Indoor Fireworks: Harder than it looks
The story behind the UK's biggest indoor fireworks importer.
Trafalgar Group Trading, based in Norwich, has grown to become the UK’s biggest importer of indoor fireworks. To describe their journey as a rollercoaster of highs and lows is an understatement; in this article the company’s owner, Warren Thomas, talks to me about the difficulties of manufacturing and importing what seems, to the layperson, such a simple product.
I met Warren at his Norwich HQ which is shared with a retail shop he runs called Trafalgar Fireworks. It’s one of the slickest firework showrooms I have seen, now improved even more since my last visit which you can investigate in my Trafalgar Fireworks feature from 2020. Even more TV screens adorn one side of the shop and even less Trafalgar-branded hand sanitiser adorn the counter; a sure sign things are moving on from the bleak pandemic days.
Warren was keen to show me his extended office space which he described as “a bit more executive” than when I last saw it. At this time of year the fireworks trade is polarised into two states: Those who just retail and buy in stock from other people are mostly closed, hibernating, playing golf or somewhere sunny. Whereas those who import too get no such extended holiday and are quite often in a flap trying to sort out manufacturing, shipping, labels, testing or unforeseen problems. The state of Warren’s desk told me he was the latter. Paperwork was scattered around his keyboard amongst multiple “to do” lists and random samples of obscure pyro I didn’t dare ask about.
With my pen and notepad ready – and feeling somewhat like a therapist – I asked Warren to take me back to the very beginning of his journey and explain how he came to be in the fireworks trade.
“Well before I was in fireworks,” Warren explained, “I was in the aquatic industry working with a good friend called Norman Agass. So I used to import koi carp and goldfish! Fish is a seasonal business and we were always on the lookout for something else to sell later in the year. As it happens, Norman’s kids went to the same school as Raj Patel’s (the owner of Newsbox Fireworks) and when Norman and Raj were chatting, Raj let slip how much money he was making from selling fireworks. So a new venture was born in around 1996 called “The World Of Fireworks”, with the millennium coming up we sensed an opportunity to sell fireworks for parties.”
Warren – Managing Director, Trafalgar Group Trading.
“We had seasonal shops in a few different locations in Ipswich,” Warren continued, “such as Old Foundry Road, before settling on Foxhall Rd.”
I asked him if there was any particular reason he chose Foxhall Rd as the permanent location for their shop. “We snapped this up as soon as it became available,” he replied. “It’s on a busy roundabout with parking in front, making it ideal for passing trade. In fact the fireworks shop went on to become a local landmark in the town; everyone knew where it was.
“Initially we stocked Octavius Hunt, Black Cat and Millennium. After a few years however, Norman got fed up with fireworks. His main store near Stanstead kept getting flooded and he lost a lot of stock. So we ended up going it alone, rebranding the shop to The Firework Emporium in 2002 or thereabouts.”
Importing his own-branded stock from China was the next chapter in this story. I asked Warren what the main motivations to do this were. “It’s a natural progression of the business,” Warren replied. “You have more control over the product, the design and the price. To be honest we thought at the time that the fireworks trade was a little backwards with its product design and lack of descriptions. Almost everything was just “ejects stars or bangs”. We felt that by importing we could innovate more and produce fireworks people would really like. To my knowledge we were also the first UK fireworks company to do a public demo night and the first to have an in-store DVD.”
I asked Warren if making more money was a motivation for importing directly. “It wasn’t the prime reason for us,” he replied. “Although the margin on a product is better of course, there are also substantial additional overheads and responsibilities to consider such as insurance and storage. In fact we had to move our storage to a former RAF base and set up a lower tier COMAH store, allowing us to store up to 250 tonnes NEC.”
Fun products and politically-incorrect firework names became the modus operandi of The Firework Emporium in the noughties. At this point Warren and I reminisced about some of his funnier product names: ASBO, Neighbour From Hell, 19th Nervous Breakdown and many more. But it’s a strategy that worked, as Warren explained: “To give an example, one of our weaker cakes was called Severe PMT and on performance alone it wouldn’t have sold. But with that name it was one of our best sellers”.
Warren’s first dealings with indoor fireworks were in the mid-noughties, as he explains: “So many customers kept asking about indoor fireworks which they remembered from the old days, whether they were still available. At the time there was very little on the market but we sensed a commercial opportunity and bought stock from one of the few suppliers in that niche at the time.
“Sure enough, after running just a tiny advert in a tabloid newspaper we were deluged with orders. I had to employ someone just to pack indoor fireworks all day.”
The effects at the time included expanding black pellets (the “dog poo” one which most people bought the pack for), bengal matches, pellets that flashed a coloured effect and the likes. As an aside, you can see this pack in action in my video from mid-2011! The old-fashioned snowstorm effect was long clobbered by increasingly tight regulations. One does wonder what was in some of the vintage packs that our great grandparents would have inhaled.
One thing in common with all indoor pyro effects however is that they are small-scale and can seem underwhelming. Ironically, this worked in its favour as Warren recalled: “We had phone call after phone call where customers would ask whether indoor fireworks were just as naff as the old days. We always replied with a definite “Yes!”, to which there was invariably a response such as “That’s great, I’ll take a couple of packs please”. It’s a product that’s almost impossible to have a complaint about, unless they were actually good.”
Given the good sales of this product it wasn’t surprising that Warren’s next move was to look into making his own in China. “I had some ideas on how to extend and develop indoor items so I located a factory in China that could make them and started our own pack. The idea of Indoor Fireworks LTD was being born!”
With the highs of The Firework Emporium also came the stresses and strains from the retail side of fireworks. “I’d started to get a bit fed up with the fireworks trade,” Warren explained. “Dealing with the testing, importing and storage of a large range of retail products was stressful, so I started to think about selling the business and making a sideways move into just indoor items, leaving the retail and customer-facing elements behind.”
I asked him how he’d gone about selling the shop. “Well, actually,” Warren grinned, “my nearest competitor and obvious potential purchaser was Nigel down at Dynamic Fireworks. So I intentionally let slip to Steve Button, Nigel’s importation partner at the time, that I was getting fed up and wanted to sell the business, knowing full well it would get back to Nigel. Sure enough that led to negotiations starting in 2007 and ending with a successful sale in 2008.”
You may be wondering at this point how and why Warren is currently being interviewed for this article whilst sitting in an office next to a retail fireworks shop, something he said above that he wanted to get away from. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that as this story unfolds. But there are some more twists and turns first.
With the trials and tribulations of retail behind him, Warren now focussed solely on indoor pyro. “I wanted to operate more as an importer here rather than deal with customers or the public directly,” Warren explained. “So after selling The Firework Emporium I set up Indoor Fireworks LTD. My first shipment of the new indoor fireworks pack (pictured above) arrived in 2009.
“Sales were amazing, incredible. One chain of stores couldn’t believe how good a seller it was – it was a runaway product.”
Warren sighed at this point and took a sip of coffee to help compose himself, because the next part of the story is a low point in his indoor fireworks journey.
After the successful launch of his first shipment, Warren suffered a major setback: a product recall.
“Two of the items in our pack had chemicals in them called dichromates which had just been banned under REACH regulations,” he explained. “So we had to do a product recall that cost us £140,000. We had to collect every single pack that had been sold. That included from our biggest customer Hawkins Bazaar; if they had a customer say in Wales that bought one we had to go and pick it up as it was too expensive to get a courier to do this. We spent three weeks travelling all around the UK doing this.
One small silver lining after the product recall was that the packs could still be sold – but with the offending items removed.
“Whilst a replacement product that conformed to the regulations was coming in from China we still had around 50,000 of the old packs,” Warren said. “So we decided to remove the faulty items, Hocus Pocus and Autumn Leaves, and then pitch the pack as a BOGOF deal.
“The only problem is that we had to do this by hand with every pack. Or rather my wife Tina did. It took her 18 months to do them all, taking the pellets out of each one and putting an explanatory sticker on the front.”
Concentrating just on importing products might have simplified Warren’s business but it also left him more vulnerable as he was about to find out a few years after the product recall.
“As an importation company we basically had just one single customer acting as the sole UK distributor for our indoor firework packs,” Warren explained, “so we didn’t have to deal with retailers or wholesalers directly. Unfortunately, they went bust after Christmas 2011, leaving us with £136,000 of bad debt, no money and no customers.”
I asked Warren how close he came to seeing his business go under as a result of this. “I think another £20k of bad debt would have finished us off,” he replied, thoughtfully.
How on earth do you pick yourself up after a disaster like this, especially following on from the product recall? “You just have to get on with it,” Warren replied. “You get knocked back in business but you need to pick yourself up and carry on.”
Warren explained what happened next: “We relaunched ourselves and worked hard to build our own customer base instead of relying so heavily on one distributor.”
The next setback for Warren concerned a product in his original packs called “Flash Gordon”. This was a small tablet that, once lit, flashed a coloured flame in a mini strobe-like effect.
“I was driving back from our stores,” Warren recalled, “when my mobile rang. It was an international call from New York and the caller was none other than the rights holder for the character and name “Flash Gordon”. They were unimpressed by our usage of the name for a firework and decided it would be a good idea to threaten to sue us.
“Fortunately we didn’t have a great deal of stock left and after some negotiations they agreed to leave us alone if we changed the name on future packs. So Flash Gordon became Flash Harry! I’m glad this blew over, it could have been a real problem for us.”
In 2015 a tragic accident happened that brings into sharp focus how vulnerable the fireworks trade is to events in China which are completely beyond its control. A massive explosion ripped apart the port at Tianjin, sadly killing over 170 people.
“The Chinese government shut down all movement of hazardous goods immediately,” Warren said, “so our container of indoor fireworks was held up for months. I even looked into flying them over to the UK but the price quoted was something like $250,000.
“We got the container eventually but not until December that year, causing us to miss a complete season. As it was our one and only product it had a big effect on our business.”
Not surprisingly given the series of setbacks detailed above, Warren did some soul-searching about the business: “It was obvious that with one main product we were vulnerable so it was time to diversify into more product lines and explore the F1 (indoor and low hazard fireworks) category more.”
This diversification resulted in some wonderful new outdoor novelty items such as Crackling Balls of Fire and Spinning Crackling Saucers. However with these new products came a need to change the company name.
“The problem with being called Indoor Fireworks,” Warren explained, “is an expectation that all of our products can be used indoors. Whilst you can put a clear warning label on an outdoor firework only to use it outside, some people might still see the company name “Indoor Fireworks” and use it inside. To avoid any confusion we decided to rebrand. As it happens this coincided with me setting up a new fireworks shop in Trafalgar Street, Norwich, hence the new company name: Trafalgar Group Trading.”
The obvious elephant in the room then is Warren’s return to retail fireworks after exiting from it many years ago. I asked whatever possessed him to do this. “It comes down again to our feeling the need to diversify further and build up a business that has several parts to it. It gives us a safety net and the general diversification of our product lines leaves us less exposed.”
And why Norwich when Warren still lives in Ipswich? “There’s no way I would set up a shop in Ipswich,” Warren replied, “that would see me competing with my old business and also Nigel. Although there’s no legal reason I couldn’t, like a current non-compete clause, I would consider it immoral. I couldn’t head south as Nigel is based in Colchester and beyond that is quite congested trade-wise. So I headed north to Norwich. It’s a city that was under-represented by all-year firework retailers and has a huge catchment area for potential sales.”
Getting back to indoor fireworks and specifically the traditional indoor pack (a close-up of the contents is shown above), I asked Warren whether this was an easier product to make compared to outdoor fireworks. “It’s the most difficult product I have ever made in my life,” he laughed.
Expanding on this, he explained: “First of all it’s considered a specialist and labour-intensive product and there aren’t many factories that can make all the effects. Secondly, some of the products require drying time in the sun. There is quite a short window of opportunity between when it gets sunny enough but before it gets so hot that factories are closed by the government.
“2021 was particularly challenging as between Covid and factory shutdowns, no packs were made at all.”
I asked about another elephant in the room: the lack of indoor firework packs out on display in his shop. “We haven’t got any left,” Warren replied, shrugging. “We ran out a while ago and have not had any stock from China for 18 months.”
According to Warren the lack of stock at the moment is down to buoyant sales. “When lockdown started, sales went mad,” he said. “People were basically bored being locked inside and were buying a lot of products they probably didn’t need, including indoor fireworks.
“This was exacerbated by problems getting new stock. Factories closed for extended periods in 2021 partly due to Chinese celebrations of 100 years of the Communist Party, these issues occurring along with the usual pandemic-related problems. With the product’s narrow window of manufacture we couldn’t get anything made in 2021 at all.”
The good news is that stock is expected soon. “We should have some new indoor firework packs arriving in late April,” Warren said. “We’re expecting 7 containers in total this year of various items although I’m unsure if they will all arrive. Three weeks ago we had a container arrive that we’d ordered in September 2020!”
I asked Warren how the current shipping crisis was affecting him. “The big increase in shipping costs is a shame but the nature of our products and the high number we can fit in a container means that, per item, it’s having less of an impact on us than perhaps other people in the trade. But you can bet your life the shipping companies will use the situation in Ukraine now to justify further price rises.
“More of a problem is the lack of credit lines now in China. Cash is king and we’re told that paying in full up-front is the only way to increase our chances of getting the products made and shipped. It’s a huge outlay to make months or years before any of the products can be sold.”
Is all this leading to a price rise for his pack? “Yes,” he replied, “though only from £9.99 RRP to £11.99. We didn’t want to increase it at all, it has been £9.99 since 2009 but don’t really have a choice now. Really it’s a £15 product so it’s still at a great price.”
I was also interested to know where Warren sold most of his packs and the answer was surprising. “The packs are not that huge a seller in firework shops strangely enough,” Warren explained, “as they’re more of a gift item, a nostalgia product or an impulse buy. In fact we’ve had cases where garden centres for example have placed the packs with their fireworks and have reported low sales, but when placed in the general gift section have been big sellers.”
It’s hard not to miss the giant confetti cannons near Trafalgar’s main door; they’re a metre long and have the word “MOTHERFLUTTER” blazoned across them in large letters. Warren is up to his old tricks again with amusing product names.
“We have a whole family of flutters in development now,” Warren said with a grin, “so it’s a case of meet the Flutters. There’s the Little Flutters in blue and pink for gender reveals plus Motherflutter which is our biggest cannon.”
Warren says these are all single-use cannons powdered by an internal compressed gas cartridge. As for how he came up with the name “Motherflutter”, he said: “I was sitting in a bar in China trying to think of a name and was drawing a blank until I’d had a few drinks, then it came to me. So it’s a real gin and tonic inspired product name.”
Aside from the Flutter family, Trafalgar also stock a large range of other confetti cannons: 25cm and 35cm cannons in a range of colours, 60cm in a range of colours and confetti types, and 80cm multicolour.
A product that I have been very excited to speak to Warren about is his Category F1 selection box. Yes you read that right, a selection box that fits within the strict F1 restrictions.
“The key theme running through our products is they are all low hazard products that can be sold by any retailer without needing a traditional all-year fireworks sales licence, which costs hundreds of pounds,” Warren explained. “They’ll still need to register their storage if holding more than 5kg in total of explosives, but no sales licence is needed for our Category F1 and indoor products.”
That’s hugely significant and shows the main markets Warren is targeting: gift shops, toy shops and major high street chains.
But there was another bombshell too: Because this box is classed as F1 it’s allowed in Ireland, which bans any other more powerful type of firework. Though with Warren’s previous luck you can imagine this won’t be plain sailing, which Warren did indeed confirm.
“It’s fully legal in southern Ireland,” he said, “but the Garda still seize them as they don’t always understand the law. We’ve also had to create Ireland-specific labelling with more US-style graphics.”
You can see the two different styles of labels in the photo gallery below. As for performance, Warren said, “Despite being Category F1 personally I feel this box stands up well to some of the cheaper supermarket Category F2 offerings.”
Contents include fountains, a ground spinner, a crackling ground effect and a flashing effect pellet. With an NEC of around 115g I can confirm this is indeed more than some supermarket boxes. The RRP is £30. Regardless of the effects, it’s great to see Warren continue to innovate and try new things.
Warren, like the rest of the fireworks trade, hasn’t been to China since early 2020 thus limiting the development of new products. However, one product line that he has still been able to expand is sparklers.
“It’s such a simple product that you can’t go wrong,” Warren explained, and I hope these aren’t famous last words. “Everyone knows where they stand with a sparkler,” he added, grinning. The 2022 Trafalgar line-up of sparklers is indeed quite huge, looking over their new brochure (and for a copy of this, see the contact details at the end of this article).
First up we have standard wire sparklers which come in both indoor and outdoor flavours. For indoors we have cocktail sparklers, shaped sparklers such as a heart and Christmas tree, plus numbered sparklers from 0 to 9. For outdoors we have 25cm, 30cm and 35cm gold sparklers, 40cm jubilee branded gold sparklers, 45cm sparklers in gold and wedding flavours, 45cm crackling sparklers and 70cm “gigantic” sparklers.
Also for outdoor use we have wire-free “eco” sparklers which burn down to just ash, available in 36cm and massive 100cm versions. I’ve taken a closer look at these in my Eco Sparkler review article.
It’s worth mentioning a few other products that Trafalgar are becoming well-known for.
First up we have their handheld coloured smokes and flares which Warren says are very good sellers. Smokes come in white, red, green, yellow, blue, orange, purple, pink and black, are ring-pull activated with a duration of at least 60 seconds. Flares are available in white, red, green, yellow, blue, orange, purple and pink.
Trafalgar’s ground-effect outdoor items can be found in just about every fireworks shop in the UK and are very popular; these are Crackling Balls of Fire and Spinning Crackling Saucers.
There are too many ice fountain varieties to list here but they include versions with different coloured wraps, novelty and numbered fountains, plus fountains with coloured flames. There’s also a stunning large indoor fountain shaped like a volcano which I tested here: Vulcano Moon.
The next batch of indoor firework packs are due in late April. The design of the current pack is shown below, there are a number of effects on a card which comes in a nice bright outer box.
I asked Warren if he has any new products coming in. At this point he became very excited by a new product which he says he’s been working on for a while. “Five years in the making actually,” he said, “it’s a novelty outdoor product that I intend to bring in before I die, it has become my life’s work.”
Sadly, I can’t share many details here because it’s commercially confidential until it finally makes it to UK shores, but I can confirm it’s rather hilarious and I think it will be a good seller. “Unfortunately, the pandemic came along right in the middle of finalising the product and it will need another visit to China to work things out. So it won’t be here in 2022 but watch this space in 2023.”
On the subject of China I asked Warren when his next visit will be. “I’d hoped to get out there in 2022 but there are problems with having to quarantine. We can’t even meet our factory staff halfway in Hong Kong because they would have to quarantine too. So it’s looking like 2023 at the soonest.
“Other than the novelty item just mentioned, I’m always looking for new ideas and fun products so expect Trafalgar to continue to explore what’s possible both indoors and within Category F1 for a number of years to come.”
With thanks to Warren for his time.
If you’re a retailer (of any kind, not just a fireworks shop) and are interested in Trafalgar’s huge range of fantastic indoor and low-hazard pyrotechnics, you can visit their site or call them using the details below. Please mention UKFR if you do – I’m not on commission, it just helps Warren to know where any interest comes from and for me to know my articles are being read.