Maybe you're not quite sure what an LED balloon is. But they're very popular right now — at birthday parties, weddings, holiday events.
It's actually a regular balloon with a string of multicolored LED light wrapped around it. The lights are usually powered by two AA batteries, stored in the plastic handle attached to the balloon, which is inflated with helium or an air pump. When you turn the lights on, they glow and flash.
"They are gorgeous," proclaimed Rachael Ray when she showed off the balloons on her talk show last spring.
You can buy a 10 pack on Amazon for $25 – or on street corners around the world for as little as $1.40 each. That's the price in New Delhi, where a vendor like Radhesham Singh can earn a living by selling five balloons a night.
At a New Delhi intersection, when the traffic signal turns red and cars start lining up, that's when Singh's work begins.
Singh clutches a handful of balloons glittering with lights. The 28-year-old street hawker cuts through the traffic, looking for customers.
In India, these LED Balloons are particularly popular among children peering out their parents' car windows in traffic. They're the latest hot item – along with fidget spinners, plastic flowers and umbrellas – sold by street vendors who are part of a global gadget market. They buy their materials from China, then assemble and sell them locally.
Born In China
The balloons typically are part of a global supply chain that starts in thousands of factories in China and ends with millions of often-poor migrants like Singh on street corners across the developing world.
Per item, these street wares may be cheap. But they add up.
In 2017, China exported at least $3 billion worth of small trinkets made from plastic alone, says Daniel Workman, an international trade expert who runs the website WorldsTopExports.com, which publishes data from the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations.
China makes more than 80 percent of the plastic and porcelain trinkets sold by street vendors worldwide, Workman says. Its biggest markets are the United States and India. According to Workman, India imports around 7.5 percent of the total plastic trinkets manufactured in China, second only to USA at 29 percent.
The export chain winds through Chinese websites like alibaba.com, which connects hundreds of Chinese manufacturers to importers around the world.
Simmi Gupta is one such importer in India's capital – the link between Chinese manufacturers and Indian street hawkers. Gupta, also 28, is a millennial who was looking to set up a business of her own.
Since 2016, the company she founded, Bash N Splash, has been importing inexpensive trinkets and decorations – LED balloons, paper lanterns, plastic lampshades that look like origami, even polyresin Hindu idols – from a manufacturer in Guangzhou, China.
One Chinese-made balloon that's popular this season is emblazoned with the Indian cartoon character Chota Bhim, who is based on a Hindu god of the same name.
A relatively small-scale importer, Gupta stores the goods in a spare room in her apartment, in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Delhi, where she lives with her husband.
About two years ago, with the help of her husband, who imports heaters from China, Gupta decided to try her hand at selling novelty and decorative items.
Initially she wanted to buy Indian products. She even ordered batches of locally made jute bags from an Indian manufacturer. But she says she found Chinese manufacturers to be more efficient, more up to date with the latest trends – and they deliver on time.
"They have started making LED balloons in India too. But some people complain about the quality," Gupta says.
Some 95 percent of her products, including the LED balloons, come from China.
Other importers warned her about fraudsters posing as suppliers from China. Gupta did rigorous research on the companies she was considering. She chatted with multiple Chinese manufacturers over email and on the messaging app WeChat — in English.
"They even gave me a factory tour on a video call," Gupta says.
Once she settled on a manufacturer, she ordered a few products as samples to check the quality before investing larger sums of money. Happy with what she received, she started importing products from China in bulk and selling them to retailers around India, who in turn sell them to street vendors like Singh.
Gupta typically spends several hundred dollars on each bulk order every three months. Since she's a small scale importer, her orders don't get a shipping container of their own but are often combined with other orders from India.
$3 A Day Goal
Singh, a migrant from Rajasthan, lives on the street with his wife and three children in a makeshift tent under some trees at an intersection in New Delhi. He sustains his family by selling these LED balloons.
The LED balloons are a relatively expensive street product. Balloons shaped like cartoons often sell for as less as 20 Indian rupees or 0.29 cents. Singh buys them for 60 Indian rupees a piece (about 80 cents) and tries to sell them for 100 rupees (about $1.40). If he manages to sell five balloons a day, Singh earns about $3. That adds up to about $90 a month, almost three times the average wage for street vendors in India (who make less than the $150 average for all professions in the country, estimated by the World Bank).
Singh is often helped by his wife. Dividing the labor between them, Singh inflates the balloons as his wife helps string the balloons, while both try to keep their children, all under 5 years of age, from fiddling with the various parts of the balloon.
The trinkets that Singh sells have a long trip. Manufactured in Guangzhou, the products travel by road to the Chinese port of Canton, then by sea to the Indian port city of Mumbai, traversing 4,460 nautical miles. From there, the goods are transported inland another 884 miles to New Delhi, where Gupta receives them.
Sifting through her receipts, Gupta says she believes her shipments have occasionally made a pit stop in Hong Kong.
She unpacks the items and sorts them into batches to deliver to wholesalers and shopkeepers throughout the country. Then street vendors like Singh pick them up. It takes a balloon about three months to come from China to a New Delhi intersection.
An Eye For What Sells
The street vendors themselves try to keep up with trends — and holiday demand.
"The items keep changing with every Indian holiday or festival," says vendor Kamlesh Devi, a high-school dropout living on a little patch of grass under a tree near a New Delhi intersection. Her reading skills are poor, she admits, but she can just about make out the words on posters on the street that indicate a festival's approach. Then it's time to figure out what the most popular products are.
Devi sold fresh roses until three months ago, when another vendor showed up on her turf with LED balloons, which appeared to be selling much faster than her roses. Devi wanted in on these new "light balloons." She'd never seen such a thing.
"I instantly knew I had to sell them," she says.
So she went to a wholesale market in New Delhi and asked a shopkeeper to sell her some LED balloons and show her how to assemble them.
With an impaired right arm, Devi struggles to stretch the plastic balloons and inflate them with a manual pump. But she believes in the product and in her own talent in sales.
"I used to peel thorns off roses with one hand!" she exclaims, laughing. "If that didn't kill me, assembling balloons won't." And then, the balloons are ready for their final destination after their 3-month, many-thousands-of-miles journey.
And they're an easier sell than the roses. She used to walk up to every vehicle to sell the flowers. Now she hangs glittering balloons from the tree branches, hoping to attract the eyes of passers-by.