Good Luck Finding Fireworks. Sales Are Booming But A Shortage Looms

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Updated June 27, 2021 at 7:41 AM ET

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 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 like 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-sized, 100-lb 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 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," recalls Nuccio. "I did not have a firecracker left in the store."

This store is open year-round, and normally Nuccio would have time to restock, as sales usually drop 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 Years," 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, it's more than 30 feet tall, and it sits mostly empty. Winco president Mike Collar 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.

Collar says, it 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 only about two-thirds of what it could sell by the Fourth of July.

While that drop in supply is a drag on the 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 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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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