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With Demand Booming, A Fireworks Shortage May Have Some Roadside Sales Fizzle Out

An Alamo Fireworks roadside fireworks stand in San Marcos.
An Alamo Fireworks roadside fireworks stand in San Marcos.

Fireworks are a staple for the Fourth of July — whether you're watching a full-blown show or setting some off in your yard. For the fireworks industry, it's the biggest time of the year. Last year, lockdowns and event cancellations brought a sales boom to roadside fireworks stands, but this summer might not be the industry’s most profitable.

Out on Highway 80, just east of San Marcos, Steve Elizalde is running a stand for Alamo Fireworks.

“I decided that I wanted to do this so my kids have a place to go and work during the summer or in the off-season around the holidays,” he said.

Elizalde works full-time for an Austin publishing company. Since fireworks stands are open only a few weeks a year, he thought it would be the perfect seasonal, time-restricted job. (Texas law allows fireworks sales only between June 24 and July 4, and Dec. 20 and Jan. 1.) But this year, selling fireworks has been a little challenging because there’s a shortage of fireworks.

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“I'm having a hard time with certain ones that are staples, like sparklers,” Elizalde said. “I don’t have a quarter of the sparklers I would normally have. And the different types of firecrackers — just standard firecrackers that kind of blow up — I'm having a hard time having very many of those."

And, he says, some of the ones he sells are twice as expensive as they used to be.

This leads to fewer customers spending less than they normally would ahead of the Fourth of July weekend.

“If all I have to sell are the big stuff that a lot of people can’t afford to buy, then I’m kind of stuck with it,” he said. “I run the risk of not making as much as I could have had I had all the little stuff and things that are more common for people to purchase.”

This problem is not just at Elizalde’s stand; it’s everywhere this year.

Chester Davis has owned and operated American Fireworks in and around Austin and Houston for five decades. He says he’s never seen it this bad.

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“When we get an order in from a customer, we come in here and we pack the order right here," Davis said at his warehouse just west of Bastrop on Highway 71. "But we don’t have any, because we’ve had to turn away so many customers because of lack of product.”

He has never seen his warehouse this empty. And he’s never had to turn people away like he has during what should be his biggest week of the year.

“If the supplies were where they should be and like they’ve been for 50 years, we’d be so busy right here now,” he said. “We’d have product on the shelves. We’d have product stacked on top. We’d have customers buzzing this place. We have to turn back so much business because we can’t give them product. We’re trying to supply our warehouses, and our stores, and our stands. So, you know, we’re 50 containers short of where we ought to be.”

Normally his Bastrop and Tomball warehouses are filled with a six-month supply of fireworks. To be clear, this is no small operation: American Fireworks is the dominant name in local fireworks. It owns and operates 165 stands and 15 box stores, and serves 450 wholesale customers. That means if you're buying fireworks elsewhere nearby, you might be buying Davis' products.

The shortage is like if H-E-B ran out of milk, bread and toilet paper (if you could imagine). And while firecrackers are not nearly as essential as groceries, they are subject to the same supply-chain disruptions that have plagued other businesses: COVID-19 and the weather.

American Fireworks has to order everything for the Fourth of July more than a year in advance from China.

“They stopped making the product in China because of the virus,” Davis said. “And then there was a shortage of steel shipping containers. And so they couldn’t get the containers loaded to get them on ships.”

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Once Davis finally got the fireworks into containers, he had to renegotiate shipping. And then in transit, one of the container ships with his cargo hit a typhoon, sending an entire shipment of fireworks to the bottom of the ocean.

And that was just getting the fireworks to this continent.

“Then we get them into the port of California, then they don’t want to unload the ships,” he said. “So the ships are sitting out in the bay, anchored out, been out there for maybe a month or so, two months. Then when the container finally gets unloaded, then we couldn’t get it on the rail because Southern Pacific said they didn’t have room to get it on the trains that come into Houston.”

After some rerouting and additional expenses, a limited supply made it to Austin in time for the Fourth of July. So American Fireworks' warehouses are mostly empty and Davis' stores don’t have everything customers have come to expect over an Independence Day weekend. He says it might take a year or more to get back to normal.

Davis doesn’t want to think too much about the money his company will miss out on, though. He prefers to focus on the joy his fireworks bring.

“I’m a man that has believed in the apple pie, Chevrolet, parades, picnics, then top it off on that night with fireworks,” he said. “I believe that and when I die that’s exactly how I want to go out. I want everybody to have a picnic. I want to be hauled down the road in a parade and when we get to the end of the deal, let’s shoot some fireworks.”

Davis offers the same advice heard during every other shortage we’ve lived through recently: Go early. Don’t wait until Sunday.

Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.