Last Fourth of July some fireworks stores went dark because they ran out of product. The same thing may happen again this year.
Demand for consumer fireworks is near all-time highs, but logistics bottlenecks are cutting the supply by about 30%, boosting prices and robbing some retailers of a chance to cash in on what might otherwise have been their best year ever, according to Mike Collar, president of Winco Fireworks, one of the largest U.S. importers.
Take the Pyro City store near Lone Jack, Mo. At first glance, it seems packed with dazzling, heavy fireworks boxes, some as big as toaster ovens with names such as Gunfighters From Hell, Skull Crusher and Redneck Diamonds. But there are gaps on the shelves, some masked by empty boxes. The selection isn't as broad this year, and then there's the price.
"They are super expensive," says Mary Daniel, 65, a local mom who's shopping for fireworks for the first time in years. "I didn't expect this, I sure didn't," she chuckles.
For instance, the door-size, 100-pound party assortment right in front of Daniel, called The Godfather, is going for $649.99 this year, up $100 from last year. That's typical. Retail fireworks are up 20% to 25% this year and still selling briskly, according to store manager Donna Nuccio. Nuccio says she expects to run out of The Godfather, and most of the rest of her stock by the Fourth of July, partly because of last year's "unbelievable" sales.
''Supply chain issues are the worst we've seen"
"They were through the roof, and the store was empty last year," Nuccio recalls. "I did not have a firecracker left in the store."
This store is open year-round, and normally Nuccio would have time to restock, with sales usually dropping off after Independence Day. But Nuccio says last year was different.
"People were celebrating anything and everything. I had people coming in buying fireworks for Thanksgiving. We had Diwali, we had Christmas, we had New Year's," Nuccio says.
Rebuilding inventory was complicated by a complete shutdown of fireworks production in China during the height of the pandemic. Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, says factories have been humming since, but there's still a shortage because shipping is so jacked up.
"The current supply chain issues are the worst we've seen," Heckman says. "Pretty much all importers are in this chaotic mess right now."
Shipping delays are breaking his heart
The vast Winco Fireworks warehouse in Grandview, Mo., is at one end of that chaotic mess. The building is bigger than two city blocks, more than 30 feet tall and sits mostly empty. Collar, the Winco president, says the retail stores and tents he supplies are clamoring for product that hasn't arrived here yet. He says more than 400 shipping containers full of his fireworks are stuck in rail yards, or ports, or bobbing around on the ocean between China and suburban Kansas City, Mo.
Collar says, in the past, he could count on a container arriving at his warehouse less than a month after it shipped out. Now it takes three months, and it costs more than twice as much — $2,100 per container. He says he can deal with the added cost but the shipping delays are breaking his heart.
"It's the year that could have been," Collar laments. "You don't get those opportunities very often."
Some safety advocates celebrate
Overall, Collar figures the U.S. fireworks industry will receive about two-thirds of what it could sell by the Fourth of July.
While that drop in supply is a drag on retailers and possibly a bummer for backyard enthusiasts, some safety advocates are quietly celebrating.
"From our perspective, the less people using consumer fireworks the better," says Susan McKelvey with the National Fire Protection Association.
For one thing, fireworks cause fires, about half of all those reported on a typical Independence Day, McKelvey says. And they hurt people. McKelvey says serious fireworks-related injuries spiked right along with fireworks sales last year, jumping 57%. U.S. emergency rooms treated about 15,600 people for those injuries last year, many of them children.
McKelvey says she hopes this year is different. Professional fireworks shows are back, and since most of last year's shows were canceled, the pros have ample fireworks on hand.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
As you may have heard in your own neighborhood, shooting off fireworks became kind of a thing during the pandemic. Consumer fireworks sales soared, and demand remains high. But Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports that the supply chain for fireworks is broken, which means consumers will pay more this year if they can even find them.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The Pyro City store near Lone Jack, Mo., looks to be jammed with massive home fireworks - colorful, heavy, almost toaster-sized cubes with names like Gunfighters from Hell, Skull Crushers and the ever-popular Redneck Diamonds. At a glance, this store looks well stocked, but the selection isn't what it normally would be. There are gaps on the shelves, and shopper Mary Daniel notices something else.
MARY DANIEL: The price (laughter) - they are super-expensive. I didn't expect this (laughter). I sure didn't.
MORRIS: It's been a few years since Daniel purchased fireworks, and she's looking at the huge party packs.
DANIEL: Well, that one's $649, and that one's 339.
MORRIS: The $649 package is a hundred-pound behemoth, a huge box of explosives called The Godfather. It's a hundred dollars more than last year, and that's typical. Fireworks are up about 20%. Store manager Donna Nuccio says sales are brisk. And last year, she says, it was crazy.
DONNA NUCCIO: Unbelievable - they were through the roof, and the store was empty last year. So I did not have a firecracker left in the store.
MORRIS: It was much the same around the country. Fireworks sales nearly doubled. Inventory was run down to almost nothing, setting the stage for the current shortage. Because while fireworks sales traditionally drop off a cliff after the 4th, Nuccio says last year, that didn't happen.
NUCCIO: People were celebrating anything and everything. I had people coming in buying fireworks for Thanksgiving. We had Diwali, we had Christmas, we had New Year's, we had...
MORRIS: Consumer fireworks are made almost exclusively in China. Production there shut down at the height of the pandemic. Julie Heckman, who heads the American Pyrotechnics Association, says factories have been humming since, but getting fireworks from Chinese ports to U.S. customers has become a huge problem.
JULIE HECKMAN: The current supply chain issues are the worst we've ever seen. Pretty much all importers are in this chaotic mess right now.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
MORRIS: The vast Winco warehouse in Grandview, Mo., is at one end of that mess. It's bigger than two city blocks, more than 30 feet tall and it sits mostly empty. WinCo president Mike Collar says his customers are clamoring for product, but more than 400 shipping containers full of his fireworks are stuck at various points between Chinese ports and Kansas City. That's partly because fireworks are hazardous material requiring special handling. They have to be the last thing loaded on a ship and the first to come off. Collar says shipping costs have more than doubled. And worse, it takes three times as long as normal to get the goods to the U.S.
MIKE COLLAR: Well, it's the year that could have been. And in this business, especially a seasonal business, you don't get those opportunities very often.
MORRIS: While the shortage is a bummer for retailers and backyard enthusiasts, Susan McKelvey, with the National Fire Protection Association, doesn't mind.
SUSAN MCKELVEY: Yeah, sure. Like I said, from our perspective, the less people using consumer fireworks, the better because it's safer.
MORRIS: Because fireworks cause fires, lots of them. And fireworks-related injuries spiked by 56% last year. This year, professional fireworks shows are back. And since most of last year's shows were canceled, the pros have ample fireworks on hand.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.
(SOUNDBITE OF YEASAYER'S "AMBLING ALP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.