Helium Shortage Deflates Balloon Race

October 6, 2012 by  

Helium Shortage Deflates Balloon Race, The balloons that cover the walls behind the cash registers at Party City come in all shapes and sizes, but they can’t float. Ghosts, skeletons and other creatures of the night hang from the ceiling and decorate the walls of local party supply store Amols’, but blown-up balloons are not among them.

A worldwide shortage of helium is putting the squeeze on party supply retailers and leaving parents struggling to come up with other d├ęcor and accessories for kids’ parties.

Amid a global series of unfortunate events, suppliers are struggling to keep up with the demands for helium, an element extracted during the production of natural gas.

Industry experts say the helium that’s available is now being prioritized for hospitals and military entities for MRIs, satellites and technology, leaving wholesalers like Helium Xpress and retailers like Party City and Amols’ without helium for their balloons.

It’s affecting their sales, and no one can say for certain when they will get helium again.

“I’ve owned this store for 14 years, and this is the worst it’s been,” said Oren Medellin, owner of Helium Xpress. “If I had known about this, I would’ve sold a couple years ago.”

Most of the world’s helium is produced in the United States, but domestic wildfires and construction delays at plants overseas have strained the world’s supply.

Samuel Burton is the assistant field manager for helium operations at the Bureau of Land Management in Amarillo, which produces about 30 percent of the world’s helium. Burton said a Wyoming plant has been in construction for two years now, but wildfires forced construction to be halted earlier in the year.

They’ve now resumed building, but Burton said their site is not expected to come online for another three months.

A helium plant in Qatar is adding a second stream that would make it among the largest in the world, but it is experiencing construction issues and is not expected to start supplying helium until early spring, Burton said.

As a result, many companies have seen their helium supplies decline during the year, and now most of that supply has diminished.

Joe Lira, executive assistant at the Party City off Culebra Road, said his store hasn’t had helium for three months and was running out on and off for three months preceding that.

Rebecca Flores, floor manager at Amols’, said they haven’t had helium since mid-April, and balloon sales have dropped 50 percent. Medellin from Helium Xpress said his supply has been cut by 80 percent, and last week he ran out entirely.

Lira said Party City usually is inundated with requests for their large mylar balloons, and the store was down about $3,000 for the week because they’re no longer able to fill those orders.

The Mylar balloons on display are now full of nitrogen, which fills them up but lacks helium’s floating capabilities. As an alternative, Lira said his store is pushing balloon bouquets, where nitrogen or air-filled balloons are assembled on balloon sticks.

H-E-B has created balloon sculptures to conserve helium, according to Dya Campos, director of public affairs.

Retailers and wholesalers also are taking a hit by their inability to lease out helium tanks.

Flores said they have to turn away customers every week who go to Amols’ looking to lease one of their helium tanks, which can cost between $40 and $150.

Lira said Party City leased and sold disposable helium tanks as well, but hasn’t had them available, either.

Helium Xpress is getting calls from florists, gift shops, churches, schools and advertisers from as far as Lubbock scavenging for helium.

At the beginning of the year Medellin was selling tanks of helium to businesses for $75, but now it’s up to $135 to offset losses during the times he’s been out of helium and make up for the rising costs to secure it.

Live Oak resident Rose Oatley usually leases out or purchases disposable helium tanks when planning events as president of the Parent Teacher Association for Royal Ridge Elementary. The Pajama Jam event she’s planning calls for about 300 balloons, but now she’ll have to retool her plans.

“I’m a little sad about it because I think it’s going to make our jobs a little bit harder, especially since you could just blow up a few balloons and let them rise on the ceiling and everything would be OK,” Oatley said. “And being a mom and a person with a business and also with the PTA, I live a busy life, and it just makes it so much harder to sit down and come up with other creative ways to plan for this event.”

Oatley also likes to cover the ceiling in balloons for her daughter’s birthday, but after checking in with various party supply stores on Friday and coming up empty handed, Oatley said they’re just going to have to do away with that tradition this Sunday for her 12th birthday party.

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