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Just in time for July 4, America's latest shortage is ... fireworks

Americans hoping to buy fireworks for the Fourth of July this year are going to find a limited selection and higher prices — or empty shelves.
/ Source: NBC News

Americans rushing out to buy fireworks for the Fourth of July this year are going to find a limited selection and higher prices — or empty shelves.

From toilet paper to beef, shortages and snarled supply chains have been a major side effect of the pandemic since lockdown stockpiling sent lines of shopping carts around stores and emptied shelves in March of 2020. Now it’s fireworks supplies that are fizzling.

The fireworks industry warns that supply ahead of Independence Day will be down about 30% this year due to supply chain issues. Last year, the United States imported about 255 million pounds of fireworks, mostly from China, according to data from the research firm IHS Markit. Companies increased their orders after record-breaking sales last year neared $2 billion, meaning this year there could be a shortfall of over 76 million pounds of fireworks.

Fireworks enthusiasts are driving to multiple states to piece together enough product for a decent backyard display for friends and family.

They say it’s harder to get what they want and prices are high — but they’re getting what they can before the shelves are bare.

Jason Lewis, a retired tattoo artist in Oklahoma, said he normally puts on shows up to an hour long in an annual backyard barbecue gathering of about 50 family and friends on July 4. This year, he drove through three states and, spending a little less than last year, was only able to amass about half as much.

“At one stand in Texas, he had one 500-gram repeater I saw last year for $40. He wanted $115,” Lewis said. “I looked at him and said, ‘I’m done, I’ll go somewhere else.’ But little did I know it was the same everywhere.”

Normally, he puts together the whole show. This year, he said he will go "potluck," asking guests to bring any fireworks they see along the way — telling friends: "Don’t be shocked by (price) surprises. Get what you can."

Andrew John, 33, a software developer, said he has so far visited eight stores in Wyoming to put together his supplies. “Every single one has at least one bare shelf, or is filling in missing product with other products on the shelf,” he said. “The places hardest hit are the smaller shops … that do not have a warehouse to back-stock.”

At larger national stores, prices have gone up as much as 30%, said William Weimer, vice president and general counsel of Phantom Fireworks, a national consumer fireworks retailer, to control demand and pass on rising shipping costs they can’t avoid.

“We try to do our best to try to absorb some of the costs,” he said. “In some cases, we’re paying more for the freight than the product.”

Smaller sellers and roadside tent operations are scrambling to get supplies together. Some are sitting out the business entirely or limiting operations. “Due to product shortage we are closed,” a sign on a shipping container converted into a fireworks stand in Cheyenne, Wyoming, read last week.

Shortages and shipping delays have affected a wide range of consumer products since the pandemic erupted last year, from ketchup packets to furniture to computer chips. Consumers shifted spending from entertainment and leisure industries that were shut down to purchases of goods, increasing demand and decreasing container ship availability. At the same time, COVID-19 control measures and labor supply issues have decreased the number of stevedores and truck drivers needed to get supplies from ships to stores.

Fireworks face unique shipping issues because only a handful of shipping lines currently accept them. Of them, only so many ships are available — and of those ships, only a limited portion of their cargo space can be allocated to material classified as hazardous, such as fireworks.

Logistics companies are catering to larger customers with steadier volumes, such as the bigger retailers.

“Container capacity has been at a shortage for some time now. Couple that with the imbalance of vessels from the Suez Canal blockage — this has sent container pricing through the roof,” Glenn Koepke, SVP of Customer Success at FourKites logistics software company, said in an email. “Companies that have stable and committed volume with steamship lines are getting the service they need, where companies that have a very cyclical business with lumpiness in container demand are struggling to get capacity on vessels.”

While fireworks ship year-round, volumes start heating up in March and April. Most of the industry's annual revenue is made in the week leading up to July 4.

Shipping containers full of fireworks are waiting tantalizingly offshore, especially the heavily backed-up California port of Long Beach, industry experts say, where some containers wait as long as 60 days to be offloaded. But even then, it can be another 100 days until drivers pick them up, said Ed Vasel, vice president of the National Fireworks Association, an industry trade group.

“What could be a booming business, it’s just not happening,” he said. “The people are there, the demand is there, the product is not there.”

For the best bang for the buck, shop for 200-gram “cakes,” which are smaller blocks of fireworks fused together, said Jim Priebe, who puts on “pyromusicals,” or firework displays set to music.

“I get pretty creative with those,” he said. “They’re probably the value buy, there’s more in a case.”

To help beat the higher prices, look for stores offering buy-one-get-one sales and manager specials — though you may have to sign up for the store mailing list. Shoppers can also check the store’s social media feed to find coupons.

“You want to be a neighborhood legend? Shop early for best selection,” said Joe VanOudenhove III, co-owner of the Florida-based Sky King fireworks chain.

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