My 2022 visit and interview with owner Paul.
Epic need little introduction to my regular readers, having been a site Sponsor for nearly two decades. In February 2022 I popped up to see their showroom and interview one of the company directors, Paul.
According to my records, my last visit to Epic was way back in 2012, nearly ten years ago. In normal circumstances that’s a long time but with the current turbulence in the fireworks trade it’s an eternity. Heading off the M1 at junction 36 and pulling into their ample yard, things on the surface seemed the same. Plenty of easy parking (and a McDonalds around the corner) and one of the UK’s biggest showrooms in terms of floor space. The ease of shopping here is one reason it’s a popular destination for many of my readers.
And there was Paul, with his customary beaming smile. As I was to find out later though, under the surface much has changed with the trade and smiles are in short supply due to a perfect storm of pressures affecting importers like Epic. This wasn’t going to be my easiest interview!
I started by asking Paul how the last two seasons went. To recap, in 2020 shops were shut down on November 5th (giving a whole new meaning to “Remember, Remember the 5th of November”) and in 2021 things were a little more normal in terms of serving the public, but of course many retailers were running low on stock.
“Putting aside the closure from the 5th of November onwards, 2020 was actually a good season for us in terms of sales,” Paul explained. “Because so many public events were cancelled, more of the public were trying fireworks at home for the first time. Many of these also came back again in 2021 having found it was a great night of traditional family entertainment.”
I asked Paul if the closure from the 5th of November in 2020 had much impact. “Just a little!” he grinned. “We went to click and collect only which turned out to be a very awkward way for people to order small items like sparklers. But other than the logistical challenges and the extra time required to service orders, it went as well as it could. The public were very understanding.”
UKFR Forum members will know that a potential lack of stock was a worry in both 2020 and 2021 with problems getting fireworks out of China. Epic seemed to have this covered though. “We went all-out well in advance to secure as much stock as we could from other sources,” he explained. “This included a lot from the EU. As it happens, cancellations of New Year’s Eve events in 2020 – which is the main fireworks celebration in Europe – left a lot of unsold stock which we were able to buy and ship over to the UK for the 2021 season. Whilst we may not have had as much choice as previous years, we certainly didn’t run out.”
“We also had strong sales during the Euros as England did well. Though a minor blip was New Year’s Eve 2021, with some customers having to cancel events, for example some of our Welsh customers, as Omicron took hold.
“So the public’s appetite for fireworks seems as strong as ever, notwithstanding the price rises now coming through which may well have an impact down the line.”
I asked Paul if he could sum up the last few seasons since Covid made an appearance. He took a moment to think. “I can sum up the last few years in one word: Scary,” he said.
One of many pressures on the fireworks trade through the pandemic has been shipping costs. I asked Paul to explain how this has affected his ability to import fireworks. And then I almost wished I hadn’t, seeing the pained look on his face.
“Shipping used to be $9k or less before Covid,” he said. “That’s 9000 US dollars. This is just the shipping cost from China alone and is per container. It doesn’t include the cost of the goods or inland shipping when it reaches the UK. In a short space of time it went to $12k, then $15k, $25k and so on. It’s currently $36k.”
Paul gave me a moment for that to sink in. I’d read a few comments in my Forum from a few other importers saying similar things. But it’s what Paul said next that really brought it home:
“To bring in just 10 containers now you would need to find over a third of a million dollars just for shipping. I know of companies that bring in over 100 containers a year. That would cost over three million dollars. The cost peaked at $45k-$47k and some people had to pay that!”
That’s not the only shipping cost. “Then there’s inland shipping. This is the cost to move a container from the port, such as Felixstowe, to our storage facility. The HGV driver shortage has helped push prices up for this too. Costs of a few hundred pounds have increased to around £2000. Again, that’s per container.”
I was beginning to see now why fireworks have gone up so much in price. But he wasn’t finished yet with the bad news.
“You will likely see the end of round fireworks,” Paul said. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by this. Did he literally mean fireworks which were round in shape?
“Exactly that,” he explained, “With shipping costs being so high we have to pack as much into a container as possible. Circles, hexagons and similar are inefficient because of the dead and unused space between each item. I can see a future of just cube and oblong shaped cakes. Even the big rockets are becoming a problem because of trying to pack enough into a container to make it worthwhile,” he continued, sighing again.
I asked Paul if there were any other pressures on firework prices. The look on his face was “How long have you got?” It’s not just raw materials and labour costs going up, he explained, but a whole host of things including a worse exchange rate than a few years ago (payment is made in US dollars, so a conversion from sterling is needed) and lack of credit from factories who now want money up-front.
There are significantly fewer factories now too, he explained, referencing a fascinating video which was posted on YouTube from Brothers Pyrotechnics in China, talking about the Chinese intention to reduce factory numbers from thousands to just hundreds. If you have not already seen it, the video is here and well worth a watch. It’s one of the most interesting insights into the Chinese firework manufacturing industry with lots of lines to read between.
The reduction in factory numbers adds extra pressure because the US market for pyro is so large and given priority, Paul explained. In fact he said the whole trading climate had changed with factories now calling the shots.
Paul continued: “An added concern is this: Factories can easily see our websites and the prices we charge and know the public is paying these prices. The danger is this becomes the new normal and costs won’t reduce back to pre-Covid levels.
“We might also see 30 shot fireworks becoming 25 shots (for the same price), 25 becoming 20 and so on.”
That’s certainly food for thought.
Another worrying Forum thread recently relates to proposed law changes in Scotland that would require the public to complete an online course to gain a licence to buy and use fireworks, with it being illegal otherwise. It would all but spell the end of all-year retailers in Scotland. I asked Paul for this thoughts on this.
“It’s a worry that’s for sure,” he said. “As if all the other pressures on us weren’t bad enough we have to wonder if the Scots will bring these changes in. I can’t see it working at all, given how restrictions in other countries have backfired and made matters worse.
“It’s such a shame too, ruining an important tradition. We’ve had such positive feedback from families trying fireworks for the first time during the pandemic and who want to continue doing so.”
Though Paul did say at this point that anti-firework sentiment directed at firework retailers seems to be increasing, especially on social media. We had a joke at this point about the problems of giving everyone a keyboard and that he should try moderating a forum.
“We really have absorbed as much of the cost increases as we can,” Paul insisted. “Every business has to have some margin. It actually pains me, I must admit, seeing retail prices having to go up and up. It’s not as if wages are going up either, there’s such a squeeze on the cost of living and it worries me greatly trading in what are effectively luxury or non-essential items. How much more can the public take?”
Which brings us to the present and the upcoming 2022 season. The big elephant in the room was that we were sitting in the Epic showroom at all because Paul is usually in China in January and February.
“That’s right,” Paul replied. “We’d never normally be able to sit down and do this in February because we should be watching demos in China and ordering. Then we’d be back over again in June and July for testing.”
I asked Paul if he’d been out to China at all since the pandemic started. “No, it’s impossible at present and we won’t be going out in 2022 either.”
That being the case how is he ordering new stock? “We’re having to do it all online, using factory video,” he explained. At this point it was my turn to sigh given how problematic Chinese factory video is even when deciding on single items to buy as an end consumer.
“Yeah, spare a thought for importers. We know that if you film a firework with ten different cameras you’ll get ten different videos. It’s so hard to judge a firework this way especially in terms of heights and colours. And if we get it wrong, that could be a container of gear we have committed to. I don’t like it. It’s stressful, there’s no substitute for being there in person and virtual ordering is certainly not the new normal. We’ll be back to China as soon as we’re able, hopefully in 2023.”
Looking at the positives for this year, Paul said that Epic have substantial stock reserves to see them through 2022. Though he did point out there’s the impending new UKCA requirements – which replace CE – which importers will need to address.
Paul is also hoping for another good fireworks season on the retail side. “Providing the public are understanding of the price rises I think it should be another good season as families celebrate at home. We’ve also got the Platinum Jubilee. I remember we were busy for the Golden Jubilee.”
I asked him if the public’s tastes in pyro had changed at all since I last saw him in 2012. “Consumers have really started to embrace the big compounds,” Paul replied. “I actually like these a lot because they make the whole setting up process safer and give a complete show. The public love the ease of compounds.”
“Our biggest one is Profi Show 800,” Paul said, pointing towards a massive box covering over where a TV used to be. “It’s 30kg in weight, 4000g NEC, 1.3G and lasts for 3-4 minutes.”
I pointed out the eye-watering price (nearly £500) and Paul was apologetic because that will probably have to go up a lot this year. It was also a different brand than Epic have previously stocked. “Yes, our buying up good reserves of stock has seen us diversify into other brands,” he explained. “So we have some Klasek, Funke, Black Cat, Brothers, Hallmark, Primed and Trafalgar alongside our usual brands.”
Paul did joke that after this interview I might leave with a much bleaker outlook on fireworks. Not really, as I explained how lucky I am in the sense I let off fireworks for pleasure, rather than running a business importing or selling them. But it was clear that currently, Paul and many other importers are carrying huge weights on their shoulders and are under a great deal of stress.
I asked him if he had any hopes for the future. He took a long intake of breath and paused for a while. “If I could wave a magic wand,” he said, “I’d like to see shipping prices go back to under $10k. I worry that it won’t. The past two years have been crazy and really things are still so fluid and uncertain it’s more a case of managing the present than hoping for things to return to normal. I wouldn’t say no to a better $/£ exchange rate though.”
With thanks to Paul for his time.
Click on the image below to open a 360 degree virtual tour and explore Epic at your leisure: