A visit to Fireworks Shop in Preston
Fireworks Shop on Station Road in Bamber Bridge, Preston is just a few minutes from J29 on the M6. Owner Wayne has built up a reputation over many years for producing high quality videos of fireworks both in China at the factories and also when the products arrive in the UK. He’s also known as a stockist of some highly regarded brands such as Celtic, Klasek, Vivid and Funke, plus as a guy who will drive his van almost anywhere in mainland UK to deliver fireworks.
In this article I interview Wayne and his wife Nicola – they’re very much a team and both hands-on with the business – about their shop, his filming exploits and how it all started. I also grill them on a subject that makes most other retailers wince: delivering fireworks to customers in Scotland!
I started by asking Wayne about his journey into fireworks. Like so many of us, it started in childhood.
“When I was a kid I remember going to the local shops to buy fireworks with my mum and dad,” Wayne said. “There was a shop called Joyland that used to have counters full of Airfix models but at Bonfire Night they would replace all of these with fireworks. All the traditional old brands were there like Benwell, Astra and Standard.”
“I also used to do penny for the guy,” Wayne said with a smile as he remembered his childhood. Younger readers might need an explanation here. This was an old tradition where you would create a guy – a dressed up dummy if you like – which was an effigy of Guy Fawkes. Before burning this to death on the bonfire you would ask people to make a donation first, hence the phrase “Penny for the guy?”.
“There were 19 pubs in the village from top to bottom,” Wayne continued, “and on the Friday night I’d be outside all of them in turn with my guy, asking for donations from all the slightly drunk people coming out. I made a fortune from all the piss-pots! I gave all the proceeds to my mum to buy fireworks for our display.”
Next I asked Wayne about his time between childhood and starting Fireworks Shop.
“I left school at 14 as I hated it,” he said, “with no qualifications at all. But I always had a passion for building and knew I would become a builder. This is what I did and in fact I also became renowned for imprinted decorative concrete.”
Nicola took up the story from here. “Wayne does love his fireworks,” she said, “and with two boys who also like them we did buy a lot each Bonfire Night. In around 2007 Wayne had been to a pop-up shop in Preston and spent quite a bit, but a lot of the fireworks were rubbish and disappointing. Wayne said we should do something about this and the idea of starting a seasonal fireworks shop came to life, with the idea of supplying better quality fireworks to local customers.”
Wayne continued: “So in 2008 we opened our first seasonal shop, it was about 30 yards down the road in an old sports shop. As it happens the same shop was free each season because this was after the big crash in the noughties and high streets were struggling. However the owner then decided to sell up, leaving us out on a limb. Fortunately the shop we are in now came up, it used to be a sweet shop!
“That’s when we made the decision to stick with the same shop permanently, rather than risk moving around again and the owner agreed to rent it to us all year. However in 2013 he agreed to sell it to us outright – this not only gave us a permanent base but as the owners we could now fully invest in modernising the interior and bringing it up a better standard.”
“I’d like to say I’m not a builder anymore,” Wayne said, smiling, “but I’m occasionally asked by someone to build an extension so am drawn back to it, as I still love it so much!”
Despite the popularity of fireworks and the long queues you’ll see on November 5th, a fireworks shop is still a hard business to get established and grow to a profitable state long term. One of the challenges is the lack of income for the rest of the year. Wayne and Nicola’s experiences bear this out.
“In our very first year we stocked Dancing Red Devil,” Wayne explained. “They offered us fireworks on a sale or return basis which is almost unheard of now. In fact some brands now ask for money up front, things have really changed. Our experiences with DRD and our first season gave us a massive insight into the fireworks industry, but for our second year we decided to go with Brothers and Royal Party, two excellent brands.
“Speaking of times changing, I remember the first big cakes we sold that nudged over £60, we thought that no-one would ever spend that much on a firework. But they did and now we have compound cakes that cost over £500 and our customers love them.”
“But those first years were a struggle,” Wayne continued. “Up until 2017 really we were making almost nothing as we were ploughing any profits back into the business. Effectively we were both subsidising the shop for many years. You need endless money, hard work, passion and years to get a business like this established.”
I asked Nicola if she was involved from the outset or joined later. “I was in the Civil Service until a few years ago,” she explained, “but with the shop getting busier and busier we needed to take on a full time staff member so I decided to give up that job and focus on the fireworks business. I had already been using up my leave to work here in November! It has since become something of a family affair; our sons also help out during the busy periods.
“What people might not appreciate however are the very long days when it gets busy. It’s not uncommon to work for 20 hours a day there is so much to do, especially when deliveries start.”
One thing Wayne and I have in common is a slight obsession with camera gear and using this to film or photograph pyro. It’s something I’ve been involved with since 1999 for UKFR and something Wayne has become well known for in my Forum. If you want accurate, good quality video – often from two angles – of some of the latest fireworks then if it’s a brand Firework Shop stocks you’ll find it on their YouTube channel sooner or later!
If I mention that some of Wayne’s equipment includes a GH5 and full frame Sony cameras with G-Master lenses, those who know their gear will appreciate he’s not taking any prisoners! So I was very much looking forward to grilling him about this, starting with how he got into filming his own stock.
“It all started when I said to Chris at Celtic Fireworks that he needed better product videos,” Wayne recalled. “I visited Celtic’s factories in China with him and that’s where I first started to film. Initially it was with a camcorder and it was a very steep learning curve. We’d get back to Celtic’s offices in China and some video came out OK and some didn’t. I realised I needed a better camera and it went from there.
“A typical trip to China involved 9 days of watching hundreds of samples including Category F4 so I got used to filming lots of different types of fireworks and started to get better at it. I also learned how to set up and film quickly given how rushed some of the demo nights were.
“The resulting video though helped Celtic and others in their buying group enormously to focus on the better products to bring in to the UK.”
At this point Wayne stopped and sighed. Looking very reflective he said: “I miss Chris so much. He was a top bloke.”
Chris sadly passed away in 2020 which was a huge shock to everyone in the industry. “He had such an eye for good products,” Wayne said. “In fact Celtic changed UK fireworks completely. From 2014 or so onwards their retail gear became so good, it took other brands some years to catch up.”
“Back in the UK,” Wayne continued, “and some of the other brands we stocked didn’t have great video so we decided it was best to film it all ourselves. Not just so we can see what it does, but also to ensure customers have an honest video of a landed UK product rather than a Chinese factory video. So filming is well worth the investment in time and money.”
Speaking of money, I asked Wayne how much he’d spent on camera gear over the years. He paused and gave a sideways glance to Nicola, perhaps hoping she had her fingers in her ears. “It’s OK,” she laughed, “I don’t mind.”
“I think about £20k,” Wayne said quietly, still making an effort to whisper. I can tell you that £20k is not actually a high amount for a serious investment in several cameras and good quality lenses, though I suspect Wayne was giving a conservative figure. To make matters worse, I gave him a demo of a small-but-useful camera I’d purchased recently for UKFR to try and reduce the amount of faffing about with my bigger camera and lenses. He took an instant liking to it and told me he’d be popping out later to buy one!
I was curious to know where they filmed, given the large number of items they fire each year. Wayne explained: “We fire at a number of different sites so that we don’t annoy anyone. Some of our regular customers have plenty of land so we can often film items at theirs, sometimes combining a few test firings with their own fireworks, throwing in some for free for them, so everyone benefits.”
Scottish residents will know two important things about fireworks. One: Getting them delivered from English retailers can be problematic and expensive. Two: Recent law changes mean fireworks in Scotland can only be sold – or delivered – by 6pm and no more than 5KG of gunpowder content in one transaction.
With Fireworks Shop offering a delivery service, I asked Wayne how this was all working out and whether Scotland was as problematic for them as for other retailers. The answer was surprising: “Give me a delivery in Glasgow over London any day,” he said. Perhaps I’d not really taken in how far north I was from my base in Ipswich, from where you really wouldn’t want to drive to Scotland unless it was your holiday!
“Glasgow is actually an hour closer to here than London,” Wayne continued, “plus the roads are better, less busy and the scenery is nicer. I’d far rather be delivering to Glasgow than being stuck in traffic around a London suburb. And I hate the M25.”
But what about the restrictions on retail sale times and weights?
“It’s a complete pain in the arse,” Wayne replied, getting straight to the point. He confirmed that if he pulls into a customer’s road at 5.59pm he really would have just a minute left to deliver the fireworks. “We have to ensure we leave plenty of time because of the 6pm cut-off. The 5KG limit is also a challenge, requiring some order changes unless it’s for a community event or similar. Customers are understanding, it’s not our fault.
“I know of some retailers that just don’t bother with Scotland anymore because of these new laws. For us, we’re close enough to do these deliveries ourselves and can group up a number of orders to make it viable.”
Wayne is certainly proud of his willingness to deliver almost anywhere. “We’ve got a reputation for it on your Forum as you know,” he said, “from John O’Groats to Land’s End. In peak season we do a lot of deliveries ourselves with three vans out and in the quieter periods – where our own van wouldn’t be economical – we fall back to a national courier.”
But is it still viable to deliver given the huge rises in costs? Filling up at a motorway service station on the way up to Preston cost £1.89 a litre, prices unheard of a few years ago. “It’s getting harder,” Wayne conceded. “Just before you arrived we had an order from Devon. We simply can’t deliver that ourselves and if we have to use a third party courier it will cost a lot. This means a knock-on effect on either our delivery charges or a minimum order. Like a lot of retailers we’re looking at this closely at the moment and may have to make some changes. It’s less of an issue in our peak period though, when we can do day-long runs with our own vans to certain areas.”
Moving on to the recent pandemic and how they coped with lockdown, Wayne asked me if I’d seen them on “Have I Got News For You?”. I hadn’t so Wayne recalled the story:
“Boris put us into lockdown and shop closure to walk-in customers from the 5th of November which was bad enough. But I was outraged by the fact that a local supermarket could still stay open as “essential goods” and sell fireworks at the same time from their seasonal counter.
“So I turned Fireworks Shop into a milk, cheese and spuds shop called Bangers & Mash. Plus fireworks too, if customers wanted those alongside their essential items,” Wayne added with a laugh.
“When we told customers they needed to buy some milk first, before they could buy pyro, there were so many people who told us they actually did need a pint of milk and what a great idea it was to combine them!”
But how did the authorities take this? “Predictably they weren’t as understanding,” Wayne replied. “The police came out six times on the 5th but each time conceded we were not breaking the law and we were also limiting the number of people in the shop to just a few at a time. So they had no grounds to take action.
“However next day the environmental health people came out and they were more determined to shut us down. They were arguing that we were clearly a fireworks shop, but at the same time people were knocking on our door asking if we had any spuds left! They won out though and we had to go to click and collect from that point on.
“Those difficulties aside, 2021 was our best year ever for sales. We think the lockdown and cancellation of events in 2020 encouraged more families to try fireworks at home and they returned in 2021 to do it again.”
With a strange few years behind them I asked Wayne and Nicola how they thought 2022 would pan out and whether they had a half full or half empty glass.
“I’m definitely half full,” Nicola replied, laughing, “and Wayne’s half empty so between us we should be fine.”
“Every year does seem to get harder and harder though,” Wayne added, “particularly with prices rises on everything including fireworks.”
I asked him if he thought the real problems developing with everyday costs would impact on people buying fireworks. “It’s easy to imagine that if people are struggling to pay their gas or electric bills they’ll shelve fireworks for this year,” Wayne replied. “We’re doing everything we can to absorb some rises but there’s only so much we can do. We’re also trying to showcase our cheaper fireworks – smaller shot cakes and candles for example – so we always have something for tighter budgets.
“Cost prices to us have gone up a lot too which impacts on our selling price. As an example a compound that we would sell for £399 two years ago would be £600 this season taking into account price rises. Unfortunately we’ve had to drop some lines or even complete brands where they’re no longer cost effective.
“But I think it could still be a good year, perhaps not as good as 2021 but we’re sure that people who want fireworks will still buy some, even if they spend less.”
Price rises to one side, there are some wonderful new fireworks available from Fireworks Shop this coming season and one brand that caught my eye as soon as I walked in was Funke, thanks to their beautiful labels. They remind me of old fashioned Christmas cards or similar and I find the pictures both nostalgic and evocative. That’s just the actual fireworks – even the outer cardboard boxes on the larger compounds have been adorned with something more interesting than the usual plain text.
“The art is all original and painted by an artist in China,” Wayne explained, “with each label’s art intended to reflect the firework’s effect.”
Now that he mentioned this, I could see oriental touches in the images, such as pagodas along the bottom of some cakes. You really can spend some time on each firework seeing more and more detail. I’ll add a gallery below so you can enjoy some of this wonderful artwork.
The brand itself is already making a name for itself in my Forum; there are some stunning fireworks in their range with beautiful colours and effects. Some of their rockets too are pretty incredible, featuring silver or glitter tails in many cases.
Wayne added: “Funke is exclusive to ourselves and The Powder Keg [a retailer in Castleford, Leeds]. Although deliveries have been slow to date, with ongoing shipping problems, we’re expecting another few containers in so stocks should be better this year.”
I certainly encourage people after top-drawer effects to check out Funke items on Firework Shop’s website (see below for a link).
For the final part of this article I thought it would be fun to ask Wayne and Nicola what it was like working together as husband and wife, given what they said about 20 hour days earlier.
Nicola went first: “We have our moments but you know what, we work well together. I’m the organised one – Wayne isn’t!”
“I’m like a firework going off,” Wayne said, laughing.
“But Wayne has a vision that I don’t have,” Nicola added, “so together we make a good team”.
Do tempers fray? “With long days and just 4 hours sleep we do have our moments,” Nicola said. “We also have to make an effort to detach from fireworks so it doesn’t take over our lives completely. Our whole house in the busy period is given over to fireworks and is full of paperwork. I usually do a lot of walking to get some downtime. That said, fireworks is still an enjoyable and shared activity for both of us, we go to Las Fallas in Spain for example and love that.”
Wayne’s response at this point about working together was reassuringly masculine: “I can’t wait to get her down the mags and show her my Big Daddy!”. For the uninitiated, Big Daddy is a Celtic firework, though the pun was intended.
At this point we were all laughing and couldn’t take anything else seriously, so I wrapped things up.
With thanks to Wayne and Nicola for their time and the wonderful tea and cakes.
Have a look at my 360 degree photo to take a look around Fireworks Shop at your leisure. Just click on the image below and it will open on a new page where you can click/tap to look around:
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:
Visit Firework Shop’s website, YouTube channel or give them a call to find out more: