By Reg Chapman

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – A helium shortage is putting a pinch on party balloon retailers nationwide.

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The shortage is driving up prices on the gas used to fill party balloons, and forcing party supply stores to change the way they’re doing business.

A tightening global market and production problems are to blame for the shortage.

Several of the world’s leading helium producers have reduced production because of maintenance, delaying deliveries of helium by as much as five weeks.

This has caused places where we buy helium to stretch what product they do have.

The industry is seeing a historic demand for this gas with lifting properties. Demands that suppliers are having a hard time keeping up with.

Mark Falconer, owner of Minneapolis Oxygen Company, says he has never seen it this bad in his 42-year career.

“We’re trying to provide helium to all our sources, just in diminished quantities,” said Falconer.

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His helium supplies several local businesses in the Twin Cities.

“We’re trying to stretch whatever product we can as far as we can and working with our customers to do so,” said Falconer. “At the same point and time we’re all turning away some business that’s been coming our way.”

His supplier has cut his helium allocation level to 70 percent of what he received last year.

The government has a pecking order as to who gets it first.

Helium used for military, research, and medical purposes, like cooling down MRI machines, are priority. Party retailers are not, so Falconer sells a mixture to these shops.

“We’ve started mixing helium with nitrogen so you still have the lifting capability, but they probably won’t last as they did in the past,” Falconer said.

One cylinder fills up between 450-500 11-inch balloons. The mixture slightly stunts their floating ability.

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Manager Sarah Skarphol of Corner Balloon Shoppe in Uptown says they are paying about $5-$10 more per cylinder, but so far have not had to pass that cost on to customers.

Reg Chapman