Coronavirus Diaries: I Run an Online Store for Preppers

The demand is out of control.

A mask labeled "coronavirus diaries" is held up over a cardboard box filled with cans.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with David Sanders, the owner of Doomsday Prep, a company that sells prepper supplies and survival gear. The conversation has been transcribed and edited for clarity by Molly Olmstead.

It was early January, or late December, when talk of this started up. We saw a little bump in traffic at that point, and then that quickly subsided. And it seemed from media coverage like it was largely going to be a China issue. And then when we started to see the spread, you could almost watch and see as the country list went up, our traffic pretty much stayed in step with that. It peaked up in the last couple days. We have seen a huge spike in web [traffic], which is standard. We saw the same thing with Zika.

Normally, what I’ll do on a typical week is I’ll wake up and see how the site’s doing, traffic-wise. Then I’ll check for new orders—they’ve more than doubled. Web traffic has quadrupled from what we see typically. The majority of this is all stateside. New York City is a big one. Austin, Texas, is another big one. And then I’ve also got Portland and Sacramento and Atlanta. Those are the big five that we’re seeing. It’s still largely the same cities; it’s just more amplified at this point.

A lot of stock right now is on back order. Normally, you know, we don’t have this back order issue at all, so this is something new that I’m having to deal with. When my inventory of masks with filters come back in, that will be mid-March. Things for long-term food storage, depending on the product line, could be anywhere between four to six weeks. And what I’ve seen from my suppliers, their supply chain has been affected as well.

Some of our bestselling stuff is typically long-term food storage. We’ve also got a lot of survival kits. But recently, the gas masks and biohazards are what we’re seeing a lot of—all of our gas masks and the N95 respirators. Right now, we have [N95 masks] listed at $5.95. That’s all based on the suppliers I’m working with. I’ve read there’s a couple of people in our space who are doing price-gouging. Obviously, that’s very frowned upon from my thought process. These items are what their prices are.

What I’ve been doing this past week has been actively going out and searching for larger distributors that I can work with to have more inventory on hand. I’d love to try to expand. Right now, my main focus, to do that, is just to try to find more suppliers.

The other part of the day is just processing orders as they come in. Typically, that’s a fairly heads-down role, but right now, it’s constantly interrupted with phone calls. People wanting to ask about inventory. Other questions that we get are about the coronavirus in general. I jokingly say we’re the coronavirus hotline right now. People just want to ask questions. And not to put people off from calling, but it’s just as easily solved with a quick Google search. I’m probably spending over an hour a day on the phone. In the past, we’re talking a handful of calls in a month. Now we’re talking a handful of calls in between lunch and dinner.

I’ve actually exchanged, I think, up to 26 emails with a very nice lady from Texas. She was very concerned about her mask and wanted a guarantee on when she would receive it, and has checked consistently, on the hour, multiple times a day. So I understand that the concerns are very real.

Content-wise, there are different players in the space. Some will post more things that are inflammatory. I feel like I’ve done a really good job of not doing that in the past, and I’ve always been purely informational. It’s definitely [about] principle. Another thing: I don’t want to be pinged or flagged by Google, or any other search engine, as an extremist site, or for sharing misinformation. So a lot of the articles that you see on the site right now are “how to start a fire with a bow drill,” “how to open a can without a can opener.” You know, the brand is Doomsday Prep, and it sounds very doom and gloom. But I feel like I’m running the business in such a way that I can be a trusted voice.

That takes me through most of my day, which ends anywhere between 7:30 and 8 p.m. Right now, I don’t really have much time for anything else really. [When I get off work,] I get to see my wife and I get to see my kids. I would say one of the things that’s really hard about being in this industry is I have to be in the trenches, with my ear to ground, and seeing what’s happening. For the purpose of knowing what to provide and being that voice of what is actually happening. And there’s a whole slew of terrible things. Things that are going on in the world that I really wish I wasn’t as privy to or didn’t have to spend as much time engaging with. So having that downtime to see my kids, I think that that definitely helps unwind.

I jokingly call it calamity capitalism. Like, I’m not trying to turn a profit on any kind of climate or world pain. It’s definitely something that I have personally struggled with, but it’s a business. [And] if we can be there and be a source of truth and help you prepare by providing you gear and equipment that could be beneficial in various scenarios, I feel like that’s a win.

The term [prepper] came into popularity with Doomsday Preppers, the National Geographic show. It showed a lot of eccentric individuals who had the means to do some really extreme forms of prepping. When really, what most people consider prepping is nothing more than what your great-grandparents did back during the Depression. Having stores of food. Having things ready if they were to need them or in times of need. Your neighbor next door may have, you know, six months’ worth of long-term food in their closet, but you don’t see them modifying a bus into a bulletproof rolling tank or that sort of thing. It’s more about general preparedness. Everyone likes to tell the joke of, “Oh, everyone’s so eccentric.” But when a world event happens, those are the people to ask for information. So it’s always good to know a prepper, but I guess it’s always better to be one yourself.