The current so-called “helium shortage 4.0" is preceded by three global supply crunches this century. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres) (Eraldo Peres/AP)
A dejected customer exited the Harris Teeter supermarket on John Tyler Highway on a recent morning without the bundle of birthday balloons held aloft that she went to buy. Mario Balloons
As likely as not, visiting either of two other Williamsburg-area Harris Teeter markets or three Dollar Tree stores would have ended in a letdown, too. Each had lots of balloons. But helium-filled tanks to inflate them? Iffy.
For the balloon shopper, “we are, of course, disappointed,” a Harris Teeter spokeswoman said in an email. “Harris Teeter strives for world-class customer service and a big part of that is availability of all our offered products.”
At Chesapeake-based Dollar Tree Inc., Chief Communications Officer Kristin Tetreault said the chain’s more than 8,000 stores “don’t have control over when helium gets delivered.”
Helium hasn’t vanished into thin air in Hampton Roads. But a dense air of uncertainty surrounds availability not only here but also around the rest of the planet, casting a shadow over a surprising array of users, from balloon merchants to Virginia’s Department of Forensic Science.
Preceded by three global supply crunches this century, the current so-called “helium shortage 4.0″ was even evident in Dollar Tree’s latest reported earnings. Meanwhile, suppliers are reduced to allocating limited supplies based on the nature of customers’ use.
The latest scarcity dates to July 2021. That’s when 10% of global capacity evaporated from the market due to a months-long maintenance outage at a Bureau of Land Management helium enrichment unit. Since then, production accidents elsewhere, delays in new foreign sources and fallout of the Ukraine war, among other factors, have punctured optimistic market forecasts of pumped-up capacity by now. Instead, the squeeze could stretch into 2023, according to revised outlooks.
“Helium shortage 4.0 — Continuing uncertainty in the market,” a recent headline read in Gasworld, a trade publication.
Untold numbers of people first caught wind of the global scarcity at Dollar Tree, where their quest for its $1.25 balloons went bust. The chain, one of the nation’s largest balloon merchants, is “a destination” for balloon-seeking customers, especially during holidays, Tetreault said.
But the global deficit of helium production sucked some of the air out of publicly traded Dollar Tree’s second-quarter financial results. To be clear, overall financial performance for the period, which ended July 30, improved from the year-ago results at the company, which also owns the Family Dollar chain and other retail operations. Even so, sales “continue to be negatively affected by the global helium shortage,” Kevin Wampler, chief financial officer, said in a briefing to Wall Street analysts. Frustrated balloon shoppers retreated without purchasing other party goods, the “largest category (and) most profitable at Dollar Tree,” added CEO Mike Witynski.
Dollar Tree can’t comment on any helium-related impact on third-quarter results later this month due to federal regulations that essentially muzzles publicly traded companies shortly before the formal release of quarterly financials.
The helium scarcity is also adding to the broader inflationary pressures that now dominate economic headlines. Eileen Davis, who owns Balloon Boutique in Hayes, is bracing for a price increase this month and beyond, possibly further tightening of supplies after having her usual four tanks halved around the busy Valentine Day period. “According to my supplier, there could be a bit more of a hard time coming,” she said.
While the public maybe most familiar with helium use for balloons, familiarity doesn’t count for much during the gas shortage. Other uses are deemed to be far more essential, including “MRI(s); fiber optics; NASA needs it,” said Tony Simonetta, a vice president with Arc3Gases, an industrial gases supplier with headquarters in Dunn, North Carolina, and Richmond. “Balloons are at the end of the (usage) chain. Balloon guys tend to get shorted.”
For example, Hampton Road’s major health care providers — among the heaviest helium users — are unaffected by the scarcity. Notably, Sentara Healthcare’s 30 or so MRI machines systemwide have “no boil off” systems, so the helium used for cooling the magnets doesn’t evaporate externally, said Alfredo Lopez, system director for imaging services. Siemens and GE, the MRI manufacturers, add any needed gas during routine maintenance. “They bring the helium,” he said.
Meanwhile, although Riverside Health System’s helium vendor allocates supplies, only “non-health care” customers are subject to limits, said Thomas McVey, Riverside’s director of operations & logistics. “At this point … we do not have any concerns regarding the supply of helium for Riverside moving forward.”
Although Virginia crime-fighters would appear to warrant a steady helium supply, availability has been up in the air, particularly of late. The Virginia Department of Forensic Science, the state’s central crime lab, uses the gas most heavily in analyzing trace evidence and identifying “seized materials” that might be illicit drugs, for example. Smaller amounts also are for toxicology.
For years now, the lab had maintained conservation measures to stretch limited supplies, enabling the crime-fighters to avoid pausing its work, lab director Linda Jackson said.
However, “more recently, we’ve been having more difficulty ordering and receiving the helium tanks,” she said.
Simonetta said he has had to supplement the crime laboratory when its regular supplier couldn’t. “We will step in to help,” he said, adding that Arc3Gases is “an outlier,” having ample helium supplies to service its contract customers and non-contract customers on an ad hoc basis.
With 54 total local offices in three Atlantic coast states, including four in Virginia’s Tidewater region, Simonetta said Arc3Gases itself is subject to allocation by its primary supplier. Through other suppliers, the company has managed to more than make up the difference.
“Helium shortages are coming more often and affecting more deeply,” Simonetta said. “We get calls from all over the country looking for helium.”
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