A visit to Chorlton Fireworks

Taking a look around the Manchester fireworks shop.

Situated on Barlow Moor Rd, Chorlton Fireworks is an all-year fireworks store in Manchester catering for a diverse range of events. The owner, Saj, is also well known in my Fireworks Forum as a long-term Sponsor who takes a very active part in discussions. In this article I am paying his shop a visit to have a good look around and interview him.

BOWLING, BUTCHERY & BACK FLIPS

Without doubt my favourite part of retailer interviews now is asking about shop owner’s backgrounds. Saj didn’t let me down here with the most diverse list of previous interests to date. I asked him to start at the beginning, so to speak.

“My interest in fireworks started as a kid,” Saj explained, “because our family always had a fireworks display in November to celebrate both my birthday and Bonfire Night. I remember going out to buy fireworks with my mum, aged 6 or 7, it was in an old-fashioned stationery and craft shop called Quarmby’s that had a massive cabinet full of various wools. In October, the wool in this cabinet was replaced with an assortment of fireworks. Mostly Standard Fireworks in those days including selection boxes, air bombs and sparklers.”

I’ve been a competitive ten-pin bowler, gymnast and a butcher.
Saj – Owner, Chorlton Fireworks

I asked Saj about his journey to retail fireworks. He took a deep breath and smiled. “Well,” he said, “prior to fireworks I’ve been in quite a range of things. I’ve been a competitive ten-pin bowler and won competitions, a gymnast and qualified gymnastics coach, plus a spell as a butcher.”

When I replied that was quite a diverse list, it was clear he hadn’t finished! “I’ve also worked in a casino as a gaming supervisor,” he continued, “I enjoyed that job but sadly my brother – who ran a butchers in Cheetham Hill – passed away aged just 37 so I took over the running of his business. That’s how I came to be a butcher.”

THE BIRTH OF CHORLTON FIREWORKS

“In 2006 or so when running the butchers I had an accident that severed my arm. The accident wasn’t related to the butcher’s job but it did mean that continuing to work in that profession was difficult as I had lost the use of it. One of my customers was a wholesaler of fireworks and suggested that I should look into selling fireworks as a career change.

“He even offered to help pay for my licence and supply stock on sale or return so I could give it a try. So I took the plunge and opened my first seasonal fireworks shop. It was a little shop in Cheetham Hill. This actually did fire up a passion to sell fireworks, I was selling a product that I had continued to buy as an adult and use at parties.

“I did this seasonally for a couple of years before looking for a permanent shop. I wanted to set up a shop in the area I grew up in – Chorlton – and eventually found my current shop.”

Looking around the shelves I could see a diverse range of brands on sale. “When I became an all year retailer I had also been on the UKFR Forum and it was obvious there were a lot of very good brands out there. So I made the decision to stock a wide range of fireworks as this opened up so many possibilities.”

Saj said that he’d been in his current location since 2012 so was in fact celebrating 10 years trading at that address.

I didn’t realise it until this visit – as he hasn’t mentioned it in my Forum – that he has a professional show side to his business too. “I’ve done all the training courses to fire professionally,” he explained, “and we fire displays under the Prestigious Pyrotechnics banner. We’re fully trained and licensed to use Category F4 fireworks for this.”

Customers demand new products each year. Keeping up with that is hard.
Saj – Owner, Chorlton Fireworks

I asked Saj, what were the toughest things he’d faced in establishing a fireworks business? “The initial years were hard,” he answered, “because there was very little profit until we got established. It was hard keeping things afloat and still paying the bills the rest of the year.”

And the most difficult things now, recent pandemic aside? “Keeping a steady flow of new products,” he replied. “Customers demand new products each year. Keeping up with that is hard. We know our customers are simply not satisfied if we have the same range all the time.”

This brought us nicely on to something Saj is getting a reputation for in my Forum: designing some stonking own-brand fireworks.

AWARD-WINNING FIREWORKS

I started here by asking Saj whether he was a full-blown importer in his own right or worked with other companies to bring new products in. Purely out of curiosity as to how retailers can take those first steps.

“I’m not an importer by myself,” Saj explained, “but rather work with established companies to either rewrap existing fireworks or,  as is the case now, designing my own fireworks which can then be manufactured and brought in under our own branding, but use their factory, testing, importing and infrastructure.”

This sounded to me like a good compromise that allowed unique new products but without the massive investments – and risk – that importing on your own can bring. Saj agreed with this; the only obvious disadvantage being a higher cost price per item but he was happy to trade that off for not having to deal directly with all the stresses of testing and shipping.

“Lightning Strike was the first firework in our bespoke range, around four years ago,” he recalled, “it was actually part B of an Absolute Fireworks compound called “Grounds For Divorce”. I liked that particular section and knew it would make a good standalone cake. They were happy for me to do this and it was hugely popular, selling out.”

Since then Saj’s range of own-brand fireworks has grown substantially. “Including confetti cannons and ice fountains,” he said, “we have 22 items now. A big difference too is that with my current importing partner I can now speak directly with factory technicians when designing and refining new products.”

On the subject of designing fireworks I asked Saj about his award winning behemoth compound, Pyroclastic Storm (which you can’t miss in the photos and video below).

“I designed it myself and we were going back and forth with technicians at the factory for eight months!” Saj recalled. “It was worth it though – it won “Best Compound Cake” in the 2021 Firework Awards.

DID SOMEONE MENTION WAR HAWKS AGAIN?

For those unfamiliar with my Forum, we have a bit of an in-joke about a rocket pack called War Hawks. Due to a combination of competitive pricing and stunning performance they’ve become one of the most popular – and copied – products on the market. To the extent that so many newbies had been asking about them, I had an emoji made for just such posts which says: “Did someone mention War Hawks again?”.

To prove a point, up on the wall in the rocket section was Saj’s own version which he has called “Lightning Hawks”, pictured above. Saj was quite proud of these. “Yes, that’s my own version of the Hawk,” he confirmed. “Ours have a suitably big effect expected by Hawk lovers, with 68g NEC per rocket.”

For all my mickey-taking, Saj had the last laugh: Three days after I did this interview they won “Best Rocket Pack” in the 2022 Firework Awards. A number of Saj’s other fireworks were winners too in a very successful season for him.

LET’S TALK ABOUT PRICE RISES

At least one question I ask in my interviews makes a retailer wince or look like they want to cry. In Saj’s case it was my question about price rises.

“It’s more than I’d envisioned it to be, put it that way,” he said, with a long sigh. “It seems to have been a continuous rise in the cost of everything for the last three years,” he continued. “It’s almost a perfect storm: Lockdown followed by shipping problems and huge shipping costs, then shortages… it has ended up as one big problem, with inflation added on top.”

We are still in the midst of real uncertainty.
Saj – Owner, Chorlton Fireworks

I asked him if he thought prices would stabilise. His reply echoes what other retailers and importers have told me: “The current prices have become the new normal. Whilst end-retailers can try and absorb some prices rises, I have never known a wholesaler in history that has been able to do so. I certainly can’t see costs reducing.”

How worried was he by all this? “It concerns me,” he replied, looking thoughtful. “We are still in the midst of real uncertainty no matter how positive we want to be. Whilst I can try and mitigate against any future shortages by bringing in more of our own-brand items, global events are worrying.”

We mused at this point about the situation in Ukraine and wondered where it would all end. Saj said at the back of a lot of people’s minds is the worry that trading with China might become more difficult or restricted than it already is.

Did Saj think that price rises with fireworks have reached the point where it will affect trade? “It’s too soon to say,” he replied. “We actually thrived during the pandemic as more people were having fireworks at home. Whether the pinch on people’s spending power will mean less firework sales going forwards remains to be seen. I think the biggest problem might actually be that some lines, such as the £10-£20 selection box, might be unfeasible to bring in.”

GENDER REVEALS & LOCKDOWN BABIES

Returning to more positive things, I asked Saj about two rather large boxes behind the counter with pink and blue labels on, emblazoned with the words “Next Generation”. Were these extra-large gender reveal barrages?

“Yes they are!” he replied. “Most gender reveal cakes so far have been fairly small, 25 or 36 shots for example, and just all blue or pink. We’ve had many gender reveal customers who want to do more than this but perhaps don’t want to set up lots of fireworks. So I designed my own gender reveal compounds.”

You can see these on the shop counter in my video below next to a standard-sized cake to give an idea of scale. I totally agree with Saj’s logic here: Compound cakes (multiple cakes connected together in one unit) are so popular now as they save lots of time-consuming setting up and are arguably safer as they can’t fall over.

A gender reveal compound can therefore offer a pink or blue section but a mixed effect finale too.

“It’s a bespoke design that’s all my own work,” Saj beamed, “there’s an initial section of 49 silver titanium willows with mine effects to build the anticipation, then a 101 shot gender reveal in blue or pink with some fanned effects, finishing with a volley of shots. With other gender reveal cakes on the market topping out at around £50 some people thought I was bonkers bringing in something this big but people are willing to pay for a bigger, quality experience.”

Looking at his video of this, it looks a beautiful display in its own right. It currently sells at his shop for £175 and lasts around 90 seconds (which doesn’t sound long but is a typical duration/£ ratio for fireworks). I can see why it’s a popular alternative to firework laypeople buying and setting up multiple barrages.

I asked how you can disguise the label though on a box that big, so the audience didn’t see the colour. “It’s easy enough to rip off the top label,” Saj confirmed.

Top marks too go to Hallmark’s “Boy or Girl” 36 shot cake which Saj also sells: The colour is noted by a small blue or pink dot on the rear label which is easy to cover over and solves so many problems where customers need the firework wrapped or disguised.

As for the boom in gender reveal parties (pun intended) Saj put this down to the pandemic. “People were bored during lockdown and having more babies as a result,” he said laughing. Right on cue, Forum member and firework vlogger The Great Marko who was visiting too that day added from the background: “We had a lockdown baby too!”

LOW NOISE, ICE FOUNTAINS & CONFETTI

I was impressed by the range of low noise fireworks on show – an entire shelf column near the door was taken up by these. They ranged in size from small cakes right up to the amusingly named “Silent But Deadly” which is a huge compound cake.

“I wasn’t enthusiastic at first about low noise fireworks,” Saj explained, “but sales have steadily increased, especially during lockdown. They’re nowhere near the sales levels of normal fireworks but an important product to stock.”

Speaking of sales I enquired what his biggest selling lines were. “For the general walk-in customer it’s selection boxes, sparklers and rockets,” Saj replied, “with compound cakes also doing really well as people just want a big display from one fuse to light. We’re even seeing customers with bigger budgets buying multiple compounds to keep things simple to fire but spectacular in effects.”

Own-branded items even stretch to ice fountains and confetti cannons. I made the mistake of suggesting these should be easy products to source and import; Saj’s laugh suggested otherwise. “Even ice fountains aren’t necessarily straightforward,” he said, “because you have different grades from A to C. A being the least smoky and with the least residue but the most expensive.”

Saj’s are of course AA grade. When I told him his in-store price of £3 for a pack of 4 was cheap compared to some other firework shops he seemed to appreciate the tip-off and vowed to increase his price.

As for confetti cannons, a large box of giant black cannons sat on the main shop counter. “Those are 80cm long,” Saj explained, “with gold foil effects. We already have a big customer base who buy confetti and ice fountain products from us so it made sense to start bringing our own in, which we have done from 2015.

“We’re expanding too, a container is arriving in two weeks with 30cm, 60cm and 80cm cannons with gold foil, silver foil or white tissue.”

MAIL ORDER & THE 2022 SEASON

Readers impressed with the broad range of fireworks on display will be pleased to know that Saj also offers a full delivery service to most of the UK.

“We don’t use the same courier as most of the fireworks trade,” Saj explained. “Instead we have built up a relationship with an independent courier who are expensive but reliable. We also do local deliveries ourselves and even have a family connection up in Scotland making some parts of that accessible too.”

My final question was whether he was looking forward to the 2022 season. “No!” he replied without thinking but then laughed. You have to appreciate that fireworks is a tough business to be in and most retailers only truly wind down and relax at closing time on New Year’s Eve when it really is all over for another year.

“Actually I have a good feeling about this season,” Saj added, “as we have more new products coming in. These include Exponential (394 shot compound with 3998g NEC), Profusion (93 shot SIB with 998g NEC), Crazy Crossettes (141 shot compound with NEC TBC), Sensational (56 shot fanned barrage, NEC TBC), Crazy Crossettes (barrage with 46 shots and NEC 998g) and Lightning Storm (compound with 151 shots, NEC TBC).

“Despite all the price rises I hope it will be another successful year.”

With thanks to Saj for his time, the sausage baguette and coffee.

TAKE A LOOK AROUND

Explore the Chorlton Fireworks store through a 360 degree image and a video tour. Starting with the 360 degree image, click on the photo below to open this. You can then tap/click and drag to change your view and zoom in and out!

You can also watch a short video which I filmed during my visit. Please Like and Subscribe – your support of my YouTube channel is appreciated:

PHOTO GALLERY

Click or tap on an image to view it. I have split this gallery into two sections which should make it easier to load on some browsers and devices:

CHORLTON FIREWORKS – GET IN TOUCH

Visit Chorlton’s website or give them a call to find out more: