Black Friday madness missing in rural Alaska communities

Associated Press

November 25, 2015

In this photo taken Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, sale signs for Black Friday are seen at the Fifth Avenue Mall in downtown Anchorage, Alaska. While Alaskans living in bigger cities can take part in madness in the nation's biggest shopping day, Black Friday in rural Alaska doesn’t mean long lines and pushy shoppers ready to do battle for sweet deals.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Forget about long lines and pushy shoppers ready to do battle for sweet Black Friday deals. In rural Alaska, residents are far removed from all the frenzy that goes with the nation's most intense shopping day of the year.

Instead, consumers in places off the state's limited road system like Bethel, Kotzebue and Barrow can find a few moderate price breaks on electronics and other stuff for several days after Thanksgiving at local grocery stores that sell all kinds of goods. But for those wanting a taste of the urban shopping madness, they can always go to Anchorage or Fairbanks.

In small-town Alaska, nowhere are people beating down the doors or elbowing each other out of the way.

"It's a lot more restrained," said Walter Pickett with Alaska Commercial Co., which has 31 stores in remote communities. "It's not like we have to have security guards at the front door."

Huge savings are hard to find for people living in the state's — and nation's — most remote and isolated communities, where crippling living costs are matched by equally steep prices to ship goods up. And it would be pointless to open at midnight in these communities, where folks generally tend to start their days later, according to merchants.

"That would be a total waste of time here," said Jeff Haglund, assistant manager at grocery store, Swanson's.

That's something the AC stores tried in the past.

While some people liked the idea, the company fielded complaints from residents living in nearby villages who didn't have time to travel by snowmobile for a one-day sale, Pickett said. Besides, merchants and residents alike get more excited about deals available each October with the distribution to most Alaskans of the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend from the state's oil wealth account.

"We spend a lot more time, effort and resources on PFD-selling opportunities because people have cash in their pocket," Pickett said. "There's less money available after Thanksgiving."

There's really no need to go hog wild in rural parts of the state for Black Friday, which is fueled by rival businesses trying to outdo each other to reel in consumers. In rural Alaska, Bethel is among only a handful of communities to have two grocery stores, but these communities otherwise lack the densely packed competition seen in metropolitan markets.

"There's still competition, but their competition is with the Internet," said Neal Fried, an economist in the state Department of Labor. "Their competition is also with just mail order from Anchorage and other places."

Isabell Elavgak lives in Barrow, the nation's most northern town where Black Friday is more a concept than a reality.

Several years ago, she wanted to get in on the post-Thanksgiving savings on major purchases, so she flew 725 miles south to Anchorage. She got some great deals on a washer, dryer, TV and furniture — only to break even after dishing out more than $2,000 in freight costs.

But at least she got to savor a real Black Friday experience.

"Man, it was crazy," Elavgak said. "Like the whole world was at the stores."

For several years now, Dan Henry Jr. and his wife also have traveled to Anchorage, flying 550 miles from the northwest town of Kotzebue to spend Thanksgiving with their children and grandchildren. Each year, they've also put in a little Black Friday action.

They'll do it again this year, but their shopping spree for family Christmas presents won't involve early-morning lines and frontline crowds, according to Henry, who has lived in Kotzebue all his 59 years.

Henry and his wife have no specific purchases in mind, so they'll just take whatever is left over by the time they get there, he said.

"I don't want anyone to punch me in the face for a dollar," he said.