In various posts, I mentioned casually that on long weekends, during special events like the Tanana Valley Fair, Independence Day, Inaugural Ball or Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention, the local grocery stores are swept empty. On those weekends and/or special occasions, people from the rural areas come into “Town” to participate in the events and use the opportunity for shopping.
Shopping situation in Alaska rural areas
In the rural areas, the choice of merchandise is very limited especially when the village is off the road network and can only be reached by air or water. Furthermore, prices are high due to shipping, and storage costs as well as lack of competition.
The majority of the rural grocery stores use the USPS “Bypass Mail Service” to get their supplies of frozen meat, vegetables, chilled and dry groceries, and durable fruits like apples. Bypass mail service exists to almost all rural villages. It is fast and costs less than air freight. Furthermore, it is delivered right to the stores’ or addressee’s front door. For supply to count as bypass mail it has to have a minimum total weight of 1100 lbs (~499 kg). To get an idea about what this mean: The typical weight of an American family’s weekly shopping chart is about 325 lbs (147). The rural stores often use an approved bypass mail contractor. Bush plane companies like to fly bypass mail as it helps them to operate at affordable costs year round for Alaskans and not only during summer for rich tourists.
Rural shoppers prepare for shopping in Town
The shoppers from rural areas come by truck when their village is on the road network, which over long stretches consists of unpaved dirt roads (see featured photo with store, and photo below), otherwise by boat or bush plane. They know they will not be able to buy fresh and exotic fruits and other fast perishable goodies for a couple months, i.e. until their next trip from their village to Town. Furthermore, necessities and long-shelf time staple food is much cheaper in Fairbanks than at their local grocery store.
The villagers shop differently than the shoppers living in town who can head back to the store when they forgot something. Shoppers from the rural areas come prepared to shop with a full toolkit. It holds among other things the long shopping list, duct tape, transparent package tape, a hand luggage-scale, permanent marker, zip ties, chill and checked baggage stickers as well as pre-addressed labels. They also bring empty suitcases, tough large plastic boxes (27 gallon or so, ~102 liter; see photo below) and/or coolers. They often guerrilla shop.
Together with a store clerk they pack the scanned merchandise into mail boxes while the cashier scans the next items. Often they pack faster than the store clerk and/or the cashier can scan. Fresh products get packed into huge cooler boxes of the size of a coffin. The coolers are not intended to keep the products cold, but to protect lettuce and other fragile goods for a short time from the extreme cold in the bush plane’s cargo section, and on the air stripe prior to loading and after unloading in winter temperatures. Note that these bush planes typically fly at heights less than 10000 ft (3 km).
Shipping home the goodies
Those who are fortunate to be on the road network load the boxes and coolers into their trucks. They also make sure to get fuel. In rural village, gasoline or diesel cost about twice the price of what you pay in Fairbanks. Interestingly, in Fairbanks, you pay on average about 50 cents more on gasoline than in the Lower 48s.
Those shoppers who came by motor boat or bush plane, close the packed boxes and coolers with duct tape and put their pre-addressed labels onto them for shipping. Some of the Fairbanks stores, e.g., Fred Meyer’s, Sam’s and Walmart, ship the merchandise. Otherwise, the shoppers head to the post office to ship the merchandise themselves.
On flights within Alaska, two bags are free of charge on Alaska Airlines for 49 Club members, which most Alaskans are when they live in a place where Alaska Airline flies. The suitcases don’t serve to haul new or used clothes back to the villages. Nearly everybody mails their dirty clothes back from “Town”, and uses their baggage allowance for fresh stuff (e.g. fruits, fresh vegetables) and things they need to eat within the next days.
Of course, there is also the possibility for online shopping. Online shopping is tricky in Alaska because many companies either don’t ship to Alaska or ask higher shipping costs than for the Lower 48. Thus, one must be careful to not pay the price of the order also in shipping fees. Sometimes it is cheaper to order more to get free shipping than paying for shipping.
Amazon Prime, for instance, ships free to Alaska. However, while in the Lower 48s, Prime is free 2-day shipping, it means for Alaska “as fast as humanly possible.” However, Alaskans don’t expect anything to arrive within two daylight cycles anyway. In many regions daylight lasts 24/7 all summer, and in many other areas there is no daylight for more than two months. Thus, with dark days and white nights, two days is confusing. First Class Mail to/from Alaska takes a week from/to the Lower 48s.
Bush shipping departments
In Anchorage and Fairbanks, the two largest cities of Alaska, all major grocery and dry goods stores (e.g., Fred Meyers, Walmart, Carr’s) have a so-called Bush shipping department. Rural shoppers make their list online and an employee of the store collects the items from the sleeves in the aisles, packs, and ships them out.
P.S. In Alaska, Bush is not a negative word. On the contrary, everything with the word Bush in front of it is deserving highest respect! Bush pilots or Bush teachers, for instance, are considered to be heroes. You get the idea.
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Photos: G. Kramm, N. Mölders
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