Helium shortage sucks air out of party balloons
With one of the major celebrations for lovers around the world fast approaching, some local party supply stores are concerned that a global helium shortage will cause them to miss lucrative sales opportunities and the anticipated February 14 Valentine’s Day windfall.
International media reports suggest that the helium shortage began as early as 2021.
After missing out on Christmas and New Year’s sales to supply customers with helium balloons and the gas itself, Hylton Patterson, owner of the Kingston-based It’s a Party, fears his business could collapse as sales have plummeted by roughly 80 per cent.
“Without helium, it’s almost like we’re closing the door ... because we sell a lot of helium, and we have three stores in Kingston, Mandeville and St Elizabeth,” Patterson told The Gleaner last Thursday.
He said that customers are usually “very disappointed” when they turn up to discover he is out of gas, especially in instances where they had tried other stores.
“Majority of the customers come for the helium, and in getting the helium, they will buy the other stuff in store ... . Most people would love to buy balloons with helium, and if there is no helium, then most people not going to buy the balloon or the [number] of balloons that they generally buy,” he continued.
Despite having seven tanks, Patterson said that all his resources have been depleted since October as he would often get orders for 12-inch to 50-inch helium balloons. On occasion, customers would order as many as 100 as people hosted birthday parties, retirement parties, weddings, anniversary parties and other celebrations.
Patterson said that although helium was sometimes sold by other distributors who purchased the gas from IGL, they, too, have been without adequate supplies as the quantities are limited.
Three of his tanks have been at Industrial Gases Limited (IGL) – the major local supplier of the gas – waiting to be filled since early December.
“I can’t go to IGL with my seven tanks and walk out back with seven tanks from them,” he said.
A report in The Guardian said that the US was among the world’s largest helium producers, alongside Qatar and Algeria, and that the shortage was also linked to the closure of production plants and a 2017 embargo on Qatar affecting the market.
IGL Managing Director Peter Graham confirmed to The Gleaner on Monday that the global shortage has caused a “tight supply” of helium.
He said this was primarily because of the maintenance work being done on a crude helium enrichment unit in the US and a fire at the Russia-based Amur Gas Processing Plant in January 2022 that accounts for a significant fraction of the global supply.
Graham said local helium supplies were primarily imported from the US and throughout the past year, the product price of the gas increased “multiple times”, doubling year-on-year.
Additionally, Jamaica was supplied with less than half of its requirement, he added, although he did not disclose the specific volume the country is estimated to need.
“Helium is the coldest lowest boiling point element on earth with a boiling point of -452 degrees Fahrenheit -269 degree Celsius) and it is this characteristic that makes it difficult to find alternatives,” Graham said.
A sales representative from Party Experience, which is located along East Kings House Road in St Andrew, told The Gleaner that last year the store had not been receiving supplies for nine consecutive months after collecting in February.
She said that their reserves had drastically decreased and that the business had only received one tank of the gas.
Given the circumstances, the store decided to turn away customers with helium balloons purchased elsewhere so it could fulfil the needs of its balloon-purchasing customers.
“It affects us, but we try to give them other things because we normally do regular air [balloons]. They might be disappointed, but we try to see in what way we can help them to decorate the place other than helium,” said the sales representative, who did not wish to be identified.
“It will be bad for us, but you just have to improvise. So, you have to regularly blow up the balloons, throw them on the ground, some on the bed, cluster them, y’know,” she said, noting that the company tried to encourage customers to find other ways to utilise balloons.
On the other hand, while Stephanie Williams, creative projects manager of the online-based store Gorg Balloons Jamaica, has not had many instances of being unable to fill orders.
She noted, however, that there is a noticeable scarcity of the gas, compared to when she started the business in 2018.
She noted that the last time she refilled a tank late last year, she paid $75,000, up from $45,000 the previous time.
As a result, Williams said, customers have also been seeing an increase in prices.
It can cost up to $6,000 to fill a three-foot balloon. Prices start at $550 for an 11-inch balloon. For foil balloons, prices range from $1,500 to $6,000; and for bubble balloons, $5,500 upwards.
In the event that helium is out of stock, Williams said that she tries to get customers to purchase an alternative of air-filled balloons, which are manipulated to form beautiful displays. She added that these also lasted longer than helium balloons, which have a lifespan of up to four days, depending on the climate and environment.