Chattanooga area fireworks retailers fight economy, heat, bad timing

Chattanooga area fireworks retailers fight economy, heat, bad timing

July 3rd, 2012 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

Steve Clinton, right, a sales clerk at TNT Fireworks, assists a customer on Monday at the store in East Ridge.

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

POLL: Are you planning on shooting fireworks Wednesday?

The Confederates may well have triumphed in the battle for Chattanooga if they possessed anything like the stockpiles of rockets, roman candles and mortars now on sale in East Ridge, Tenn.

It's unknown whether the Union troops could have stood up to the Phantasia Fountain, for instance, which the manufacturer describes as a long-lasting mixed-effect with "vividly awesome liquid-fish finale."

Not only would such an arsenal have kept George Washington's soldiers warm in Valley Forge, it possibly could have averted the entire War or 1812, suggested a customer on Monday.

The new stores sell $800 boxes that are taller and wider than a large man, 50-cent Pop-Its, and everything in between. And there's a lot in between.

Thousands of customers already have visited East Ridge's four new fireworks retailers, which opened on July 1 after state and local lawmakers legalized the sale of fireworks in the city.

"We had 350 people lined up in the parking lot the first hour we were open -- and that was at midnight," said Nathan Blackwell, store manager at TNT Fireworks. "Fireworks sales are going to generate a lot of money for East Ridge."

On the eve of July 4th, retailers are keeping stores open 24 hours per day in the hope of distributing the maximum amount of pyrotechnics in the few shopping days available to them.

But the timing of the holiday -- which falls on a Wednesday this year -- along with the sorry state of the economy and the extreme heat could result in an overall sales decrease, according to a survey by credit card company Visa.

According to Visa's survey, Americans will cut spending on Independence Day celebrations by 12 percent this year, and 21 percent of Americans won't celebrate the holiday at all.

Nationwide, revelers spent an average of $216 on fireworks in 2011.

That will drop to an average of $191 this year, said Jason Alderman, Visa's senior director of global financial education.

"With most Americans continuing to watch every dollar closely, many have realized that sparklers and flag emblazoned t-shirts are not essential items," Alderman said. "Being patriotic does not equate with overspending on the fourth of July."

Worse than bad timing and empty wallets, however, is Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield's dry-weather ban on fireworks this year, which retailers say could keep more shoppers home than Sherman's March to the Sea.

"Oh yeah, that'll put a dent in it," said Gayle Turner, a manager at Big Daddy's Fireworks.

Brent Moss, manager at Tennessee-Alabama fireworks, said "we could tell at the cash register" the last time using fireworks was banned in the mid 2000s.

"We're just going to buckle in and see what happens," Moss said.

Still, customers continued flooding into stores on Monday evening.

Phantom fireworks was packed early in the afternoon, with off-duty police officers keeping the peace.

"For a weekday, this is pretty good," said Corey Susany, who came to Chattanooga from Phantom Fireworks' corporate office to set up the new store on Ringgold Road. "We've had constant customers until about 3 a.m., then it slows down."

Overall spending will be down because the holiday falls in the middle of the week, he said, but sales so far have been "right on the money" with projections.

"With it being on a Wednesday, people don't buy as much and don't stay up as late, so it's less than optimal," Susany said.

That didn't stop brothers Travis and Barry Jackson from driving almost three hours from Jamestown, Tenn., and buying more than $1,000 worth of fireworks for a family gathering of about 40.

"I don't think it really matters what day of the week it is," Barry Jackson said as he folded down the rear seat of his Ford Escape. "Whatever day it lands on is OK with us."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6315.