In an age when people buy everything from shoes to groceries online, or scroll through a store’s app to reserve an item, one industry still thrives on shoppers browsing in the aisles: fireworks.
That’s partly because state and federal laws restrict shipping to individuals, and partly because the industry hasn’t fully embraced mobile apps. But talk to shoppers at the bustling fireworks stores south of the North Carolina-South Carolina state line, and it’s clear that browsing in the store is part of the appeal.
Families were wandering the aisles this week ahead of the Fourth of July, amid excited chatter from kids and the sounds of fireworks coming from video screens around the store. Many cross the line from Charlotte because aerial and other fireworks are illegal in North Carolina.
At a time when some industries are focusing on mobile app development, the fireworks industry’s focus on the in-store experience certainly hasn’t hurt sales: The American Pyrotechnics Association expects fireworks will rake in more than $800 million this year. That would be up almost $50 million from last year. And it doesn’t even include money spent on fireworks for commercial displays, a figure that amounted to $340 million last year.
A few years ago, local fireworks shops went digital in their own way: investing in televisions to show customers the fireworks in action.
Stores such as Red Rockets Fireworks in Fort Mill will stay open 24/7 leading up to the holiday. At Red Rockets, you just have to take an item up to the machine and scan the bar code to see the colors flash across the screen.
Julie Heckman, executive director of the APA, said consumers don’t buy fireworks online.
“The only online sales are really between wholesalers and distributors,” she said. “Most people want that experience of going in and selecting the items with fun names and colorful labels.”
With names like “One Bad Stepmother” and “Alien Uprising,” who wouldn’t want to shop around?
Jason, who wouldn’t provide his last name, said shopping for the fireworks is a family activity. He was getting about $500 worth of fireworks with his sons to put on a show on the Fourth.
“They get to come and help pick out the fireworks,” he said. “But they don’t get to actually help with the show.”
His 12-year-old son, Connor, said this is the third summer he has gotten to help his dad. He smiled when asked about his favorite display.
“It’s the same as yours, dad,” he said. “We really like the Diablo.” Think big, think loud.
AllowedSparklers, fountains, smoke devices, snake and glow worms, trick noisemakers, string poppers or snappers and toy pistol caps
Not allowedBasically, anything that leaves the ground – explosives or aerial fireworks, firecrackers, Roman candles and rocketsMust be 16 years or older to purchase or use fireworks
Research online; buy in-store
For those who wish to shop online, many local shops have websites. David Smith, showroom manager at Phantom Fireworks, said some customers even watch YouTube videos to research what they want.
“This time of year, probably 10 percent of the people have made a list (from online shopping),” he said. “But the other 90 percent ... want to look around.”
Shipping restrictions make buying online difficult. For transportation purposes, fireworks are treated as common explosives, Heckman said.
“You can’t just ship them through the mail,” she said. If you were purchasing a volume of fireworks online, you would have to go through special shipping measures to do so.
And more than that, you have to enter your ZIP code when trying to buy online. Shipping to North Carolina, Heckman said, would not be allowed because aerial fireworks are illegal.
All about the experience
Charlotte resident Danielle Steele wouldn’t consider shopping for fireworks online. “It’s easier to just come to the store,” she said. Plus, at the store her daughter can come with her.
Kylah, 9, didn’t get to pick out any fireworks last year. But her eyes lit up when she saw a display called “Thug Hunter.” She excitedly picked up the box, glanced at her mom for approval and put it in the cart.
“I like the big ones,” she said, as she wandered around to find more cool displays. But Steele said she often goes for the smaller fireworks to “get more bang for your buck.”
“For a lot of them, it’s a family affair,” said Kim Pyles, seasonal manager at Red Rockets Fireworks. “It’s an American tradition.”
Bob Knight, an employee at Red Rockets, has been working the Fourth of July rush for 19 years. A science teacher during the school year, this is a summer passion of his.
“The bottom line is, it’s fun,” he said.
Rachel Stone: 704-358-5334, @RStone1317
Safety tips for the fourth
The National Fire Protection Association estimates that local fire departments respond to more than 50,000 fires caused by fireworks each year.
If you do plan on lighting fireworks this July Fourth, follow these Mecklenburg County safety tips:
▪ Always have an adult supervise fireworks activities. Even sparklers burn at temperatures of about 2,000 degrees – hot enough to melt some metals.
▪ Never point or throw fireworks at another person.
▪ Wear eye protection while handling fireworks.
▪ Light one firework at a time and never try to re-light or pick up fireworks that have not ignited fully.
▪ Soak all fireworks in a bucket of water before throwing them in the trash can.