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As you may have heard in your own neighborhood, shooting off fireworks became kind of a thing during the pandemic. Consumer fireworks sales soared, and demand remains high. But Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports that the supply chain for fireworks is broken, which means consumers will pay more this year if they can even find them.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The Pyro City store near Lone Jack, Mo., looks to be jammed with massive home fireworks - colorful, heavy, almost toaster-sized cubes with names like Gunfighters from Hell, Skull Crushers and the ever-popular Redneck Diamonds. At a glance, this store looks well stocked, but the selection isn't what it normally would be. There are gaps on the shelves, and shopper Mary Daniel notices something else.
MARY DANIEL: The price (laughter) - they are super-expensive. I didn't expect this (laughter). I sure didn't.
MORRIS: It's been a few years since Daniel purchased fireworks, and she's looking at the huge party packs.
DANIEL: Well, that one's $649, and that one's 339.
MORRIS: The $649 package is a hundred-pound behemoth, a huge box of explosives called The Godfather. It's a hundred dollars more than last year, and that's typical. Fireworks are up about 20%. Store manager Donna Nuccio says sales are brisk. And last year, she says, it was crazy.
DONNA NUCCIO: Unbelievable - they were through the roof, and the store was empty last year. So I did not have a firecracker left in the store.
MORRIS: It was much the same around the country. Fireworks sales nearly doubled. Inventory was run down to almost nothing, setting the stage for the current shortage. Because while fireworks sales traditionally drop off a cliff after the 4th, Nuccio says last year, that didn't happen.
NUCCIO: People were celebrating anything and everything. I had people coming in buying fireworks for Thanksgiving. We had Diwali, we had Christmas, we had New Year's, we had...
MORRIS: Consumer fireworks are made almost exclusively in China. Production there shut down at the height of the pandemic. Julie Heckman, who heads the American Pyrotechnics Association, says factories have been humming since, but getting fireworks from Chinese ports to U.S. customers has become a huge problem.
JULIE HECKMAN: The current supply chain issues are the worst we've ever seen. Pretty much all importers are in this chaotic mess right now.
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MORRIS: The vast Winco warehouse in Grandview, Mo., is at one end of that mess. It's bigger than two city blocks, more than 30 feet tall and it sits mostly empty. WinCo president Mike Collar says his customers are clamoring for product, but more than 400 shipping containers full of his fireworks are stuck at various points between Chinese ports and Kansas City. That's partly because fireworks are hazardous material requiring special handling. They have to be the last thing loaded on a ship and the first to come off. Collar says shipping costs have more than doubled. And worse, it takes three times as long as normal to get the goods to the U.S.
MIKE COLLAR: Well, it's the year that could have been. And in this business, especially a seasonal business, you don't get those opportunities very often.
MORRIS: While the shortage is a bummer for retailers and backyard enthusiasts, Susan McKelvey, with the National Fire Protection Association, doesn't mind.
SUSAN MCKELVEY: Yeah, sure. Like I said, from our perspective, the less people using consumer fireworks, the better because it's safer.
MORRIS: Because fireworks cause fires, lots of them. And fireworks-related injuries spiked by 56% last year. This year, professional fireworks shows are back. And since most of last year's shows were canceled, the pros have ample fireworks on hand.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.
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