The ongoing global shortage of helium was cited as contributing to plans to close 45 Party City stores and could also impact some key high-tech industries later this summer.
Helium, the second most plentiful element in the universe, has been hard to come by, acutely driving up the costs for the Party City chain and its customers. Most helium in the U.S. is a byproduct of drilling for natural gas.
Prices for the inert gas for the last year have been “volatile” for the past decade because of intermittent shortages, said Phil Kornbluth, a Bridgewater, N.J. consultant to the helium industry. Some suppliers have doubled the price in the past year, he said.
Kornbluth expects the scarcity to get much worse.
“The shortage will last all of this year and get really bad in the summer because the world’s largest plant in Wyoming is scheduled to take a five week shut down for maintenance," Kornbluth said. "That will take 23 per cent of the world supply off the market. "
“It won’t be a disaster for party balloons,” he said. “but there are other applications that will be hit hard. The semiconductor industry and optical fiber and aerospace industries like NASA, SpaceX and Blue Origin that need it for use it in their launches.” The gas is also used as a coolant in MRIs.
The 870-store Party City chain, based in Rockaway, N.J., saw an eight percent decline in the sales of its festive mylar balloons, said Party City CEO James M. Harrison. Its sales of helium-filled latex balloons have also taken a hit.
In an earnings call on Thursday, Harrison said Party City had signed a new agreement with a helium producer to increase availability of the inert gas. The contract, which remains under negotiation, will eliminate the shortfall and return the chain to a normal level of latex and metallic balloon sales. In the meantime Party City is "increasing product competency in the area of paper straws as part of our focus on environmental sustainability.”