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For Homebound Alaskans, Mail Order Is Only Outlet : Retail: Catalogue companies and home-shopping networks target those living in the state's rural outposts.


JUNEAU, Alaska — When it comes to nature, Alaska has it all over the other 49 states. When it comes to retail, this wilderness state truly is the final frontier--and a choice market for the shop-at-home industry.


The rural outposts where much of the population lives offer plentiful mountains, streams and wild animals, but there's barely a shopping mall, supermarket or sales clerk in sight.

Outside of Anchorage, with 240,000 people, there are only two sizable towns, Fairbanks with about 80,000 and Juneau with about 28,000. The rest of Alaska's 600,000 residents live in small towns across a vast expanse, many with just a few hundred or a few dozen people.

The only ways in and out of many spots in Alaska's hinterlands are by boat or floatplane.

"We live on the fringe of where our species would choose to live," said Chuck Achberger, director of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce. "So of course it's harder for Alaskans to shop. I believe people in Alaska get 10 times more mail-order catalogues than anybody else."

In the time-honored tradition of the early pioneers, they either go without or shop by mail. J.C. Penney, L.L. Bean, Land's End, Eddie Bauer, the television shopping networks--all are ready sources of merchandise for Alaskans.

"Mail order is just a huge industry. There's a lot of people in remote locations up here where the only way to get most things is by mail," said Kristy Bernier of Anchorage.

Though she lives in the state's only big city, with malls and department stores, Bernier shops by mail for clothing, jewelry and art supplies for her doll-making business.

Bernier's reindeer dolls were among 20 Alaska products pitched by the QVC home-shopping channel during a live broadcast from Juneau in June. QVC, based in West Chester, Pa., is doing similar broadcasts from all 50 states.

"We're in Alaska. You can't get here from where we live, but we finally got here," quipped QVC co-host Steve Bryant during the broadcast.

Neither QVC nor its biggest rival, St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Home Shopping Network, release sales figures for particular states. Both said, though, that backwoods regions such as Alaska are prime markets, even with their small populations.

Unlike the pioneers of last century, who were often limited by what they could order from the Montgomery Ward catalogue and how fast the Wells Fargo wagon could get it there, the captive shoppers of today's frontier have almost boundless choices. Besides ordering by mail, people around the world can send for goods by phone or fax machine or right off the television screen.

"It does make shopping a lot more convenient for people in such isolated places," said Louise Cleary, spokeswoman for Home Shopping Network. "They see something they like on TV, they can pick up the phone and order."

Visa and MasterCard joined up last month to hash out secure methods of credit-card buying over computer networks, a major boost to the coming age of cybershopping. Computer users will be able to browse through the Internet and order books, clothing, compact discs--anything offered by the largest shopping malls--by pressing a few buttons.

The Direct Marketing Assn., a retail trade group, estimates 52.5% of U.S. adults bought goods by mail or phone in 1994. By contrast, a survey for the Anchorage Daily News found that 71% of adults around Anchorage shopped by mail in 1994.

J.C. Penney said Alaskans typically spend about 50% more than other customers ordering from the company's catalogue. Spiegel said its mail-order business reaches more Alaska households per capita than any other state.

But economic-development agencies want to slow the flow of Alaskans' dollars to mail-order businesses elsewhere, and are working with local businesses to make their merchandise more competitive and with consumers to let them know how to buy the same goods in-state.

"Our current theme is William Seward's purchase of Alaska in 1867," said Stella Josephine of the Anchorage-based Buy Alaska program. "He was the first person to say, 'Let's buy Alaska.' "

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