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The retail chain Party City has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The last couple of years have been rough for the event décor business, with the pandemic making parties a fairly rare occasion. But another big reason Party City has struggled is the high cost of helium.
While global supply chains for many products have generally smoothed out, we’re still in what experts are calling Helium Shortage 4.0. And Party City isn’t the only retailer being impacted.
When Kate Luneva launched Wow Balloons in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in 2019, helium was not cheap. But she was able to get full tanks from her supplier — until six months ago.
“They started selling half-tanks instead of the full tanks,” Luneva said, “because they couldn’t get enough helium for everyone.”
Before the pandemic, a full tank of helium cost Luneva $195. Now, it’s $350. Luckily, Luneva’s business mostly uses regular air to fill its balloons, though helium is still available for customers. Air does not lift balloons as high, but it has kept her business afloat.
“There are definitely a lot of businesses for whom helium arrangements are 100% of their income,” Luneva said.
While helium balloons are not 100% of Party City’s revenue, they are the big traffic driver, said analyst Karru Martinson at Jefferies.
“People come in for a balloon, and they’ll, at the same time, be like ‘Oh, I need party favors. You know, we should get a piñata too,’” Martinson said.
Party City started scrambling to find helium last year. “The U.S. Bureau of Land Management plant, [which] supplies about 8% of the global helium, went down at the beginning of the year,” Martinson added.
That drop was caused by worker safety concerns; fires and explosions closed other plants around the globe.
Commercial helium is typically a byproduct of refining natural gas. But since it’s used for everything from cooling down MRI machines to making semiconductors, a helium mining industry is emerging in North America.
“The price of helium has risen to the point where it can be economically viable to explore for that gas and drill for that gas, just for the helium,” said Phil Kornbluth, a longtime industry consultant.
Helium prices have nearly doubled since 2021, he said. Kornbluth expects the shortage to ease — but not until 2024.
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