings expand, consumers often have different ideas of what exactly it means to "be prepared."
"I'll get one potential buyer who will say, 'I want to have a remote location,' and for him that means a house a couple miles out of town," says Moss, the realtor. "Then I'll get the guy who wants to be able only to hike into his location."
Such wide-ranging reactions are hardly surprising, says one expert, given that the crises survivalist goods are meant to address are as much a product of imagination as they are of real threats.
"The entrepreneurship of survival is nothing new," says Richard Mitchell Jr., professor emeritus at Oregon State University and author of "Dancing at Armageddon: Survivalism and Chaos in Modern Times." The narrative is that "there are troubles ahead, but 'just right' troubles, the kind survivalists have the means to confront ... imagined troubles always match the means at hand – or what is for sale to solve the problem."
As survivalist businesses grow in uncertain economic times, consumers new to the lifestyle might be overwhelmed by choices. Industry insiders suggest those preparing for the worst do their homework to find companies that put surviving disasters, not profit-making, at the core of their mission. Mr. Lundin estimates that only 5 percent of survivalist businesses are actually committed to living the lifestyle.
For Ritter, of Equipped to Survive, this means that people need to be serious about how they go about purchasing peace of mind. The recession might be cutting into paychecks and cheap survival gear ordered from a slick new website might seem like a great deal, he says, but in a disaster other considerations are more important. "There's a key question," he says. "Are you willing to bet your life on a piece of equipment?"