BARNHART — Randy Vaughn has worried over his fireworks stand so much recently that employees gave him a new nickname.
“They call me Mr. T.I.B.,” Vaughn said. “Because I’m always saying, ‘This is bad, this is bad.’”
Like many fireworks vendors, Randy’s Fireworks is coming off a big 2020 after the pandemic canceled large shows and residents rushed to put on their own.
Even with restrictions on municipal displays lifted this summer, he expects healthy demand this season.
But this year, he doesn’t have a whole lot to sell.
Last year’s banner summer left firework vendors’ inventories badly depleted coming into 2021, and issues with shipping on both sides of the Pacific Ocean have hobbled efforts to restock the shelves. And now, as sellers like Vaughn open this week ahead of July 4, they are raising prices on what they do have by double-digit percentages.
“I’ve got some product, so I’m going to sell what I’ve got,” Vaughn said. “But when it’s gone, it’s gone. And just about everybody’s in the same boat.”
Rob Cima, vice president at the Missouri Pyrotechnics Association, said a number of small stands simply won’t open this year. Without enough fireworks to sell, they might not be able to cover the costs of a permit, tent and employees.
It’s difficult to overstate how much the consumer fireworks industry exploded last year. With millions of people stuck at home and most professionally-produced municipal shows canceled, sales of consumer-grade fireworks skyrocketed.
Americans bought 385.8 million pounds of the stuff in 2020, 55% more than in 2019, according to data from the Washington, D.C.-based American Pyrotechnic Association.
Revenue for sellers jumped even higher, nearly doubling from $1 billion in 2019 to $1.9 billion in 2020.
“It was insane,” said Julie Heckman, the pyrotechnic association’s executive director. “It was non-stop all summer.”
But those sales had a cost, too. Distributors had to cut into their reserves to satisfy the unprecedented demand. That meant they needed to order more fireworks from China for this year. And that’s been easier said than done.
Because demand for other imported consumer products came back bigger and faster than most expected last year, the global supply chain has been a mess.
Shippers strapped for container space have responded by jacking up prices to record levels: By December, benchmark rates to get something from China to California were triple what they had been a year prior.
The massive volume of containers has overwhelmed major ports, some of which were already hamstrung by COVID outbreaks among dockworkers.
That means ships have been waiting a week or more outside the Port of Los Angeles before they can dock and unload. That delays delivery of existing loads and their voyages to pick up the next one, so reliability grows worse and worse.
“It all kind of builds on itself,” said Zac Rogers, a professor at Colorado State University who studies the logistics industry. “And a supply chain is like a clock: If all the gears are working in sync, it’s fine. But if one is off, it all falls apart.”
Rogers added, “So then something like having all of Missouri’s fireworks come from China, which usually works like a magic trick, is suddenly much harder to do.”
Industry leaders have reached out to the federal government for help.
The National Fireworks Association sent a letter signed by a number of Missouri retailers to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in March asking him to unclog the system and “return it to ‘pre-COVID-19’ conditions.”
Heckman, the executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, said her organization made similar requests to multiple agencies, but she acknowledged that every industry is struggling with similar issues, and that a fix now is unlikely.
“It’s been a perfect storm,” she said, “The product’s just tied up in a whole supply chain mess.”
John Bechtold, owner of Columbia, Mo.-based distributor Spirit of ’76 Fireworks, hasn’t had this much trouble getting product on time since he started the business in 1987.
“We’ve probably gotten 70% fulfillment on our orders,” he said. “We usually get 98-99%.”
It’s no better at the retailer level.
Vaughn, who runs the stand in Barnhart, said he’s received 60% of what he’s ordered from a half-dozen suppliers.
At Captain Jim’s in West Alton, owner Jim Meyers said he’s received 70% of what he ordered, but has heard of others getting less than a third.
“It’s rough,” Meyers said. “It’s really bad.”
Fewer fireworks and added shipping costs mean consumers are going to pay more.
Meyers said Captain Jim’s, for instance, has raised prices 40%.
Vaughn said he wouldn’t go that high, but some items are 15% higher and he’s not giving the usual discounts to big spenders.
“I want people to still be able to afford them,” he said last week. “But at a certain point you have to bite the bullet and hope you don’t go too high.”