Northwest Indiana fireworks merchants have slapped up billboards, inflated giant dinosaurs, lit up sparklers in their parking lots, and set out Burma Shave-like series of signs promising “the lowest prices anywhere,” “direct from China” or “buy one, get six free.”
Fireworks sellers, many of which are open year-round in the Region, will seemingly do anything to grab a passing motorist’s attention.
That’s because fireworks are big business in Northwest Indiana and 90 percent of annual sales come in the crucial month of June, leading up to the Fourth of July. Store owners say as much as 80 percent of the business comes from out-of-state, often from Michigan and Illinois, where fireworks are banned.
The Region benefits most if out-of-towners spend time here on a fireworks run, such as to grab a craft beer, Indiana University Northwest assistant professor of economics Micah Pollak said.
"The impact of fireworks tourism on Northwest Indiana this year will be similar to past years," Pollak said.
"While fireworks are a powerful draw for people from Chicago and Illinois to cross the border to Indiana, we get the most economic benefit when we can encourage these visitors to lengthen their trip. Rather than simply crossing the border for fireworks and returning, every visitor that stays and visits local stores, restaurants, breweries and casinos brings money into the regional economy that otherwise might not exist."
Nearly 100 fireworks businesses operate in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, according to the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. They’re not fly-by-night roadside shacks, though some take up residence in empty strip malls for a few weeks. Many are emporiums that offer big-box shopping similar to what one could find at a Target or Walmart, each employing dozens of workers.
The parking lots are often filled with cars sporting out-of-state license plates, especially near the border. Northwest Indiana fireworks store owners say they get customers from as far away as Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio.
"As the reputation of Northwest Indiana in Chicago and Illinois continues to slowly improve, visitors are more likely to consider extending their visit and spending more time and money in the Region," Pollak said.
"The amenities and offerings of cities directly on the border such as Munster and Hammond or along interstate 80/94 play a crucial role. One example is the expansion of microbreweries in these areas over the last few years. While Three Floyds is a common destination for Chicagoans, we can add to this 18th Street Brewery and Byway Brewery in Hammond along with a number of others."
The fireworks business has been booming nationwide. U.S. fireworks sales skyrocketed to $1.17 billion last year, nearly double from $610 million in 2000, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association.
Fireworks sales have grown by about 10 percent a year since the state legalized aerial mortars, empowering people to shoot off ordnance one could see at Guaranteed Rate Field or a professional fireworks show on the Fourth of July in their backyards, said Aaron Zambo, president and owner of Uncle Sam Fireworks in Hammond. His Michigan City store also saw a 10 percent boost in sales last year, even though neighboring Michigan allowed aerial fireworks three years ago.
“Northwest Indiana’s a more mature market,” he said. “You have a lot of stores, and a lot of price competition.”
His brother Kris Zambo manages Dynamite Fireworks on Calumet Avenue by the Indiana Toll Road in Hammond. The store’s been in business for 50 years, and been just off the toll road for the last 13 years.
Kris Zambo said the legalization of aerial shells caused the fireworks business to explode in popularity. Fireworks manufacturers, mostly based in China, have been looking to capitalize.
“When we were kids there were just tanks and snakes,” he said. “Now there are hundreds of items. There are hens, confetti and sky lanterns ... Designs are getting more intricate. They can make smiley faces.”
Everything, even sparklers, are getting bigger and more dramatic, Kris Zambo said. Smoke balls, for instance, are now five times bigger than they once were.
Bigger, higher and louder
“The theme is bigger, higher and louder,” he said. “It’s unbelievable — you can have Comiskey Park in your backyard. And now it’s very safe with government regulations.”
The business is becoming more year-round with sales of fireworks during New Years, the Hindu festival of lights Diwali, Cinco de Mayo, and even the Cubs World Series win, Zambo said. People are even buying sparklers for bottle service in clubs and for weddings.
Still, about 90 percent of sales takes place during the crucial weeks leading up to the Fourth of July.
"So far, it's been a pretty good season," Kris Zambo said. "People are having backyard parties and putting on a heck of a nice show. A trend is that people are coming in wanting not just to beat their neighbors but to beat their own show last year."
Fireworks stores create thousands of seasonal jobs in the Region and are often filled by college students looking to put money toward tuition or housing, Kris Zambo said.
"It's a great example of capitalism at work," he said. "Everything I needed to know about business I learned in a fireworks store – marketing, pricing, customer relations, everything."
Fireworks also generate significant tax revenue for the state, since the effective tax rate is 12 percent, Aaron Zambo said. People pay a sales tax of 7 percent and an additional fireworks tax of 5 percent.
He expects sales will be strong this year at his Hammond store, which employs 50 people, because the Fourth of July falls on a Tuesday, making it a four-day weekend.
"People spend more time celebrating the holiday, partying and blowing up fireworks," he said. "People will start lighting them up on a Friday or a Saturday. Once you start, it's addictive."