A visit to the award-winning UK fireworks brand.
My timing when visiting Zeus Fireworks’ Colchester HQ in February 2022 couldn’t have been better. Literally a few days before, a couple of their 40ft containers had arrived from China, bringing with them substantial new stock to look over.
Readers familiar with the fireworks trade however will be curious as to why containers were arriving in February and not the customary late-summer. Indeed, the prominent year designation on the new stocks’ cartons was conspicuous for being 2021 and not 2022, showing them to be delayed arrivals.
In many ways, this just about sums up the current position of the UK fireworks trade: Still dealing with the fallout from the pandemic and shipping crisis – hence the late stock – but also looking forward and hoping for some return to normality with new items finally reaching UK shores.
In this interview with Zeus’s managing director, Nigel Claydon, I ask how the company has coped with the massive changes the pandemic has brought with it, plus how the next few years are likely to pan out.
But first, there’s the important task of looking at some very new products and finding out where and when Nigel first got involved with importing.
Several of the new Zeus items are eye-catching, not least Spiders From Mars with its bright colours and very large spider on the label! Perhaps there’s some irony in the name too, with a shipment from Mars possibly quicker than one from China at the moment. Zeus list Spiders From Mars as a 100 shot, 1.3G 30mm compound with an NEC of 2.2KG. The duration of this one is short – just 40 seconds or so – making this an intense barrage ideal for a finale. RRP £160.
I asked Nigel about the 2021 year printed on each carton. “We ordered these quite a long time ago,” he replied, sighing in the same way most importers do these days when I ask about shipping. “They should have arrived in August or September 2021 in time for last year’s November season.”
Still, he was pleased to finally get this stock. Other highlights of this shipment are shown below. Click on an image to enlarge it. RRPs shown are still being finalised and might be subject to change:
New Zeus items for 2022 are highly anticipated given the brand’s success in the 2021 Firework Awards UK. Zeus were overall winners of “Best Brand” and picked up awards in Best Small Cake (Crown 500 – I’ve fired many of these and they’re insanely powerful for the size and price), Best Wheel (Carousel) and Best Roman Candle (Royal Palms).
“We were chuffed to win Best Brand,” Nigel, pictured below, told me as we were setting out the new stock for photos. “And very pleased to win three other awards as well.”
Zeus is a relatively new UK fireworks brand, appearing from 2016, but Nigel has been very active importing fireworks for a lot longer than this. I asked him if he could share a brief history of his involvement bringing fireworks in from China.
“We started importing back in 2001,” Nigel explained. “Although our retail company is called Dynamic Fireworks, this was under the Planet Fireworks brand, in partnership with the late Steve Button at Great Northern Fireworks Co.”
I remember Steve well. Back in 1996 or so before the birth of UKFR when I was branching out from small newsagents fireworks to some bigger munitions, I picked up a Yellow Pages (this was pre-internet days) and saw an advert for Great Northern Fireworks and rang up for a brochure and some advice. Steve was a very friendly and knowledgeable chap and I placed several orders with them.
I was curious as to why they chose the name Planet Fireworks. “We wanted to sell on to other firework shops on a wholesale basis, so didn’t want either of our two company names as the brand which would have given consumers a clear route back to us and possibly put off potential trade customers,” Nigel replied. “Also we registered it at an address in London for similar reasons. This enabled it to be completely independent.”
But why take the plunge into importing at all, given its complexities? “Fireworks really took off after the millennium,” Nigel replied, “and after previously buying from brands such as Millennium and Standard it made commercial sense to start our own brand. It also gave us stock we could trade between Dynamic and GNFC, helping both businesses.”
I asked Nigel how Planet became Zeus Fireworks. He replied: “Unfortunately Steve passed away. It was very sad as he was a good friend and a great ambassador for the fireworks trade. The resulting restructuring of the company saw us going it alone, rebranding our side to Zeus Fireworks in 2016. It gives us complete control of the brand and our own destiny.
“We continue to grow, despite the pandemic, bringing in 15-20 containers a year. This includes Category F4 in addition to our retail fireworks. Our own retail shops and display services use a great deal of this stock but we do supply an increasing number of retailers throughout the UK too.”
Nigel told me that his last visit to China was in January 2020. This was just a month or so before details of a new virus started to reach UK news channels. I asked him if there were any signs that things were about to go so spectacularly pear-shaped.
“There was no indication at all,” he replied. “It was another normal trip to China to preview and order stock. In hindsight it’s a little scary when you consider that Liuyang (the fireworks hub of China) is right next door to Wuhan, the virus epicentre.”
Along with other UK importers, Nigel and his team would usually pop out to China at least once a year to visit factories and order stock, which is produced during the year and delivered to the UK in late summer or early Autumn. Once the virus took hold this has become impossible to do, so ordering currently has to be done by watching factory videos. I asked Nigel what impact this has had.
“It’s not just the difficulty of ordering stock from video,” he explained. “Going to China in person and dealing face-to-face with the factories and their agents is good for business; it helps to build trust and establish good faith. When you build up a long term relationship like this it helps in case of any problems.
“Most of our orders in 2020 were made and shipped OK. It was after this that shipping prices started to go up and other problems became apparent.”
The huge increases in shipping costs of under $10k to over $35k per container are well publicised but this isn’t the only issue with shipping, as Nigel explained:
“If this was just about increased costs it would be bad enough, but there is also a limit on the number of ships being allowed to leave China with hazardous goods on. So even if you have the money to pay the shipping it has still been a struggle to find capacity.”
This is another facet of the general Chinese drive to reduce fireworks output, he told me. “Whilst fireworks may have been considered a big industry in China previously, it’s not any more. Factory numbers are now in the hundreds (down from thousands). The same UK demand for fireworks coupled with fewer factories and less shipping capacity means higher prices, more delays and less products getting through.”
This is on top of regular shut downs during the year. The authorities usually stop production when there’s foreign scrutiny on the country, such as during the summer Olympics. “I think this is because they don’t want any bad PR from accidents,” Nigel told me.
With continuing price rises and shipping problems (to name just two of the many problems facing fireworks) I’m not the only one to wonder if things will get so bad that manufacturing in the UK might be viable again. Nigel doesn’t think so. “It really would be a last resort and very expensive to do so,” he said.
In that case what about other countries, such as India? “India probably is the closest to China when it comes to fireworks,” Nigel replied. “But I would say they are still at least 20 years behind China in terms of quality and volume of output. It’s not a possibility at present. There’s quality fireworks being made in some places like Spain and Italy, but again impractical for UK consumer markets.”
I asked Nigel if the UK fireworks trade could make a concerted effort to invest in a country like India to get them up to the required quality, but again he didn’t think this was possible. “The cost would be massive, most likely millions, then you have to sustain this long term.”
If you’ve tried shopping for a catherine wheel at any time in the last few years you’ll know they have become wheelie hard to find. I asked Nigel about this, on behalf of a disappointed UK public (it’s a popular product).
“My understanding is that wheels were a speciality of a particular factory in China,” Nigel said. “Sadly, they have apparently not had their licence renewed. Other factories have attempted to make wheels but it’s a labour intensive product that is becoming increasingly unpopular with the reducing number of factories. I agree we need more wheels but can’t see at this time when or where they will return in previous numbers.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard an importer mention that it’s getting harder to get factories to make a diverse range of products, with them favouring “easy” items such as cakes and barrages. I asked Nigel if this has implications on other products too, thinking here about speciality items us enthusiasts like such as single shots.
“Yes it could well impact on this,” he said. “In general if choice is more limited we have to focus on products which are commercially viable, this is especially important if manufacturing and shipping costs have risen so much. This means sticking with mainstream products which sell well to the public rather than items which might only appeal to a small number of customers.”
“But there is also increased pressure on other products too,” he continued, “Such as selection boxes which are very time consuming to make. We’ve had to drop a couple of product lines already which just weren’t viable at their increased costs.”
Not to be left out of piling problems on UK firework importers, the UK authorities have chipped in too with the increasingly drawn-out and confusing situation that is the new UKCA certification.
To recap if you’re new to this: Back in the old days fireworks had to conform to British Standards which stipulated various minimum safety requirements. Clearly essential in principle though in practice British Standards did have some quirks such as either a 5m or 25m safety distance (and nothing in between).
This was eventually replaced by the European CE standard; the trade is still arguing whether this was a good or bad thing. I can tell you as an end-consumer it was great to have a new 8m safety distance and bigger fireworks like compounds. Casualties included set pieces and a lot of traditional or creative items. The trade will paint a less flattering picture of CE because every product needs expensive testing.
With the UK now powering on/floundering after Brexit (delete as applicable to your political leanings), we’ll be changing over to a new UKCA certification, short for UK Conformity Assessed.
“Every firework imported after 1st January 2023 will need to have a UKCA mark.” Nigel explained. “Fireworks imported before then which only have a CE mark can continue to be sold through after that date though.”
I suggested this sounds easy and there’s plenty of time to get it sorted out. Nigel shrugged and had an expression that suggested otherwise. “Products need to be registered with a Notified Body in the UK. That’s an independent body responsible for labelling and conformity testing. The problem is that there were no Notified Bodies for fireworks in the UK until late last year. The lack of time between setting up the Notified Bodies for UKCA and the deadline has implications on fireworks because of the potential to be forced into ordering stock before you can add the UKCA mark and register it, but with it arriving after the deadline because of the very long lead-times when ordering fireworks. Delays which the pandemic and shipping problems have worsened.”
“None of this is making fireworks safer,” Nigel added. “It’s just red tape, extra expense and bureaucracy. It should have been much simpler by allowing CE certification to be directly switched over to UKCA. The firework industry and the BFA in particular are working hard behind the scenes to lobby government on these issues.”
Since interviewing Nigel I’ve read that the Cabinet itself is split on UKCA plans; this very interesting article for example (from DebatePost sourcing Reuters) includes a quote from William Bain, head of trade policy at the UK Chambers of Commerce, saying “business groups did not believe the UKCA scheme was necessary or practical.”
I asked Nigel – slightly tongue-in-cheek – why he still imports, given all the problems. “It’s still an integral and important part of the business,” he said, trying to convince me it was a good idea. “It’s not the only thing we do, what with retail fireworks and professional shows through Dynamic Fireworks plus our shops, mail order and so on.”
Then I enquired if he had any advice for someone thinking of starting a fireworks importing business. “Yes, don’t,” he replied without any hesitation. He laughed at this point, but it was a serious answer and not a surprising one. “You would need so much money now to get started,” he explained, pointing to much harder trading conditions including lack of credit from Chinese factories.
I enquired what Nigel’s outlook for the future of fireworks is. “I’m afraid prices are still going to increase at least in the short term,” he said. “This isn’t just down to shipping, costs have gone up right across the board from raw materials to paper, to fuel and labour.
“As far as Zeus goes, we’re ordering the same amounts of fireworks as before the pandemic. In fact we’re ordering more on the basis we might not get some of it! Shipping remains high at around $35k per container and delays to stock arriving in 2022 – and possibly further shortages – cannot be ruled out.
“As for a more general or longer term view, everything is just so up in the air at the moment that it’s hard to make predictions.”
With thanks to Nigel for his time.