A visit to one of the UK's leading firework shops.
Epic Fireworks have been a UKFR Sponsor for nearly two decades. I popped in for a chat and to see their spacious showroom near Barnsley.
My first trip to see Epic Fireworks was back in 2008 when they were trading from their industrial unit in Batley. It was a functional but quite small premises and always seemed a bit at odds with their legendary products and service. I say “legendary” based on the continued good feedback from UKFR forum members over the years. Think top quality fireworks, outstanding customer service and free bacon rolls and coffee if you’ve travelled a long way – or even if you haven’t – and you can appreciate why they’re popular with pyro disciples.
Their new premises was custom built and designed from scratch to meet all of their needs as a retailer. Essentially they started with a blank sheet of paper and wrote out all of the things they would want if they could build their ideal premises – then went out, found some land and built it! It is every retailer’s dream really. Imagine a showroom large enough to accommodate any amount of stock and the rush of Guy Fawkes. Lots of space for administration work, a kitchen to cater for customers’ needs, a customer WC and loads of parking. Then add so much land you can store all your fireworks on site – including 1.3G (the Holy Grail!). Stick all this very near to a major junction on the M1 so it’s easy to access from practically anywhere.
It sounds too good to be true, both from a customer and a retailer point of view, but there it was right in front of me when I arrived – the biggest fireworks showroom I have ever seen!
After refreshments I took a tour with Paul Singh, one of the directors. Paul will be well known to existing customers and he’s also the face of Epic on my forum. I started by asking him about their decision to move.
“Batley was just too small” he explained. “We were struggling with the lack of space and having to do so many van runs with top up stock on our busy days. So it was an easy decision to move, but hard from there finding the right premises.”
In fact as any firework retailer will know, finding a suitable retail premises can be tough. In the end Paul and Jimmy decided to build their own! Literally that; their philosophy being if you can’t find something that meets your needs, go out and build it.
“It took a while to find suitable land but in the end we found a superb site close to the M1,” continued Paul. “Our new site has enough space for a showroom, all the storage we could possibly need and ample customer parking too. But we had to build it in stages because of both the size and cost of the project so it has taken a lot of time and effort to get to where we are now.”
Walking outside of the showroom I could see a number of distant containers. I asked Paul about the problematic storage of 1.3G fireworks. For those unfamiliar with the term 1.3G I’ll try and summarise a quite difficult situation: Fireworks for sale to the public generally fall under the storage classification of either 1.4G or 1.3G. After changes to the regulations a few years ago many of the more powerful fireworks (usually those with a high flash powder content) were reclassified from 1.4G to 1.3G. Now that’s a problem for retailers because whilst you can store the proverbial shedload of 1.4G on retail premises, the allowance for 1.3G is very limited in comparison, making it impractical to sell.
You could only get around this limitation by having premises so big and so far away from nearby property that you could store 1.3G on site in sufficiently large quantities to make it viable. And that’s exactly what Epic have done with their new site.
“We have enough room now for fully licenced storage covering both 1.4G and 1.3G,” explained Paul. “Best of all, our 1.3G range can now be stored on site so we don’t have issues with having restricted stock or having to bring in 1.3G by appointment. It’s all here – albeit a little walk across the yard!”
Epic also have a very large mail order operation servicing customers all over the UK. You may even have received or seen one of their mail order flyers – they send out half a million a year now!
“We can now do all of our mail order here too in a dedicated packing area,” Paul said showing me around the mail order section. At least half a dozen staff were busy packing and it was only September! “Doing our own deliveries is also a major advantage,” he continued, “since our trained ADR drivers can transport and deliver 1.3G.”
Popping back into the showroom I noticed the number of staff working there. Most firework retailers may have one or two staff working in the run up to silly season and obviously it’s all hands to deck come mid to late October. But the scale of Epic’s operation was reflected by their staffing level even in September.
“At the moment we have around twelve staff in the showroom,” explained Paul. “We have six people manning the phones, a few tending to the online side and our operation is supported by around twenty people picking and packing behind the scenes.”
Speaking of the showroom it is of course pyro heaven! One side of the wall is dedicated to cakes and barrages as you can see in this photo:
The other two walls in that half of the showroom have an extensive range of rockets, fountains and everything else. Several TVs offer the possibility of customers viewing product video before they buy. There’s just so much space though, quite a world apart from most retailers.
I asked Paul about the ordering process. “Customers pick what fireworks they want from the showroom,” he explained. “While we’re doing the paperwork and payment the order is then picked and brought through on a trolley. As you can see we have cladded half the floor in aluminium to cope with the stress of this. We then take the fireworks out for the customer and help them load up. ”
It’s certainly a very streamlined operation and works well.
Shown below is Epic’s showroom in full 360 degrees. You can click on the view with your mouse or finger and drag it around as if you are standing there. Really all that is missing is the smell of bacon and the occasional bark of the Alsatian guard dog.
It was also interesting to see this level of investment in a new site (over £1million if I understood Paul correctly) in tough economic times. I asked Paul firstly about the impact of the move from Batley and secondly about trading conditions during the subsequent recession.
“We’re in our third season now since our move and our customers have made the transition over to our new site with no problems,” explained Paul. “Once they’ve visited they can see how much better the whole experience is here and the feedback from everyone has been very positive.
“As for the recession, it has obviously been a tough time for the fireworks trade in general but we have done well. We believe our continued drive for both quality items and low prices has actually helped us weather the storm. In fact we have continued to enjoy growth year on year. The toughest thing for us hasn’t actually been with sales or winning new customers but rather behind the scenes with significant increases in some costs, particularly the cost price of fireworks, due to pressures in China. Add to this a worsening exchange rate [fireworks are often paid for in US dollars] compared to five years ago. We’ve done what we can to absorb these extra costs but the whole trade is in the same boat here and some price rises have been inevitable.”
Speaking of China, I asked Paul about their research and development for new products. “We continue to take a very active part in product development, more so than most retailers,” Paul explained. “We go to China three or four times a year and at least one of those trips is extended to around a month. This gives us a chance to forge outstanding relations with our factories and to test an extensive range of new products each season. We also now source fireworks from several different parts of China, leveraging the expertise of individual factories some of which specialise in certain types of products or effects better than others.”
I really enjoyed my trip to Epic’s new showroom and can see how they get such good feedback from UKFR members. I’d like to thank Paul and Jimmy for their hospitality and hope I have conveyed some of the scale of their operation in this article.