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ANCHORAGE - They don't call it Liquidation World for nothing.
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"Liquid," because if this place isn't the backwater of consumer goods, we don't know what is. "World," because there's no way to describe this cavernous home for wayward wares besides otherworldly.
Where else can you pick up 10 widgets for a buck and attend a wedding in the furniture department? Where else would a store manager keep a Richard Nixon mask in his office because you just never know when it might come in handy?
This depository of merchandise madness in Northway Mall isn't the easiest spot to shop. The southwest corner has been taken over by paint-can sprawl. Enormous cardboard dump-bins called gaylords are all over the place and heaped with stuff like shoe-care products and little bags of "Chocolate Chip Cookies for Dummies."
But there are some screaming deals to be had. And apparently Anchorage is having them.
Liquidation World is a 20-year-old Canadian company with more than 100 outlets in its motherland and 20-some in this country. Anchorage's store is No. 1 in U.S sales and has been the past five years. The only other outlet in Alaska, in Soldotna, is No. 2.
What does that say about us?
That we like our corned beef hash in hefty, heart-clutching-size cans for cheap? That we want "big honkin' jugs" of laundry detergent in brands we've never heard of?
That Alaskans can't resist the thrill of the hunt?
"It's like Christmas morning," said Penelope Welch, who comes in a couple times a month. "You never know what you're going to find till you get here."
"We don't want anybody to get hurt in a fire or a flood or an earthquake or a hurricane. But that's where we get our merchandise," said Michael Stephenson, manager of the local outlet.
Take the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Tragic beyond belief. But then all these Cajun groceries started showing up on the shelves here at prices well below what you'd find at a regular food store. All kinds of other Katrina-survivor commodities got relocated here too.
Bankruptcies, closeouts, inventory overloads - these are what makes the L-World go 'round. Fires and floods and twisters.
"Distressed inventory" is how liquidators prefer to phrase it. Maybe the packaging is damaged or the product smells faintly of charcoal. But for the most part, there's nothing wrong with it. And mixed in with mystery items are some that make you wonder:
What are nice products like these doing in a place like this?
Here's how it works.
When, say, a container of inventory en route to a retailer, whether it's Wal-Mart or Dillard's, gets battered in an accident or act of nature and some of the merchandise is damaged, the insurance company covers the entire load. The firm then owns it. So it sells the lot to liquidators, who gleefully take it.
"The retailer, it's a tax write-off for them," Stephenson said. "The insurance company, it's a tax write-off for them. It comes to us, and our customers save money because we get it a lot cheaper."
Liquidation World is not to be confused with Liquidation Sales, which had stores in Northway Mall, on Dimond Boulevard and in Fairbanks into the early 1990s.
"No, no, no," Stephenson said.
Liquidation Sales, no relation whatsoever, sold a defective, non-UL floor lamp that electrocuted an 11-month-old Peters Creek girl in 1989.
The tragedy led to a change in state law, banning the sale of electrical products that don't comply with minimum Consumer Product Safety Commission standards.
Liquidation Sales went out of business soon after being levied a $5,000 fine for continuing to sell substandard lamps after the new law went into effect.
"We had to overcome that image, that reputation," Stephenson said. "Even today people still call us Liquidation Sales."
But there are devout shoppers.
Diana Fisher comes in just about every day. She puts together gift baskets to sell and finds a lot of her goodies here. But she also finds cool stuff for herself.
T.J. Ryan, a retired tow-truck and auto shop operator, stops in pretty much every day too. And sometimes two or three times a day.
That's because he knows when the vans come (Mondays and Wednesdays) and he knows new stuff gets put out all day long.
"You just kind of wander up and down and kind of glance here and glance there," he said. "You never know what you'll run into that you need, or don't need but you buy it anyway."