Helium balloons are part of almost every American celebration, but a global shortage of the lighter-than-air gas has disrupted many traditions.
A college football team has suspended its traditional release of red balloons, and party planners will have to settle for less — if they get any.
“Due to the global helium shortage, we are only allowing 20 balloons to be ordered,” warns Litin’s Party Value, a party supplier in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on its website.
“We’ve had some customers who were quite disappointed that they couldn’t get more,” Kristi Holmstrom, the chain’s general manager, told AFP.
“I’ve never seen it this bad,” she said, adding that many stores have completely run out of helium.
Whether they’re floating on the end of a string or grouped in a bouquet, shaped like a cartoon character, a number, or a Halloween pumpkin, helium balloons are a must-have.
Between the drop in sales and the suspension of its helium rental business, Holmstrom estimates the shortfall at $5,000 to $10,000 a month.
The University of Nebraska football team, the Cornhuskers, is doing without the traditional bursting of red balloons – the school color – before each home game this season.
“Acquiring helium … is a real challenge and has been hard to come by,” the university’s athletic director Trev Alberts said in late May.
University officials asked at the University of Omaha Medical Center “that we need to use the helium that we get as a university for medical purposes,” he said.
The noble gas, a by-product of natural gas production, is liquefied to cool magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners, was once used on space shuttle missions, and is also used in semiconductor manufacturing.
– ‘No shop had helium’ –
Only a handful of countries – led by the United States – produce the gas, and the already fragile supply chain has been disrupted by plant closures: in Texas due to safety concerns, in Russia after a fire (before the Ukraine war). ) and in Qatar for maintenance.
Party City chief executive officer Brad Weston said during a earnings call last month that the Party supply chain faced higher costs for helium, which drove gross profit by about $2 million in the first three months of the year. Dollars will depreciate and inflict a larger hit in the second quarter.
“The good news is that we’ve secured helium to meet our customers’ needs,” he said ahead of the peak selling season in May and June of the retailer, which has 830 stores in North America.
Things are even worse for the discount chain Dollar Tree.
“We are again experiencing shortages in helium availability and have not been able to source the volume and demand which will negatively impact balloon sales,” said CEO Mike Witynski late last month.
That’s a small consolation for families trying to celebrate graduations, weddings, and birthdays.
“I was trying to get my baby balloons for her graduation. No store has helium,” Indiana native Guy Fisher said on Twitter.
– Priority for medical use –
Anna Bondareva, founder of Wonder Party Rental agency outside of Washington, DC, along with partner Laura Badmaev, said they are trying to find alternatives.
“I think it’s going to get worse because it’s getting more expensive. It’s harder to get,” Bondareva told AFP. “This should give us a chance to think more creatively about our decorations.”
A customer decided against using helium balloons for her 33rd birthday party due to the high cost. They no longer offer this expensive option to their customers and have instead focused on using balloons in other ways, including arches.
Even the National Weather Service has had to reduce the launch of balloons used for forecasts at a handful of its locations.
“We have reduced clear weather launches where necessary to conserve supplies so we can launch in support of forecasts for inclement weather days,” a spokeswoman said.
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