My first visit to the Chelmsford fireworks shop.
Despite meeting the company’s owner, Mark Priest, a number of times at various events and trade demos, I’d not as yet visited their Chelmsford shop.
In this feature I’m pleased to have finally popped in to see their spacious showroom, have a look over one of the most diverse ranges of firework brands I’ve seen in one place and interview Mark about the past, present and future of his company.
Some very exciting news I must tell you about before anything else is the return of Firework Crazy’s Review Night on 17th September 2022 at Little Waltham.
If you have never been to one of these types of event I thoroughly recommend them; a retailer will let off a large proportion of their stock so you can see the products before you buy. They were actually quite common in the noughties but over the years the expense and logistical challenges of staging them has seen most firework shops stick with online video instead, leaving Firework Crazy as one of the very few retailers still prepared to demo their range in front of a public audience.
“We’re very excited to get the review night back up and running having missed 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic,” Mark explained. I asked if he’d be firing most of their range. “With around 600 lines that would be impossible,” he replied, “so we’ll cherry-pick 100 or so, concentrating on the newer items. Mind you, given that we’ve missed a few years, everything will seem new to the audience!”
The showroom will be open the following day too for those who want to pop in and order early. I asked Mark if you could purchase on the night. “We can’t sell fireworks at the venue itself,” Mark explained, “because we’d in effect need to licence the whole venue for this which would be impractical. However we can take people’s orders for collection at a later date.”
One difference with this year’s event will be that it’s ticket only. “The general admission ticket is only £3,” Mark said. “This gives you access to a printed firing list so you can make a note of the items you like, plus a free entry into a raffle to win a prize worth £50. You also get access to exclusive review night discounts of 40% – 75% off RRP.”
“There’s also a VIP ticket at £20,” Mark added. “Extra perks for this include early admission, VIP parking, raffle entry, a guided tour of the firing area, a VIP viewing area in front of everyone else, a food voucher for the BBQ and free tea, coffee or soft drinks all evening.”
I asked Mark why he’d decided to make this ticket only. “We’ve been thinking about doing this for a while now and there’s a few good reasons to do so,” Mark replied. “Firstly it gives us a definitive list of who’s attending so if there are any further Covid-related restrictions we’ll be in a good place to deal with it. Second, it helps the social club who provide the facilities know how many people to cater for. Lastly, it will help us focus on our genuine customer base and to reduce the number of people who turn up just for a free show but who never buy anything.” I know from speaking to other retailers who have run review nights the latter can be a real problem.
On the subject of people turning up I asked how the locals take it, given it’s a long night of pyro. “The locals are always very welcome to attend,” Mark replied, “in effect, for being tolerant of a few hours of fireworks they get a great night out for themselves and their families. Free tickets are available too so no-one local is left out. Free entry allows access to the site and the outside attractions but you still need to book a ticket. For the social club it’s one of their biggest nights of the year so everyone’s happy.”
Having been to several of Firework Crazy’s previous review nights at this location I can vouch for the event; it’s easy to find and park, well run and the food, drink and toilet facilities are all good.
Note: Date, prices and details correct at time of publication but are still being finalised so may be subject to change. See the Firework Crazy website for up to date details.
Situated in Eckersley Road next to the Riverside Retail Park, just off Victoria Road, the Firework Crazy shop is large and stocked with an eclectic mix of brands. “Other than some items under our own brand, Pyro King,” Mark explained, “we’re not an importer as such so we’re free to buy from any supplier.” Enthusiasts will know this means a brilliant selection of the best pyro out there.
You can see this diversity in the photos I took for this feature. Brands include Celtic, Black Cat, Evolution, Hallmark, Jonathans, Jorge, Klasek, Primed, Vivid and Zeus, plus a lot more. Right down the middle of the store are tables sporting some of the biggest compound cakes you can buy, mostly the Volt! brand, with more large compounds from Celtic on the back wall.
I asked Mark what stock levels were like after the difficult pandemic years of 2020 and 2021. “Most of the lines we’re stocking for Bonfire Night this year are already in,” he replied, “so we don’t expect any shortages this year. We have around 25 brands and are in talks with a few others so might be stocking more.”
“During the pandemic we anticipated potential problems ahead of time and bought in extra stock,” he continued. “One of our best sellers is the hawk-style rocket. We have our own version called Sky Storm XL but wasn’t sure if they would be arriving in time, so I ordered as many other variants as I could find. At one point we had five different brands of hawk rocket in stock!”
Variants of the hawk rocket are well-known to UKFR readers, we’ve had many long-running discussions on the subject and even a fire-off to find out which brand was best. If you’re new to fireworks, the reason this rocket is so popular is simply a high powder-content for the low cost (typically around 60-70g per rocket) giving a big bang and nice effect, usually gold.
One of my favourite types of firework is the smaller novelty item; older readers will be familiar with jumping jacks and helicopters for example which were banned in the UK in the late nineties for having “erratic flight”. But over in the EU, this type of firework is still legal and has evolved into a diverse range of fun products such as spinning saucers, flying bees and a whole range of pyro that crackles on the ground.
There was a hope that when we moved from British Standards to CE we’d inherit the same rules as Europe and these would be available but sadly not as the UK government still has an exemption prohibiting this class of product. Mark has done all he can to try and bring in a range of novelty items but it has been tough going.
I suggested to Mark that having access to low-risk and low-noise F1 products would help relieve the pressure on fireworks in general as people could have a pyro-fix without using bigger cakes, rockets or items that made more noise.
“It’s a huge shame,” Mark said. “You can sell F1 products in the UK but nothing deemed to have an erratic flight. The annoying thing is, some items banned for “erratic flight” actually fly straighter than some rockets. They’re also made mostly of paper and card so there’s minimal plastic waste.”
Unless there’s legislation change to allow these items again, there’s little chance of seeing these items in the UK any time soon, Mark advised me. “Ironically, this type of firework teaches children a great respect for pyro. We’ve seen repeatedly on our trips to Spain’s Las Fallas festival, youngsters starting out with novelty items and learning how to use them safely. It’s a different culture in Europe. Children get an early education in how to use fireworks safely.”
Mark’s career hasn’t always been in fireworks. “Before I started Firework Crazy I was actually a club DJ,” he said. “I’d always been interested in fireworks and did an annual display for friends and family. When I met my wife-to-be I felt under particular pressure to make it a good one, so I looked online for advice and found UKFR.”
I asked him how he went from doing home displays to selling fireworks. “As you know, back in the noughties, few firework retailers had accurate information or even video clips to show what their products did.”
I nodded in agreement because this is the exact reason I started UKFR back in 1999 – to help the public pick the best fireworks. “UKFR had a lot of useful info but didn’t sell fireworks,” Mark continued. “A combination of needing a career change and seeing a gap in the market for a retailer offering extensive product info, good descriptions and video came together and Firework Crazy was born.
“I had some savings and took the plunge. In 2006 I bought £8k of Panda fireworks and started selling from a garden centre. The following year I set up a website. My hunch proved correct as it became very popular and ranked extremely well on Google because visitors were spending a lot of time reading about products and watching video. In 2008 the business had grown to the point of needing a dedicated premises to trade out of.”
Mark pointed around the office we were currently sitting in. “Originally, just this office space was the whole shop. We’ve continued to grow and have since expanded into the unit next door too. We now have four people working full time; including myself, that’s Phil, Dave and James.”
Speaking of staff, I couldn’t help being distracted by Dave at the other end of the office operating what appeared to be a giant fish tank combined with a photocopier (pictured right, click to enlarge). “That’s our 360 degree product photographing machine,” Mark explained, beaming widely and clearly very proud of it. “You put a product, in our case a firework, on the turntable and the device then rotates it and operates the attached camera. Multiple images from a whole rotation are then put together to create an image you can click and spin around on our website.
“We’re the only firework company I know of doing this,” Mark continued. “Some have tried using a manual turntable but given up because the time involved is huge.” He’s not wrong – being into 360 degree imaging myself I have looked into doing this for UKFR and quickly gave up! I tentatively asked what the machine cost.
“It’s around £15k worth. We were lucky to see it at a good price at the Spring Fair. It’s such a good investment for us because we always strive to go that bit extra on our website, offering facilities to view products that others don’t. Although getting it in the office was painful. We had to take part of a wall down!”
* The “magnate” term is tongue-in-cheek; when I asked Mark what job title I should use for him, he said: “Secretary, wages clerk, tea boy, maintenance, cleaner, general dog’s body, all of these apply at some point.”
In addition to retail fireworks, Firework Crazy also offer a full professionally-fired show service. “We kept getting asked if we did professional shows,” Mark explained, “so around 12-13 years ago we took the plunge. It has grown hugely since then and we now do up to 200 shows a year. We’re always looking for new recruits, especially now that weddings and other events are resuming after the pandemic”.
I asked Mark to explain a bit more about firing professionally and what it entails. “It’s not an easy job and can be hard work,” Mark was keen to point out first of all. There’s more to a show than just firing the pyro itself. “Crew need to load and unload the van, set up and clear up, sometimes in appalling weather,” he added.
At this point Mark’s colleague Phil, veteran of many shows, interjected: “Yeah, you can be on your hands and knees hoovering a golf course at 1am in freezing conditions,” he said, “with only the thoughts of a kebab on the way home keeping you going.”
“The main qualities we look for with new recruits are reliability and willingness to work hard,” Mark continued, “but there are no formal qualifications required. We provide all the training. You don’t need to be local to Chelmsford either, we have firers all over the UK.”
I asked Mark what a new recruit can expect. “The first few times out with a crew are to get an idea of what professional firing entails,” Mark replied. “It can be quite different to what people expect and it’s not for everyone. We also do a Cat 4 Experience Day so those interested can see behind the scenes too. During these first few shows you would always be an extra to an experienced crew, shadowing them. After this you would go out on some shows as a trainee crew member in your own right. Then the sky’s the limit for those who want to continue, including BPA training.”
“Hard work aside,” Mark continued, “if you love fireworks it is in effect the ultimate paid job. Imaging being paid to let off fireworks? Some of our firers just do a few shows each year, others 30 to 40.”
It has always struck me when going behind the scenes at professional shows how much the crew members love their work. As Mark then added: “Think of any other hobby, say fishing. Imagine being paid to sit by a lake all day doing this? If you like fireworks, firing shows could be ultimate job.”
At this point I asked about pay. Phil laughed at this question, but not because the pay is low, but because most crew see this as being paid to do something enjoyable (some would do it for free). Mark said they consider Firework Crazy to be very competitive in the industry when it comes to pay. “Importantly,” Mark said, “we pay during the probational period so it covers at least your costs”.
And rates for fully-trained crew members? “It depends on the show because some are very local and others might require longer setting up times and so on,” Mark replied. “For a local show you might not need to get to the stores until 3pm or 4pm and could be back by 11pm. Other shows could be a much longer day. Depending on your experience and the show, pay rates per show range from say £65 to £200.”
Phil jumped in again at this point. “The best shows are double bubbles,” he said, expanding on this when I looked confused: “This is where you have an early evening show, say around Bonfire Night, then fit in a cheeky wedding show later on that evening.”
I challenged Phil then to recount his hardest or most challenging experiences. “I’ve set up and fired in weather that’s so bad, the rain was horizontal. I have also fired standing in water.” He looked thoughtful and slightly pained before adding: “Then there was that show on a beach when the tide turned quicker than they said it would.”
Clearly Mark and his crew are passionate about fireworks and despite the hard work involved, love their work. “If any UKFR readers are interested in firing, we offer an experience day in April. It’s only £50 and you get to see what’s involved in firing professionally for us plus some hands-on experience setting up and firing Cat 4.”
When asking about future plans, I always ask retailers what their views are on the potential legislation changes in Scotland that would make it a legal requirement for Scottish residents to complete an online training course and get a licence before you can buy fireworks. Mark’s views echoed so many others in the fireworks trade. “It won’t make a blind bit of difference whatsoever. When I speak to friends in Holland and Germany where fireworks were banned for NYE, exactly the same amounts of pyro were being let off, much of it bought across a border from another country. And look at Hawaii, an island thousands of miles from anywhere and where fireworks are banned. There are lots of YouTube videos showing massive amounts of fireworks going off for Independence Day.
“It will just penalise the genuine person who just wants to do a family display. The problem users of fireworks won’t care about getting a licence.”
I asked Mark if he thought the UK fireworks industry was doing enough to fight potential changes in legislation. He did: “If it wasn’t for the hard work of organisations like the BFA and BPA we may not even have a fireworks industry today in the UK. They do an incredible job behind the scenes.”
Getting back to his own business, Mark was pleased to see the back of the pandemic as I am sure we all are. That said, 2020 and 2021 weren’t complete disasters. “On the one hand our professional shows went down to around 6 for the whole year,” he said, “but on the other, our mail order sales went through the roof as people were staying at home.”
The hit on pro shows sounded particularly bad. “We did all we could to help clients with shows booked,” Mark explained. “We offered free rebooking at any point in the future and at the same price as paid originally. Some of our rebookings are right up until 2025! We also offered a no-quibble refund for events that were cancelled completely.”
Looking forward to this coming season and Mark is still taking the business forwards: “So many retailers asked if we could supply them with fireworks, due to pandemic-related shortages, that we’re looking to expand into wholesale supply too.”
With thanks to Mark and his staff for their time and hospitality.
Click on the image below to open up a 360 degree view of the Firework Crazy shop which you can explore at your leisure: