That brick of Black Cat firecrackers that could make or break the neighborhood fireworks show this July Fourth may have gone missing, marooned in a shipping container sitting on the dock of a California bay.
Slow boats from China, pandemic-induced manufacturing shortages and the fact Americans went wild with chasers, sparklers and roman candles last year, battling the tedium of hunkering down, mean supplies are fizzling out.
Consumers have heard the lines: Supplies are limited. Come early for best selection.
Teressa Hale, who manages Mr. W Fireworks on Bud Drive, near the Home Depot in Bellmead, said the warnings ring true this year.
“What you see is what we have,” Hale said of merchandise on the shelves. Reinforcements traditionally available are nowhere to be found.
With three shopping days left until the holiday Sunday, Hale said she is concerned stock will evaporate before customers get their fill. She and an employee compared notes and pooled their years of experience to predict every item will be gone when the clock strikes midnight on Sunday.
“The entire U.S. is pretty much sold out of extra product,” said Sabrina Nickels, sales director for a fireworks wholesaler in Ohio, reached by phone. “We got 70% of what we ordered this year. It’s been crazy trying to get merchandise on boats, and shipping costs are triple what they used to be.”
She said the fireworks industry enjoyed a banner year in 2020, not despite the pandemic but because of it. There were no baseball games, concerts, community events or pool parties to attend in person, Nickels said.
“So people put the July Fourth celebration in their own hands,” she said. “Most people who shot fireworks last year enjoyed the experience and will shoot fireworks this year and shoot them going forward. That increases demand.”
Brandy Thompson, who operates the American Fireworks stand on West Highway 84 near McGregor, said there have been issues getting fireworks into the United States from exporting counties such as China.
But once they get to stands such as hers, business has boomed, she said.
“We’re doing really well compared to last year,” Thompson said.
She said she has seen a run on “bigger stuff, artillery- and mortar-shell-type stuff. There was a Vietnam vet just in here, and he said he was ready to enjoy some freedom. He bought the biggest thing you can buy without a pyrotechnic license.”
Thompson said scarcity has not necessarily translated to fewer bargains.
“Out of a thousand items, maybe five have gone up in price,” she said.
Hale, at Mr. W Fireworks, told a different story. She said price-setting is above her pay grade. Numbers are changed at the corporate level.
“Everything went up, as we knew it would,” she said. “But I felt the increase was no more than 10%, which I believe is fair. Things are not cheaper. How could they be? But there have been reports of prices tripling.”
Chester Davis, who owns Bastrop-based American Fireworks, said he has seen nothing like what the industry faces now despite 50 years in the business.
“In all essence, we’re no different than the appliance industry, the lumber industry, the electronics industry,” Davis said. “There are shortages everywhere, and we can’t do anything about it. We can’t fix it. We’ve received less than 50% of what we should have gotten. We don’t have the product sitting in a warehouse. It’s sitting in a container yard in California.”
Davis said fireworks from China start the domestic leg of their journey to Waco in Long Beach, California.
American Fireworks retrieves the product from Houston or Fort Worth for delivery to about 165 fireworks stands and multiple big-box superstores the company operates.
Though inventory is suffering, “stores and stands are doing great,” Davis said.
Igniting fireworks in the Waco city limits is against the law. Violators face citations, fines and having their fireworks seized and destroyed, Waco Police Department spokesperson Officer Garen Bynum said.
Bynum said police receive hundreds of complaints about fireworks on and around July Fourth, and officers respond to as many as possible. He said the department is aware that some neighborhoods boom to the sound of heavy-duty rocketry over the holiday despite their best efforts.
“But it is illegal within the city limits, including China Spring,” he said.
Hale said she and her Mr. W Fireworks crew continue to anticipate that big sale, the one that makes the long days and late nights worthwhile as they raise money for Turning Point Church, which receives a percentage.
She said there are regular customers who spend more than $1,000 apiece on fireworks hauls. The stand offers a secret weapon, said Hale, called Party in a Box, featuring 10 cakes, not the edible kind, and 24 artillery shots.
“Those sell for $700, and we sold five in December,” Hale said.
Roman candles remain the most popular choice among fireworks enthusiasts, though a novelty item tapping into the gender-reveal craze is making a strong showing, she said. It can produce confetti or smoke.
A Panda Fountain priced at $32 has its fans, but Hale’s stand is without one of last year’s more popular items, the Dumpy Dog, which emits a black stream of ash that grows until making a cracking sound.