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A smartphone and a shopping cart: How I managed disaster through retail

A hurricane was coming. My retail skills were put to the test.

By Alexandra Samuel

The merciless Oahu sun glimmered at the edge of my peripheral vision. My eyes skimmed over a hedge of beach umbrellas, then onto a quick appraisal of macramé maillots and revealing Speedos. There was nothing about this tropical collage that hinted at the threat just over the horizon.

But disaster was coming. I’d spent two weeks squiring my husband and kids through Hawaiian jungles and tropical reefs. Now, as a hurricane approached, I turned away from the beach to visit my own natural habitat: a super-sized American chain-store mall.

It’s an affinity I usually repress while on vacation, seeking out local stores for authentic experiences. But at that moment, I’d given into the siren song of Target — because it was my job to get our family ready for the onslaught.

Back home in Vancouver, a known earthquake zone, I’d long avoided the job of emergency preparedness. I got overwhelmed whenever I thought about our house collapsing around us, or our kids wandering lost in the rubble. And it didn’t help that — unlike my husband, a lifelong camper who has worked as a medic — I was just about useless in an emergency situation.

But it turns out, I’m not. What I can do is shop, both online and in stores. Give me a budget and a mission — whether it’s the search for an oversize non-stick wok, or a quest for seamless socks — and I will pound the physical or digital pavement until I return, victorious, with your trophy.

Normally, I’m what the consumer researchers Sahar Karimi, K. Nadia Papamichail, and  Christopher P. Holland refer to as a shopping “maximiser”: someone who seeks out product information and browses intensively in order to make the perfect purchase. But for six high-pressure hours in the summer of 2018, I became what they term a “satisficer”: a shopper who’s content with buying things that are good enough, as quickly as possible.

It turns out that nothing helps you focus your shopping like an impending hurricane. As Hurricane Lane hurtled towards Oahu, where the weather reporters warned that we’d be stuck in a hotel for days’ worth of floods and power outages, my shopping tactics suddenly looked like a matter of life and death. And in the end, a mix of ferocious online research and in-the-moment flexibility was precisely what I needed.

I surveyed the nearest stores listed on Yelp: Walmart. Lowe’s. Home Depot. Yep, that’s where normal people would shop — which is why I was going to do the opposite.

I started at 7:30 a.m., joining a hundred-person lineup outside of the Kailua Target, where I carefully reviewed the shopping list I’d assembled online the night before. In my phone’s digital notebook I had a list of recommended emergency gear from The Wirecutter, plus an extensive list of shelf-stable, ready-to-eat food supplies we’d compiled from emergency prepper guides all over the web. We had also reviewed the latest items we’d added to our Amazon Echo grocery list, so I wouldn’t forget any of our staples at the store. Maybe Nutella, goldfish crackers, and cornflakes weren’t on their standard supply lists, but in our household, they were urgent necessities.

As soon as the Target doors opened, I hurtled forward, grateful for the store’s predictable layout: I headed straight to the back in pursuit of walkie-talkies, flashlights, and emergency power packs. The electronics section was exactly where I expected it to be, but all the emergency supplies had been picked over: There wasn’t a flashlight or battery to be had, and I counted myself lucky to nab the last set of walkie-talkies in the whole joint. As I headed toward the checkout, I snagged water bottles, plus a few books and boardgames to keep my then-12-year-old son — who is autistic, and prone to anxiety — distracted during the storm.

But I was still missing a number of essential items: an emergency radio, flashlights and batteries, raincoats, a multi-tool. So as we headed toward our hotel in Honolulu, we stopped at a big-box mall on the edge of the city.

First, I hit TJ Maxx, where I scored disposable anoraks that would give us some protection against the rain if we had to go foraging for supplies. But the best find was on the rack I think of as Pointless Dad Gifts, which is where I found the elusive multi-tool, remaindered from Father’s Day. Next, I hit Nordstrom Rack, where I found real raincoats that could actually protect us from the storm.

That was all well and good, but we were still missing flashlights, batteries, and an emergency radio. Where would people normally find those things, I wondered, as I surveyed the nearest stores listed on Yelp: Walmart. Lowe’s. Home Depot. Yep, that’s where normal people would shop — which is why I was going to do the opposite.

I steered my cart into Bed, Bath and Beyond. It was a ghost town, just as I’d predicted. Averting my gaze from the temptations of the linens department — how could anyone resist 400-thread-count sheets at these prices? — I headed for the gifts and gadgets. As I passed through kitchenwares, I snapped up a cooler pack; in electronics, I found some battery-powered lamps and stacks and stacks of batteries.

But it was in the bathroom section that I hit pay dirt, in the form of a battery-operated radio. Admittedly, this one was designed for the shower, embedded as it was in a shaving mirror. Once again, I thanked my lucky stars for leftover Father’s Day inventory. As I loaded all my finds onto the checkout counter, I grabbed a giant clear plastic tub to corral all our various supplies.

At our hotel, my husband unpacked our suitcases of clothing into the dresser while I turned the closet into an emergency pantry. As I mentally estimated the number of meals I could produce from the comfort of our room, my phone rang. Air Canada had added an emergency flight out of Honolulu. If we could get to the airport in the next two hours, we would be on that flight. Twenty minutes later, we had our suitcases packed.  I crammed the rest of our emergency supplies into the giant plastic bin, leaving behind the many gallons of bottled water we hoped someone else could use.

Before long, we were in the eerie calm of the Honolulu airport, boarding a giant jumbo jet that was mostly empty. By the time we woke up the next morning in Vancouver, however, Lane had been downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm, and Oahu missed the worst of it.

But there was no regretting our early departure: All we’d missed was three days of rain. I returned most of our makeshift emergency supplies to nearby big box stores and filled my Amazon shopping cart with all the supplies I’d long feared to contemplate: whistles, water purification tablets, crank-powered flashlights. I vowed that I’d add at least one big-ticket item (water storage barrel, solar phone charger, portable water containers) to every Amazon purchase I made. At the rate I shop, it didn’t take long before our kit was complete.

Now I’m no longer scared to contemplate the West Coast earthquake that geologists tell us is all but inevitable. No matter how bad the earthquake, we’ll be prepared — and the city will eventually rebuild, and the stores eventually re-open. And when they do, my talents will come back to the fore — ready to shop my way through the next emergency.

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Alexandra Samuel is a technology writer and researcher based in Vancouver.


Illustration by Ben Boothman


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