After Michigan allowed the sale of explosive airborne fireworks for the first time in 71 years last year, the Patriot Fireworks Company had to deal with a unique problem. Customers were so impatient to try out their just-purchased goods, a store co-owner said, that a few of them lit up while still inside the shop.
“You’d think they’d know better, but I’ve had to tell people not to do it in there,” Tracy Wolf, who owns the company with her husband, told The Huffington Post. She said there are now signs outside her 24 locations explicitly telling customers it is a fire hazard to shoot fireworks less than 300 feet away from a store.
While fireworks have been a part of Fourth of July celebrations since at least 1777, industry insiders say they're seeing an unprecedented retail demand for explosive illuminations. Such a spike may be coming from consumers whose demand was pent up in past years by several states' restrictions on many kinds of fireworks. They're now stocking up for Independence Day in states like Michigan and Maine, which lifted the restrictions in 2012.
Retailers in those states say people who might have bought a novelty smoke grenade or a few noisy firecrackers last year are coming back this year determined not to have their personal July 4 shows outdone by their neighbors –- and dumping hundreds of dollars in pyrotechnics to make sure that’s the case.
“The two things that you need to consider when you’re buying fireworks are your budget and your ego,” said Sean MacMillan, who owns retailer Big Bang Boom! in rural Holden, Maine. “Thankfully for me, ego tends to win out.”
MacMillan says he sees about 120 customers per day, with the average sale being close to $100. Every once in a while, he’ll sell more $1,000 worth of fireworks to a single customer, he says. Some requests can be a little unusual.
“One guy came in and asked what the best firecrackers were to shoot using a slingshot,” MacMillan said.
Consumers bought $645 million worth of fireworks last year, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association, an industry trade group. While there are several large national chains selling fireworks –- with Phantom Fireworks and TNT among the best-known –- fireworks retailing is largely the domain of small businessmen, a top executive at Phantom told HuffPost.
“The truth is our main competition comes from regional players,” William Weimer, Phantom’s vice-president, said. “There are the big competitors, but the regional players are very sharp. They know the locals and the state regulators, obviously, and in a way, have a leg up on us.”
Weimer was not too upset at the competition, though. He said increasing sales in Michigan and Maine -- and good weather elsewhere in the country –- had led his company to project a 10 percent jump in sales from 2012 to 2013. Hot and dry weather conditions, such as those seen throughout much of the country in May and June of last year, can prompt local fire departments to ban or limit the use of fireworks, which in turn can hurt sales.
"We had a tough time last year because it was so dry," he said. "Last year was a slow year for fireworks."
“People were just a little reticent,” he continued. “This year, they’re not. We’re seeing lots of interest and lots of action.”
That action is helping provide a modest, if much-needed, economic boost in some states. In Maine, the tax revenue from fireworks sales last year was some $380,000, more than three times the $120,000 lawmakers had expected when they legalized them.
“I hired 40 people to work in my stores last year, and 30 of them were unemployed before I hired them,” said Steven Marson, the owner of five Pyro City stores in Maine. Marson said he hopes to open at least three more stores in the near future.
Back in Michigan, Tracy Wolf, the Patriot Fireworks co-owner, has even grander expansion plans. Currently selling fireworks out of converted tractor trailers and brick-and-mortar stores, she said she hopes to grow to 60 locations. Her husband, who owns a law practice, says he expects to eventually trade a life of arguing before a judge and jury to one arguing with their Chinese pyrotechnic suppliers about price and quality.
“We put a big map on the wall and pinned our locations in there," Wolf said, "and were just like ‘Wow, we have so much room to grow.’”