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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Fireworks business sputters through tough year

Friday, July 27, 2012

Fireworks stands, one of the great examples of free enterprise in southwest Missouri, struggled during this year's July 4 dry weather. Jared Lankford's fireworks stand in Neosho, shown above, sustained a steady trade when many saw much less business than in 2011.
The summer drought impacted Monett's social calendar this year with the unprecedented cancellation of the Fourth of July celebration due to heat and extreme dry conditions. Fireworks vendors had a particularly difficult year and have been sizing up what the weather means for them.

Jared Lankford, of rural Verona, sports editor of The Monett Times, has been in the fireworks business for 10 years. He got into the field as a sideline working as a stock boy for a butcher who sold fireworks as a summer vacation sideline.

"After working that year for him, I was hooked, hard," Lankford said.

Jared Lankford
For the past eight years, Lankford has operated a fireworks stand at the same location in Neosho, a town that also hosts seven other fireworks dealers.

Like real estate, Lankford believes location is the key to success in the business. He calculated it takes three years to establish a presence in a specific location.

Repeat customers make up 70 percent of Lankford's business. Unlike many vendors, Lankford also uses technology in his business, playing a DVD that shows what each of his products will look like. A good location and a customer base cushioned Lankford's sales in an otherwise difficult year.

"This year my business was down about 10 percent," Lankford said. "Industry-wide it was closer to 25 percent down,"

A "perfect storm" of circumstances contributed to the sales drop. Lankford said the fourth year of $3-per-gallon gasoline and the recession tightened personal money supplies. He said purchases with credit cards, which often result in bigger sales, were off by more than 35 percent.

"We had more cash purchases than normal. That shows people were paying attention to what they were buying," Lankford said.

"The heat was definitely a factor," Lankford continued.

The first weekend of sales accompanied by a rain suggested a record season of sales ahead. However, temperatures hanging around 100 degrees subsequently killed daytime sales. Lankford said that cut the day from eight hours to around three or four in the evening.

Buying habits changed as well.

"I saw customers sticking to low showering fireworks," Lankford said. "Instead of artillery shells, they preferred fountains."

The storm was completed by an 18 percent rise in the wholesale cost of fireworks. Lankford said he tried to hold prices on key items. In a market where wholesalers don't demand payment until July 5, the lack of sales squeezed vendors and wholesalers who found it necessary to require a downpayment.

"For most tents, vendors will do over 50 percent of their business in the last two days," Lankford said. "Some do 70 percent of their business. It's almost like the majority of Christmas shopping is done right after Thanksgiving and Christmas eve. That held true this year as well."

From what Lankford heard from other vendors, sales on July 1 and July 2 were down 50 to 60 percent from a year ago. Sales on July 4 reversed the trend and were good for everyone.

"In an established location like mine, knowing where I started 10 years ago, in these tough times, I consider it fortunate to be down only 10 percent," Lankford said.

Vendors operating on a shoestring budget are more likely not to be back next year, he added.

Ken Terry operated a fireworks stand in Purdy for the second consecutive year. Like Lankford, he said he had more smaller sales, bringing in about the same number of customers as the previous year. Due to stocking a higher inventory, Terry's profit margin suffered.

Terry said knowing what he knows now about the season, he would have changed what he ordered, avoiding bottle rockets and fountains where the customers were not in complete control of the fire risk.

"But there's no way of knowing that," Terry added.

Terry put on two public demonstrations of fireworks with permission of the Purdy City Council to show off his products. Both shows near his stand at Business Highway 37 and Highway C were well attended. After the Monett celebration was cancelled, the Purdy City Council donated $250 and asked Terry to provide a show on July 4 for the community, which he did.

"We had overwhelming public support," Terry said. "The big shoot was a good-will gesture. We may not do that again, but we'll be right back here next year."

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