The survival and disaster prep industry is seeing a massive sales surge from customers concerned about health risks related to the coronavirus outbreak and the possibility of quarantines temporarily cutting off access to supplies.
Sellers of long-term food supply, water and air filters, tactical gear, and even bunkers report a several-fold increase in year-over-year sales.
Survival gear and food supply site TheEpicenter has largely stopped picking up its phone due to an influx of orders. A weary-sounding message on its voicemail directs customers to its website, where the entire selection of M.R.E.s, prepackaged shelf-stable foods designed by the military, are sold out.
“People are freaking out,” owner Bryan Nelson told NBC News.
Texas-based custom and luxury disaster bunker maker Rising S Company said it had received 50 percent more calls since the outbreak started.
One new customer was a grandmother who purchased and installed a $105,000 introductory model. The 10-by-30-foot structure includes a bed, living area, kitchen, and bathtub.
“Her age group has a higher mortality rate so she thought it was her responsibility to make sure she stuck around for her grandchild,” for whom she is the primary caregiver, said general manager Gary Lynch.
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While each bunker comes with an air filter, the company also sells filters separately for homes. Normally it sells two to three of these per year. Now they’re selling over 30 a week, with especially brisk sales internationally, Lynch said.
Sales of emergency supplies such as food bars, water pouches, and water purification tablets have soared by between 200 percent and 1,700 percent in the past three months, said Brian Houser, head of marketing at LHB Industries, which sells emergency kits and supplies. Last year, during the same three-month time period, the company sold 75 N95 respirator masks. This year they sold around 13,000.
"Sales have been through the roof," said Skyler Hallgren, creative director at Redfora, which makes emergency supply kits. "People are hungry for information on the coronavirus, of course, but they are also extremely hungry for info on emergency planning in general."
The inquiries began two months ago and interest has only ramped up.
“We heard it starting Jan. 23, as folks were worried about quarantines coming to America, and starting to build disaster prep plans,” said Keith Bansemer, President of My Patriot Supply, a manufacturer and seller of emergency food. The meals come in plastic pouches to which customers typically add boiling water. The pouches are stored in sturdy plastic gallon buckets. The best seller is a three-month supply for $797.
In the past month, the company has tripled its food production facilities and added a new distribution center to keep up with the demand. Customers are buying not just for the next two weeks, but stocking up for fall and winter. Even though the company has cut off all advertising, the orders keep pouring in.
“Every phone call is talking about the coronavirus,” said Bansemer.
The increase in customer orders isn’t unexpected, said Praopan Pratoomchat, Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, “when people are not sure how long the pandemic will last."
"They will estimate by themselves and it triggers them to stock up those products," she told NBC News. "There is also a linkage to the disruption in the global supply chain that creates the fear of the product shortage.”
Searches for “survivalism” spiked to their highest in five years from Feb. 23 to Feb. 29, when coronavirus cases began spiking outside China, and have only tapered off by about 25 percent since.
While the survival and prep industry is predicated on taking reasoned steps to be ready for adverse scenarios, owners say some of the purchasing they’re seeing in retail stores is the result of panic-buying.
“It’s not like there’s not enough toilet paper on the planet,” said Lynch. But when customers go to one store and see the shelves empty because demand outstripped this week’s supply, they start panicking and hoarding, which in turns creates more artificial temporary shortages, he said.
“Next week on the truck they will just add a case” to the regular delivery, said Lynch. “As soon as people walk down the grocery aisle and see water, they're going to walk right past it.”
Ben Popken is a senior business reporter for NBC News.