Northwest Indiana fireworks stores have set up dozens of billboards along the highways, inflated Godzillas and King Kongs, and shot aerials into the sky over the parking lot to show hundreds of prospective customers how much bang they can get for their buck.
These days, they’re even using tablets to illustrate how pricey aerials explode overhead.
Fireworks are big business in Northwest Indiana. Region fireworks stores draw customers from Illinois, where they’re illegal, as well as Michigan, Wisconsin and farther away.
Northwest Indiana has about 100 fireworks retailers, many of which are clustered along the Illinois state line or a few exits away on the Borman, according to the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. Fireworks store operators say that, despite the sporadic booms that are a staple of the summer months in the Region, 80 to 90 percent of their business typically comes from out of state, especially from Illinois.
Business booms in June and early July leading up to the Independence Day holiday, which is so crucial to financial success for the year that at least one fireworks store operator sleeps in a sleeping bag to keep the place open 24 hours a day.
“They come from all over,” said Mark Prusinski of the Direct From China Fireworks store just off the Borman in Gary’s Black Oak neighborhood. “In the last 10 days, I’ve had customers from California, New York, Louisiana and Duluth, Minnesota. They come because of the high quality. We have the philosophy that quality supersedes price. The price is ultimately forgotten but quality is remembered."
His 43-year-old store is open 24 hours per day because it used to be attached to a convenience store that Prusinski lived above.
“Teenagers would pound on the door, asking 'Can I get some fireworks?' People from out of state would call asking me to stay open a little later, saying they were running a little late, Prusinski said.
Visitors who come to Northwest Indiana to buy fireworks often stop at other businesses, such as gas stations, restaurants and liquor stores.
“No matter what people are looking for, they can find it in Gary, Indiana,” he said. “We serve all types of customers, from the poor to the middle class to the upper class from the Gold Coast of Chicago headed to their cottages in Michigan. We hunt all over China for fireworks that we sell to everyone from poor people around here to upper class people in Chicago, Michigan, Wisconsin and a lot of these states.”
Indiana’s lax fireworks laws result in a lot of tourism to the Region, Prusinski said.
“People spend nights in motels, go out to eat, buy some beer at a liquor store, some cigarettes,” he said. “It’s a billion-dollar industry and a benefit for the state. Everybody gets a piece of the pie, whether gas stations or liquor stores. Indiana is a premier state in the United States for fireworks. It’s a money maker.”
Direct from China, at 5190 W. 25th St., drew more than 500 people to its most recent fireworks demonstration, while Phantom Fireworks of Burns Harbor at 218 Verplank Road in Chesterton uses tablets to display its products' performances.
The store's Jason Doran said the majority of customers hailed from Illinois, but “quite a bit” came from Michigan and Wisconsin.
“Right now we probably have 15 to 16 families in here,” he said. “We were busy for the Cubs World Series and get busy for the Chinese New Year, but at least 95 percent of our business is from the the Fourth of July.”
Phantom has been buying more and more splashy fireworks, such as a 205-shot barrage, a 24-shot canister mortar kit, and a 36-shot finale cake.
“People like to do a really big show,” Doran said. “They often spend $200 to $250, and get 150 feet of fuse, but often come in in the last few days to buy sparklers and other novelty items.”
Though people buy fireworks for New Year's, Chinese New Year and special occasions like the Cubs World Series win, about 95 to 99 percent of the year's business takes place in the weeks leading up to the fourth of July, said Austin Ohm, chief of sales at Boom Town at 720 Joliet St. in Dyer.
"People come not just from Illinois but Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio," he said. "Someone just came in from Cincinnati. In Indiana, it's a free-for-all with fireworks, and that's good for business."
Aaron Zambo with Uncle Sam's Fireworks at 14 Gostlin St. in Hammond said sales are down slightly this year because the Fourth of July falls on a Wednesday, instead of another weekday when customers typically take three- or four-day weekends and fire off more ordinance.
“I’ve heard from suppliers it’s down 20 to 30 percent industry-wide,” he said. “That’s not what it’s down for us, but that’s what I heard.”
Customers typically spend anywhere from $20 to $500, and often spend at least $100 on aerial fireworks.
"It's been the trend for years that people want louder, bigger and prettier fireworks," he said. "They want explosions with different colors, multiple shots exploding in the sky. They want to do Sox Park in their backyard."