Skirt lengths might be a good barometer for the state of the economy, but what do hazmat suit sales tell us about the world we live in?
Much like economist George Taylor's "hemline theory," which claims that miniskirts mean positive things for a country's financial health, general consumer statistics on the sale of things like luxury goods, alcohol, and even porn can provide a good read of the general social climate. Four-inch heels apparently mean an economic downturn, and kinky porn habits can offer commentary on social oppression.
In uncertain times, it seems normal for citizens to cut spending or seek creature comforts.
The popularity of survivalist merchandise—gear used to prepare for a cataclysm or the end of times—offers interesting insight into people's anxieties concerning natural disasters, political situations, or even technological development. For instance, a recent report states that rich Silicon Valley innovators are building shelters to hide from the popular revolt that will occur when robots steal all of our jobs, which is very reassuring.
I wanted to learn more about these types of trends, so I contacted survivalist stores in Canada, France, and the US to find out what has been driving their clientele's purchases.
Owner, Boutique Militaire, Quebec, QC
VICE: So your store sells army surplus and survivalist stuff?
Pascal Lemieux: Yeah, we've been around for 25 years, and we started as an army surplus store. But I developed a survivalist section after September 11 because there was a demand; people were suddenly conscious that stuff like that could happen in America.
Our sales depend on what's happening on the planet. There are peaks during political conflicts, US and Russia stuff, or natural disasters. Like Fukushima in Japan—that was a peak in sales. During the next year or so, people were buying anti-radiation stuff, gas masks, chemical-protection suits—those one pieces with a hood and a mask.
But the Fukushima disaster is pretty far from Quebec, no?
Radiation has no boundaries, never forget that.
Did you notice any particular trends in the last year, with the Trump election?
No, not really. I think that's more affected the immigration side of things. Where we see changes is really during like political stuff of Cold War–type situations, that's when people feel like something could happen. Or when there are attacks, like what happened in Boston.
It's tough to tell, though, because often people buy stuff without telling you what it's for.
Do you know if people are building bunkers?
I don't know, but you're not supposed to talk about that. What I can tell you is that more and more families are getting prepared.
Owner, Al's Army Navy, Orlando, Florida
VICE: How long have you been doing this?
Neal Crasnow: I've been in Army Navy business for 35 years. This store has been here in central Florida for 60 years.
Is it a big business out in Florida?
I think there are all sorts of people that collect all sorts of different things. Whether they're preppers or survivalists, that's a good question, and what they're actually waiting for is an even better question. So I don't know if it's the zombie apocalypse or any number of other things.
They come in and look for different things. I sell all kinds of fire starting equipment, water-purification equipment, backpacks, and firearms and all kinds of things like that.
Do you see any patterns? Are there items that sell more during certain periods?
Well, for the US, when there is a chance that a Democrat will get elected to office, then firearms sell better. If you remember the whole thing about the year 2000, the computers, there was a whole group of people who were worried about that, so they would go out and they were buying those [survivalist] things.
When people are worried, they make arrangements. I sell a lot during hurricane season. I do think the firearms thing is tied to politics, but the rest is tied to people's angst and feelings.
What happened during the most recent election?
Prior to election, people were concerned that a Democrat would be elected so firearms sold better. Although during the Obama administration, firearms sold as well as they ever had.
Do people inquire about bunkers? Are more people setting up bunkers?
I think there was a series of things that happened even a few years ago that led people in that direction more than now. I think there are people that are preppers, and that's a continual audience gaining speed. I mean, I couldn't answer as to what they're preparing for.
I think there are always more preppers. I'm not unhappy that it's always growing because I base a lot of my business on it, but I don't think it's indication of something.
Manager, Randonneurs Online Store, France
VICE: Who are your customers?
Joël Grimaldier: In France, we're leaders in the sale of survival materials and have been for the last ten years. Our clientele is linked to bushcraft and hiking, but our competitive edge is survivalism.
I'm also trying to develop the "pure" survivalist sector, and I'm attracting more and more francophone clients (from France, Belgium, and Switzerland) who are interested in this stuff. Even though survivalists tend to be discrete about their lifestyles and don't directly admit their interests, we can determine their habits through their purchases.
We've had a lot of competitors spring up in the last three or four years, who often do this to complement a main business like hunting or fishing.
Do you notice changes based on political climate? Do you sell more of certain products after certain events or elections?
Yes, for the past ten years, I've seen the survival market evolve. Initially, this was launched by shows like Bear Grylls's, but this whole "surviving in nature" period transformed into a more survivalist trend.
This practice isn't as developed in Europe as it is in North America, but it's starting to take off here. Some clients, without calling themselves survivalists, are still preparing for a variety of possible risks.
France is more affected by climate-related phenomena, and people are getting ready for that. The attacks we've seen in the last two years have also affected people's mentalities and pushed them toward preparation.
While political risks seem increasingly obvious in these parts, they're not considered "major" risks by the general population. Germany and Switzerland are encouraging their populations to set aside rations of food, but that's not a thing in France, at least not really.
The current electoral period hasn't affected sales here, at least not yet. And the growing tensions between Europe, the US, and Russia haven't yet had an impact on the "base" population.
Since I refuse to sell weapons, my clients generally buy long-term food rations and stock up on all the essentials they need in case of an evacuation.
Co-owner, Total Prepare in Victoria, BC
VICE: How long have you been in business?
Niels Baartman: This is my sixth year in the business.
What kind of consumer trends have you seen in the past few years?
I'd say American politics influence us a lot more than Canadian politics. American politics are way more world-changing than Canadian politics will ever be, so I feel people tend to gravitate toward looking at the US policies that might dictate what might come down the pipe.
[During those periods], people will buy larger food packages, perhaps water containers, big tanks for emergency water. The food servings can be anywhere from one month to six months of supplies.
I think there's a greater awareness that being prepared is a wise thing to do, and I would say the key is finding good quality products that people can rely on.
What are people preparing for though?
Everything under the sun. Natural disaster, some are for political reasons, road trips, ice storms. I would say it's all over the horizon; there is no specific reason.
What do you mean by "political reasons?"
Whether it's foreign policy, or perhaps an economic meltdown, or whatever people in the prepper community are concerned about, a lot of it revolves around political decisions or the direction politics might be going. So many of them prepare for inevitable reasons that there might be a shortage of food or that something might affect the availability of funds or whatever the case may be.
What did you notice before and after Trump was elected?
We definitely had a relatively strong reaction to preppers buying before Trump was elected, but after he was elected, that quieted down dramatically. People were feeling a sense of relief that the election was over, but also I think those who feared economic problems felt Trump might be beneficial. A lot of the prepper community has more right-wing viewpoints and so they thought Hillary would be disastrous.
What were they buying?
Food. Our experience is that whenever there is something fearful out there, clients buy food because that's their main concern. Most preppers don't need other supplies because they're already stocked.
Do you sell bunkers supplies, and do people ask about bunkers?
No, and I don't find that has come up often in Canada. At least I haven't come across it much. But most people don't mention they're stocking a bunker; they'd rather keep that quiet.
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