Fireworks in short supply this holiday

Marvin Long shows off the inventory in his tent in Cookeville.

By Michelle Price
UCBJ Managing Editor

COOKEVILLE – Although consumers may be in for a surprise when preparing to celebrate the Fourth of July this year as some local tents face inventory shortages and higher prices, one local retailer saw the approaching shortage and went to work.

“It’s hard to get fireworks right now if you didn’t order early, and the supply was limited even if you did order early,” said Marvin Long, who operates the Big Marv’s fireworks tents in Cookeville and Algood. “

Last June, Long became aware of the impending shortage when he noticed all of the fireworks warehouses were being depleted by the record sales leading up to 2020 July Fourth holiday. 

“The warehouses haven’t been able to restock and get their inventory levels back up yet,” said Long.

Almost all fireworks are manufactured in China. Although the factories were shut down for a bit for COVID, Long says that wasn’t the main issue. Shipping became the problem.

Long explained, “Every year the Chinese shut down if there are government meetings or holidays. They shut the fireworks factories down for their Chinese New Year for a month, but they can make fireworks very, very quickly. What normally happens between those shutdowns is they open up (the factories) and make fireworks like crazy, but now they have run out of shipping containers to get them here because they are all on ships, in ports and sitting here in the U.S. Then they have to stop making fireworks because they have nowhere to store them. Their warehouses are full until they can get the containers shipped back to China to fill with the fireworks they have made and then ship them back here. So, it’s been a shipping dilemma, because you can only make so much and when you run out of room to store it, you have to stop.”

Long saw the coming supply issues and started buying inventory in December. In January and February, his fears were realized when distributors began emailing saying that there was going to be a fireworks shortage and to be prepared. When Long asked the distributors for stock lists, instead of the thousands of items that are usually available, there were only 30 or so items available. 

“I thought, I don’t have much of an option, but I’ll order what you have,” he said. “It’s like going to Walmart and you usually get Coke, Mt. Dew, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Sprite, Diet Coke. Well when I was ordering, each company only had Coke and Pepsi. That was your options.”

Long was able to get a good variety because he orders from so many different companies. 

“I was able to order a little from this company, a little bit from that company, and on down the list. I tried to stay in contact with them so that when they offered other items, I could order those,” he said.

Transportation continued to be an issue even after the Chinese got more containers. 

You couldn’t get a spot on the boat to get the containers over here, then when the boat arrived here, and they can’t get into port to get unloaded.

Shipping costs on items were increasing daily until the ships were in port. Unlike fixed shipping charges on some goods, the transporters keep adding on freight charges every day as long as it’s sitting out there.

On one podcast for fireworks retailers in March it was shared that there were 702 longshoremen that were off work because of COVID that day in Long Beach, Calif., and over 100 ships sitting off the coast waiting to get unloaded. 

“Shipping has increased prices overall 30-40% this year,” Long said.

He explained that the shipping increases won’t affect small items as much as larger items. Roman candles come a thousand to a box, compared to the 500-grain fireworks that usually come four to a box. So, if shipping goes up $20 that is split between the number of items in each box, and the larger boxes will have more of a price increase.

Cost also varied depending on when the fireworks were bought and paid for and depending on how strong the Yen was to the dollar, according to Long. When the U.S. Dollar drops and the Chinese Yen increases, the exchange rate isn’t as good as it used to be, and fireworks become more expensive.

Fireworks distributors faced continued issues even after getting the stock off of the cargo ships.  

“I usually have it (new shipments) shipped here when we get open, but that wasn’t an option with distributors saying, ‘If you want it, you had better come get it now,’” Long shared. “I was having to drive and pick them up when the containers came in.” 

Long drove as far as three and a half hours each way to gather his inventory, while paying extra for shipping from the distributors eight hours away. When they would call him and say, “It’s here right now – if you want it, you had better get it shipped,” Long said he told them to put it on a truck and get it here.

Storage wasn’t an issue for Long who routinely keeps cargo containers for his inventory since he also opens his main tent between Christmas and New Years for those wanting to celebrate the start of a new year with a bang.

Paying close attention to market conditions and careful planning has paid off for Long as he worked to get the final items for his tent.

“Usually, the wholesalers have a showroom set up to select from that resembles a typical fireworks tent. Retailers can go in there and select what they want to purchase for resale,” Long explained. “When I have went down there for the last month and a half, their showroom has gotten smaller and smaller. When I went three weeks ago, the showroom was completely empty except for three items.”

Long is still trying to get more inventory, with some distributors looking at ships possibly getting unloaded this week and potentially arriving before July 4.   

Some of the hot items were limited by wholesalers to retailers, so Long stressed “if customers have any favorites, they should take that into consideration and not wait until the last minute to shop.” 

The shelves are well stocked at Big Marv’s tent even though there is a fireworks shortage.

Michelle Price is the managing editor of the Upper Cumberland Business Journal and can be reached via email. Send an email.

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