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Helium shortage cut supermarket floral sales, but worst is over

The recent helium shortage cut into sales at supermarket floral departments, but the worst is over. Peak floral holidays are always the driving force behind significant push of helium sales and across the country, helium balloons account for up to 5 percent of total floral sales.

Supermarket floral departments depend on helium sales. No one can think of a kid’s birthday party without balloons. We are always trying to find items to increase the dollars per basket, and balloons have always been the easy add-on sale. This shortage no doubt affected everyone that dealt with balloons, but especially hard-hit areas were the Mid-Atlantic states, northern and western Illinois, and the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles.

Helium, the lighter-than-air gas used in items ranging from party balloons to Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines, is the radioactive decay trapped in natural gas. While all natural gas has some helium, few reserves can competitively produce pure helium. Crude helium is a “by-product of a by-product” of natural gas processing. The federal Bureau of Land Management controls 50 percent of the U.S. supply, which is 30 percent of the world’s supply.

Some industry solutions helped combat the scarcity of helium — air-filled balloons, a helium regulator that mixed air with helium so it went further, and a Mylar balloon that was smaller than an 18-inch but looked similar in size. Leave it to the floral people to come up with creative solutions.

First and foremost, contrary to what you may have read, the world is not running out of helium. The industry had a perfect storm — delays of new plants coming online and existing plants closed for repairs, the depleting of natural gas reserves and the bureau’s tight control of U.S. helium reserves. The supply chain has had its challenges.

On Sept. 19, the U.S. Senate approved legislation that brings us one step closer to ensuring uninterrupted operation of the federal helium reserves. Earlier this year, the House passed a similar bill; the two must be reconciled and signed by the president to go into effect. There is hope for the future, and the helium shortage should ease because new plants are opening and plants closed for repairs are due to reopen.

But don’t look for the increase in supply to bring the return of lower costs, although independent suppliers are finding areas of supply and are able to bring helium to the market at fair prices, a win for our industry. While we are not out of the woods yet with our helium problems, our future does look brighter. With plants coming online, Bureau of Land Management reserves loosening and independent suppliers becoming stronger, we should see a leveling off of the helium problems.

Bradley P. Gaines is business director of floral at United Supermarkets/Market Street in Lubbock, TX. He can be reached at bgaines@unitedtexas.com or 806/472-5844.