Fireworks are shot off at the Point on July 4, 2012.
By Daniel Sisgoreo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For the fireworks industry, 2012 was the worst year in a generation.
The all-American holiday normally brings in much of a pyrotechnics company's annual revenue, as the nation erupts in booms, bangs and sizzles. But last year, fireworks sales plummeted by more than half, according to some industry reports.
Those in the business point to different reasons for the catastrophic flop. Consumers were still strapped for cash in the wake of the financial downturn, while a drought and other bad weather enveloped much of the country. To top it all off, July 4 was a Wednesday -- and a midweek Independence Day can really put a damper on lavish celebrations.
This year's Thursday holiday may not be much better in terms of weekday scheduling, but hopes are high -- and inventories are, too.
"You have to always buy assuming success," said Kevin Shaub, the owner of Keystone Fireworks, who is expecting a 10 to 15 percent bump in revenue this year. "The cardinal sin is to run out."
Whatever happens, the industry is hoping to avoid a repeat of last year, which brought the perfect storm of bad circumstances. Julie Heckman, the executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, said some fireworks retailers saw revenue cuts of more than 50 percent.
Keystone Fireworks operates five stores in central and eastern Pennsylvania, in addition to opening more than 400 temporary tent locations here and in seven other states between Rhode Island and Georgia. A number of tent locations have opened in the Pittsburgh area and will sell fireworks until Saturday.
According to a survey by Visa, Independence Day spending on everything from food to travel should increase by about 58 percent this year, with survey respondents planning to spend about $300 on average for the holiday.
In the region that includes Pittsburgh, that figure came in at $454.
The survey also found that more than 40 percent of Americans plan to buy fireworks, spending an average of $28 each on sparklers, cherry bombs and other pyrotechnic products.
William Weimer, vice president of Phantom Fireworks in Youngstown, Ohio, said the recession took a toll on business in recent years, but it may not have had as great an impact on pyrotechnics as on other industries.
"We are certainly not recession-proof, but maybe there's some resistance to the recession because people are enthusiasts and they don't like to give up the celebration of the Fourth of July, just like they don't like to give up celebrating Christmas," Mr. Weimer said.
Stephen Vitale, the president of Pyrotecnico in New Castle, which runs professional fireworks shows but does not sell consumer products, said companies like his have not seen dramatic drops in sales because municipalities are often reluctant to give up their fireworks shows. When they have to, local business communities usually rally support for the shows.
Doug Taylor, president of Zambelli Fireworks in New Castle, which also runs fireworks shows, reported towns are booking more extravagant and more expensive shows than in previous years -- a sign he takes to herald the end of the financial downturn. He expects an increase in revenue of roughly 6 percent.
But until Independence Day passes, predicting industry revenue remains a guessing game.
"Believe it or not, in late June, I'm still having difficulty predicting what kind of year it's going to be," Mr. Weimer said. "But so far, all signs are great."