The Ottumwa Courier

December 31, 2012

New Year’s Eve a little heavier this year

Helium is more expensive and in short supply

MARK NEWMAN
Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Area florists say they hope customers don’t have their hearts set on a huge number of helium balloons for their New Year’s Eve parties tonight. Not only are they far more expensive than last year, they’re in short supply.

“It was last year [that] one of the mylar balloons was $3.99. Right now, they’re $5.99,” said Judy Mathis, the floral department manager at Hy-Vee supermarket in Ottumwa.

Luckily, they can still get canisters of helium — though not the normal ones the public is used to seeing.

“We’ve stockpiled these little [tanks],” she said.

It’s much more expensive to get balloons to float that way, she said. Hans Wilz agreed.

“When I couldn’t get it through either of my two suppliers, we ran to [the store] and bought those party kits that have, like, 20 balloons and a tiny tank of helium,” said Wilz, who owns Edd the Florist in Ottumwa.

But he’d made promises to floral customers to do their wedding a certain way, and that’s what he did.

“And I’ll continue to do that,” he said.

As for filling up a bunch of balloons for a birthday party like he used to do, that’s no longer likely to happen. The big tanks of the lighter-than-air-gas — if you can find them — have climbed in some cases 800 percent.

There are other uses for helium; distributors want to sell to medical organizations, for example, that will pay eight times what a gift shop would pay for helium.

“It’s extremely expensive compared to what it used to be,” said the owner of Tony’s Flowers, Tony Yencsik.

If he’d sold helium balloons for $12 a dozen a year or two ago, he’d have to charge closer to $40 this New Year’s Eve.

“By the time you charge your customers a fair price, it looks like you’re overcharging them,” Yencsik said.

He’s just stopped selling helium balloons. Even Mathis, whose supermarket chain has a steady but pricey supply of the gas, has seen customers changing how they buy balloons.

“The amount we sell has gone down,” she said.

A bouquet of flowers topped with five “Happy New Year” balloons might now have three — or one.

At least one venue in Ottumwa is celebrating New Year’s Eve with plenty of balloons, though. Lori Schulte, the sales and catering manager at Hotel Ottumwa, said they’d already made plans for their big party earlier in the year.

They were actually able to congratulate themselves.

“We don’t need helium. We are going to do a balloon drop, with prizes in balloons — so we don’t want them to go up,” she said. “We’d planned it, and then we started hearing about helium [shortages and] prices. Then we thought a balloon drop was a really good move on our part.”