Helium shortage has retailers concerned ahead of popular balloon holiday: Valentine's Day
BY KYLE ARNOLD World Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 12, 2013
2/12/13 at 7:07 AM
Mary Murray's Flowers owner Gaylyn Wattman was scrambling a few weeks ago when her midtown shop ran out of helium.
Only after her tank went empty did she discover that a national shortage of helium was putting the lighter-than-air gas in short supply and seriously compromising her plans for one of the store's biggest shopping periods of the year, Valentine's Day.
"We tried to call some of the industrial places that do helium, and they weren't releasing anything that they had," Wattman said. "It's been a big inconvenience, and until our usual sources came through we weren't able to get anything."
When she finally got another tank, she paid a lot more.
Florists, party-supply stores and industrial companies are facing one of their biggest crises in recent memory after supply disruptions at helium plants, a government price increase for the gas last year and the fact that other sources of it are dwindling because of market forces.
According to the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the Federal Helium Program, maintenance problems have occurred at helium plants in Australia, Qatar and Algeria, and construction delays have affected a plant in Wyoming.
Natural gas drilling is the primary means of helium production, but using the hydraulic fracturing process doesn't allow the gas to be captured.
Last year, a helium price increase by the Federal Helium Reserve program sent ripples through the industry, raising costs and limiting supplies.
Helium is a staple gas in more than just decorative balloons. It is used in welding, medical devices and even the production of computer semi-conductors.
So far, the shortage has no end in sight.
In Tulsa, many retailers are concerned. Wattman said she sells more balloons for Valentine's Day than any other time of the year.
"After Valentine's Day, it's just a few weddings and birthdays here and there," she said. "This is the big one."
Wattman and other retailers said helium suppliers are not taking orders from new customers, using their small stockpiles only to maintain existing clients.
Absolutely Balloons had to quit taking new orders for helium tanks after supplies ran low late last year, said Brenda Sartell, co-owner of the Tulsa business. The shop that she runs with her husband, Kevin, relies on the gas to supply various parties, including weddings and graduations.
"We've actually been doing more business because grocery stores and some other businesses can't get any helium," Brenda Sartell said.
She said the price for a tank of helium has doubled in the past five years. A tank now runs about $108, she said, compared to about $88 a year ago.
Absolutely Balloons also rents helium tanks to florists and party-supply stores in the area, but Sartell said she had to limit sales to existing customers because of the tight supply.
Sartell and others said they get their helium through industrial-supply stores, such as those that sell welding equipment and gases.
Ehrle's Party Supply owner Floyd Hannah ran out of helium early last year and was able to get the gas only intermittently through 2012.
"It was a one-year drought, and we could get only get helium periodically," he said.
When one of Hannah's suppliers did land a big shipment, he put in a large order and now is stocked for the foreseeable future.
However, the price has gone up about 25 percent, he said, which adds 25 to 75 cents to the cost of any balloon. He also sells tanks to other party-supply stores and florists, Hannah said.
"We're in really good shape at this point with helium and balloons," he said, "at least for now."
Original Print Headline: Running out of gas
Kyle Arnold 918-581-8380
Brenda Sartell and her husband, Kevin, use a tank of helium to inflate Mylar balloons for Valentine's Day balloon bouquets at their shop, Absolutely Balloons, on Monday. MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World
Brenda Sartell cuts ribbons for helium-filled balloon bouquets for Valentine's Day at Absolutely Balloons on Monday. MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World