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Wed., Oct. 7
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Helium shortage deflates business at balloon shops


Graduation parties this month likely will be deflated, as suppliers don’t have enough helium to fill balloon tanks at florists and party stores because of a shortage in the national supply.

When Gray’s Flower Shop, 1605 State St., Watertown, sought to purchase helium this week to get ready for upcoming graduation parties, local suppliers all said they had none to sell. The flower shop, which also has locations in Carthage and Clayton, could now scramble to fill enough balloons for its customers, said owner Scott A. Gray.

“We’ll be taking orders for graduation parties this week, but if we can’t get the helium we’ll have to call people back,” he said. “We might have to ration out balloons and set a limit on how many customers can buy. And we’re going to have to reserve the helium for customers who buy balloons from us.”

As it stands, the shop is selling balloons only at its Watertown shop, where it still has helium tanks operating. It will make shipments to stores in Carthage and Clayton, too, but those might be discontinued.

The timing couldn’t be worse for flower shops, which sell the most balloons in June for graduation festivities and in February for Valentine’s Day. It’s a trend that could make graduation parties across the country less festive without any balloons.

“This is going to hurt anybody that’s dealing with balloons,” Mr. Gray said.

Driven by the waning national supply of helium and high demand, Gray’s Flower Shop recently paid $120 for a tank of helium, almost double the price it paid six months ago.

“It’s driven the price and cost of helium up, but going from a shortage to nonexistence is an issue,” Mr. Gray said.

But there isn’t expected to be any helium available for balloons in the near future, said Grant D. Hanlon, sales manager for Haun Welding Supply, 23791 Route 12. The supplier has 17 locations across New York and Vermont, and all of them are combating a shortage in the amount of helium they’re able to distribute.

Mr. Hanlon said the nation’s largest helium suppliers get most of their supply from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which extracts helium from a crude helium extracted from natural gas fields in Oklahoma. The national program was launched by the Federal Helium Privatization Act of 1996, which authorized the federal government to sell its helium reserves to private companies.

But the national program is running out of helium, Mr. Hanlon said, and its supply is slated to be depleted by 2015. That trend, coupled with skyrocketing worldwide demand for helium, has made helium a treasured commodity that suppliers now can’t afford to sell to produce helium balloons.

In fact, suppliers across the country have been mandated by distributors to cut back on their helium use this year by anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of what they used in the fiscal year 2011.

That’s why Haun Welding Supply, which purchases helium from Linde Industrial Gases in New Jersey, is now selling only to its customers that use it for medical purposes, research and manufacturing.

Meanwhile, balloon makers have been put on a waiting list and aren’t expected to get any helium until the arrival of fall — and that’s a best-case scenario. The company serves about 15 customers in Jefferson County.

“This has been a perfect storm, and we’ve been scrambling for helium here since Valentine’s Day,” Mr. Hanlon said. “We’re turning down new clients and only allocating it by the critical nature of customer’s needs.”

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