Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

July 3, 2011

Local fireworks vendors aspire with ambition

By Daniel Human
Tribune business writer

— Sales had been steady as of last week for Black Cats, Snap-n-Pops, Googles, Crackling Balls, Whistling Petes and warehouses full of other things that go boom in the night, store owners and managers said.

By today, Kokomo area fireworks vendors expected to have been almost wiped out.

Fireworks stores last week expected larger last-minute rushes compared to previous years. That is largely because the Fourth of July holiday falls on a Monday, which means most shoppers looking to enjoy a bout of temporary pyromania were likely to wait until the weekend to stock up.

“When you get about to the Fourth, you’ll get people spending 300 or 400 bucks [on fireworks] to take to the lake house,” said Jake Boswell, a manager at USA Fireworks in Kokomo Plaza at the corner of U.S. 31 and Carter Street.

Draped across buildings, fiery colored banners have advertised “Buy 1, Get 1,” and costume-wearing employees have been waving arrows to pluck customers from heavily traveled roads.

The flashy approach to business is often necessary for stores that are open for only a few weeks a year, said Steve Graves, executive director of the Indiana Fireworks Users Association.

Fireworks stores and tents statewide pull in between $2 million and $3 million every year. With limited time to sell, that leaves a competitive market, he said.

Low prices are the consistent advertisement among the businesses. To keep up with competitors, some shop owners scout in other stores to check out their deals or under-cut competitor prices.

“It’s a shark-eat-shark business,” Joe Wampler, owner of Best Price Fireworks at the northeast corner of Markland Avenue and Plate Street, said with a laugh.

Wampler, who spends most of his year working as pastor of a church in Monticello and as an appraiser, advertises around his store and the rest of Kokomo that he has the best-priced fireworks in the area.

Also pushing their prices around Kokomo are Mr. Fireworks, USA Fireworks, Freebies Fireworks and TNT Fireworks.

Brian Hudson, owner of Mr. Fireworks tucked behind a Marathon gas station on U.S. 31, said he is able to take a calmer, more consistent approach to his business because it operates all year and has been there for about 40 years.

“We’ve got the lion’s share of the market,” he said.

As of last week, sales for the store, which also has locations on Dixon Road and LaFountain Street, had been “fantastic,” he said.

The store tries to keep prices constant throughout the year to compete with the pop-up fireworks stores.

“People get pretty smart when you’re trying to take advantage and run crazy deals for them,” he said.

Sara Pellot, manager at Freebies Fireworks in Southway Plaza on U.S. 31, shunned the methods some of her competitors used.

“I’m just not like that,” she said.

Pellot, like Wampler and Hudson, noted that their companies are family-operated.

All the stores had employees who were quick to greet their customers and find products that they would enjoy. Discussions inevitably led to how to properly light them, with an emphasis on doing so safely.

“Cake products,” which are fireworks that shoot off multiple artillery shells, have become top sellers over the last five years.

Marvin Boswell, manager of USA Fireworks at the corner of U.S. 31 and Markland Avenue, said “cake” fireworks sales burst in 2006, when Indiana eased its regulations on them.

The type of firework remains a top seller, but they have come down as people have resumed buying “the main staples of life,” such as bottle rockets, Roman candles and sparklers.

Sales have remained steady through the recession, vendors said.

“A lot of people were laid off,” Boswell said, “but they were still receiving 95 percent of their pay, and they were looking for some entertainment.”

Wampler, the owner of Best Price Fireworks, said high gas prices have also helped over the last few years.

“A lot of people say, ‘Let’s just go buy some fireworks and shoot them off at the house,’” he said.

• Daniel Human is the Kokomo

Tribune business reporter. He can be reached at 765-454-8570 or at daniel.human@kokomotribune.com.