See post #G21-013. Looks like seasonal shipments of canning supplies have begun. In Vienna, VA, lids are back in stock. (Or, at least, were as of 4/18/2021).
See Post #G21-003 for the background. In a nutshell, it’s hard to get lids for home canning right now. If you can find them, your choice is between expensive (name-brand) and potentially inferior (foreign-made). (If you doubt that inferior part, read some of the reviews on Amazon.) And, of course, the predators are out in full force, so you will see people offering to sell you lids for more than the cost of a “set” (jar+ring+lid).
I’ve now done a little shopping locally, and tracked the trends for on-line sources, and it’s time to update that prior post.
It’s clear that the situation is getting worse, but I stand by what I said in my prior post. To me, it looks like the U.S. manufacturer hasn’t yet started shipping to major retailers for the 2021 canning season. And so, I think that most of what we’re seeing right now is still the aftereffect of the 2020 canning season.
If that’s true, then things are going to continue to get worst, right on up to the point where the seasonal shipments start for the 2021 canning season. And that that point, I expect to see lids available again.
That’s a guess. But that’s still my best guess.
Details follow. This turned out to be a long post. I cover the topics listed below. I’ve put the headings in red so you can just scroll down and find them.
- My local stores.
- Canning lid arbitrage, or why the local shelves should be empty.
- Recent changes in on-line sources.
- A brief note on re-using lids.
- Only Newell, Inc. knows what’s actually in store for us later this year.
- Afterword, or why a shortage of canning lids isn’t just some quaint little oddity.
Part 1: My local stores.
There are a handful of places in this area (Northern Virginia) where I have shopped for canning supplies. I went around and visited them this past week. It was a bit of an education.
First up, zero stand-alone lids for sale. So let’s just get that out of the way.
At one end of the spectrum was my local grocery store (Giant Food). They had three boxes of bands-and-lids, for a normal price (about 5.50 a box). That same store also had plenty of 12-packs of jars (“sets”) of all sizes. So much so that they had them stacked as excess inventory, way up top where customers couldn’t reach them.
Put a pin in that, because I think that last part is a clue.
At the other end of the spectrum was my nearby Walmart. That store remained stocked with canning supplies well into the pandemic. But now? Totally denuded. Not a usable item left on the shelf, unless you were in the market for pectin. Here’s a picture.
The merchandise was literally dusty, as were the shelves. It certainly looked as if there had been no new merchandise put on those shelves for months.
And put a pin in that, because I think that’s another clue.
My final observation from local retail is that this isn’t a shortage of food-preservation supplies in general. If I turned around from that last view, here’s what the vacuum-sealer supplies section looked like at that same Walmart:
This may be the year when I finally buy a vacuum sealer.
How do I interpret all that?
Here’s how I see it. I think that in both cases, I’m looking at what was left over from 2020. I’m betting that shipments of canning supplies, to general retailers, are mostly seasonal. I’m betting that the entire supply chain is geared to those shipments being seasonal. So, no matter what, at those retailers, new goods aren’t going to show up until it’s canning season.
I think the Vienna, VA Giant Food has an abundance of jars because almost nobody buys their canning supplies there. I don’t really understand why Giant Food even carries canning supplies, let alone year-round. The Town of Vienna, VA is a wealthy white-collar suburb of Washington DC. It’s a pretty good guess that the clientele of that grocery store is not much into canning.
Given that, it’s not a surprise that they had plenty of jars left.
That Walmart, by contrast, probably attracts canners from a wide area. They were extremely well-stocked prior to the pandemic, and remained stocked even after you couldn’t find jars in other locations.
And, again, the result is not a surprise. Looks like all of their 2020 canning season stock got sold out.
Walmarts are not known for letting their shelf space stand idle and empty. Let alone idle, empty, and dusty. And yet, there it is, above. I’m guessing they expected to have canning supplies left over from 2020 to continue to fill that space. But they did not. And it makes no sense to get re-label that shelf section for other goods, in the meantime, because they’re going to restock when the shipments start up again, for the 2021 canning season.
That’s how I read the tea leaves. In both cases, I think I’m looking at 2020 leftovers. And I bet that’s how it works every year. I bet few-to-no general retailers take big shipments of canning supplies mid-winter, say. That would be inefficient, to say the least.
If we learned one thing from the pandemic, it’s that supply lines are inflexible. It’s not like they could flip a switch and delivery a billion extra rolls of toilet paper. And so, if those canning supply shipments normally arrive early-to-mid summer, I’m betting that in 2021, they’re going to arrive in early-to-mid summer. And not one moment sooner, just because the shelves are empty.
Total guesswork on my part, again. But still my best guess.
Part 2: Canning lid arbitrage, or why you should not see lids on the shelf at Walmart right now.
First, a word of caution. I’ve never actually looked for canning lids, locally, at this time of the year. It’s possible that my local suppliers look like this every year, but I just never noticed. I don’t think that’s true, but I can’t directly rule that out, either. Sometimes you only see something if you look for it, and you can jump to the wrong conclusion.
But the main point here is that basic economic theory dictates that I shouldn’t see lids on the shelf at Walmart now. Full stop.
That’s because bricks-and-mortar retailers have inflexible pricing rules for manufactured goods. They can’t (or maybe won’t) jack up their prices for hard goods in response to a shortage. If the sticker on the shelf at Walmart says that a 12-pack of lids is $2.40, then by gosh, that’s the price Walmmart sells them for. They aren’t going to re-sticker their shelf in response to a lid shortage.
The result is exactly what economic theory would predict: They’ve got a sticker on the shelf, but no lids to sell.
And it has to be like that. Think about it. If you can buy lids at Walmart for $0.20 each, and sell them on Ebay for $0.75 each, what do you think would happen to those lids, if they had any? Lid arbitrage. Some sharp cookie would be buying them at Walmart and selling them on Ebay.
So, given current conditions, not only are the shelves bare of lids, the shelves should be bare of lids. So it’s not as if high on-line prices and empty local shelves are two independent sets of signs. If local retailers won’t raise the prices, common sense tells you that those are two sides of the same coin.
Part 3: Two changes in on-line sources.
This is just a quick recap. Looking at Amazon, it still appears that the market-clearing price for name-brand (American-made) lids is about $0.70 per lid, in quantity. (That’s for wide-mouth, which is what I use). And it still appears that foreign-made lids are available for around $0.30 per lid, with widely varying quality.
That’s all unchanged from the last time I looked. So you can still get American-made lids, for something over twice the pre-shortage price. Or take a gamble on foreign-made lids.
One change I note is that on-line sites for many reputable bricks-and-mortar retailers no longer even have a listing for lids. They have simply taken their listings for lids off-line, as if they don’t offer them or never offered them. That happened in the three weeks since my first post on this topic (#G21-003).
Again, as with the lack of lids in the local stores, I’ve never looked on-line for lids in April before. So I can’t say for sure that this is, in fact, as odd as it seems to be. So take it for what it’s worth, but both Walmart and Ace Hardware have dropped their listings for their own lids. Walmart still lists lids by other vendors, but not lids sold by Walmart.
Assuming that is unusual, I’m not quite sure what to make of that. Might be that’s normal if something is out-of-stock and not likely to be in stock soon. Might be they’re just avoiding irritating customers by showing them lids at a cheap price, that customers can’t actually buy. No clue. I’m just noting that this happened in the last three weeks.
The final change that I think I’m seeing is that this is beginning to affect the market for 12-packs of jars (“sets”). I can’t quite be sure, because I wasn’t focused on it the last time, but by eye, it sure looks like the on-line prices of garden-variety canning jars are creeping up. And I think that’s new.
For example, as of today, Walmart still has a listing for 12 wide-mouth pints for about $10, but it’s out of stock. Next to it, on their website, is an offer at $20, from another vendor, that’s in-stock. The cheapest offers on Amazon seem to be running $20 and up, consistent with the non-Walmart vendors on the Walmart side. Ace Hardware still has pint-and-a-half jars in DC area stores, $12. But they limit you to one case of 12 per order.
Again, I think all of that is a genuine change since I looked at this three weeks ago. For sure, at that time, Walmart still had those pint wide mouths in stock. I know because I took a snapshot.
Three weeks ago:
Part 4: A brief note on re-using lids.
Well, don’t. That’s the advice you’re going to get from every official source. I’m not a canning expert, and so my advice is to ditto what the experts say.
That said, you can find seemingly-sane people who will admit to re-using lids from time to time. On line, no less.
I came across one who offered a tip for how to do it, and I immediately said, ah, that’s gotta be folklore. So I decided to test it. And I was wrong.
So here’s a tip from A Traditional Life that seems to do exactly what the author claimed it did. When you use a lid, it leaves a deep groove in the silicone seal. Putting aside any other problems, that, by itself, will make it harder to get a good seal if you re-use it. The tip from A Traditional Life is to boil the lids for 20 minutes to relax the silicone seal and reduce or eliminate the groove.
I can’t say that it’s safe to re-use a lid. But the claim about boiling them is definitely true. Here are a couple of pictures. Two lids from the same batch of last summer’s pickles. One boiled, one not. The difference is obvious.
I’ll end this section with a direct quote from the National Center for Home Food Preservation:
Lids should not be used a second time since the sealing compound becomes indented by the first use, preventing another airtight seal. Screw bands may be reused unless they are badly rusted or the top edge is pried up which would prevent a proper seal.
Part 5: Ball isn’t even rounding error in the Newell Brands corporation.
I thought I’d take a look at Ball, to see if there was any information forthcoming. What I found is that Ball is such a tiny part of the company that currently owns it that it hardly even gets mentioned. That company (Newell Brands) seems to be having a lot of trouble right now, but they assert that, as a whole, they’ve caught up with any shortages caused by the pandemic.
Everything you think of as Ball or Kerr (or Golden Harvest) is actually Newell Brands. For something as plain and old as the mason jar, the recent U.S. corporate history of Ball/Kerr just makes my head spin. Wikipedia has a short summary of who bought whom when and for how much, under entries for Jarden and Newell Brands.
My point is that I’ve assumed that Ball/Kerr was going to provide normal amounts of canning supplies this year. But when a) you’re talking about more-or-less a monopoly, b) that’s part of a conglomerate seeking highest return on investment, with c) maybe a few supply chain disruptions thrown in, then d) I’m not sure sure about that.
It’s not clear that the canning market is much of a priority. So I looked up their 2020 “10-K” filing, via the Securities and Exchange Commission, to see if it had any nuggets of information. Here’s a quick summary.
For one, it sure seems that Ball is almost an afterthought within their overall corporate structure. After listing out all their divisions, when they talk about consumer goods, they say, emphasis mine:
The Home Solutions segment designs, manufactures, sources, markets and distributes a diverse line of household products. Food storage products are sold primarily under the FoodSaver®, Rubbermaid® and Sistema® trademarks. The Company also sells certain home canning and food storage products under the Ball® trademark, pursuant to a license from Ball Corporation. Home fragrance products are sold primarily under the Chesapeake Bay Candle®, WoodWick® and Yankee Candle® trademarks. ... Newell Brands is a leading global consumer goods company with a strong portfolio of well-known brands, including Rubbermaid®, Paper Mate®, Sharpie®, Dymo®, EXPO®, Parker®, Elmer’s®, Coleman®, Marmot®, Oster®, Sunbeam®, FoodSaver®, Mr. Coffee®, Rubbermaid Commercial Products®, Graco®, Baby Jogger®, NUK®, Calphalon®, Contigo®, First Alert®, Mapa®, Spontex® and Yankee Candle®.
The company as a whole seems to be in trouble. Roughly speaking, they lost $1B on about $9B in total sales. That follows a large loss in 2019. They are in the process of selling off a lot of their units. And in 2019, their debt was downgraded by all three major U.S. bond rating agencies. E.g., S&P downgraded them to BB+, which means they are now “speculative” debt, not investment-grade debt.
That said, on the plus side, they say they’ve gotten caught up with shortages caused in the early stage of the pandemic. With some caveats to follow:
All of the Company's manufacturing and distribution facilities are operating at or near capacity and its facilities have replenished most of the inventory levels that were depleted by lost production during the temporary closure period,...
The bottom line is that, within that corporate empire, Ball/Kerr is rounding error.
And yet, my impression is that they have virtually no U.S. based competition for canning supplies. I see them discussed as “the largest” U.S. manufacturer of jars and disposable lids, but I’ve never been able to track down what other U.S. manufacturers exist. (Other than Tattler re-usable lids.)
A bit of search reveals that you can find other major manufacturers who make jars, but, near as I can tell, if there’s another U.S. manufacture of those disposable lids, I sure can’t find it.
Anchor Hocking makes canning jars. Apparently you can buy them cheaply, but without bands or lids.
Here’s another site with generic mason jars.
Walmart’s house brand of lids (Mainstay) appears to be made by Ball/Kerr.
From that same source, there are generic US-made lids, in bulk, about 50 cents each. (I’ve never seen U.S. lids that weren’t brand-name Ball or Kerr, so I wonder if these are also made by Ball, like the Mainstay lids).
Empire was launched in 2015 to provide an alternative to Ball, but a) I’ve never seen them for sale, and b) apparently their lids get a lot of negative reviews. It’s possible that they’ve already exited that business.
And, aside from Tattler non-disposable lids, I can’t seem to find even a rumor of another U.S. lid manufacturer. (FWIW, I’ve used the Tattler lids with fine results, so they really are an alternative to Ball lids.) But in the end, we are at the mercy of whatever Ball decides to ship out this canning season.
Afterword: It’s not a hobby for some people.
That’s just a warning about where I’m coming from. And maybe some useful background for any non-canners who read this.
For me, canning is a hobby. I can high-acid foods in a water-bath canner. Just the easy stuff, in other words. I preserve a little home-grown produce, I make a few dishes that I can’t buy in the store.
But if you depend on home canning, it’s not about the 30-cent lid. It’s about the $5 worth of produce that can’t be preserved, for want of the 30-cent lid. Multiply that by a basement with a year’s worth of canned food on the shelves, and that’s a problem all out of proportion to the cost of the lid.
And the clock is ticking. Some vegetables will keep pretty well. But a lot of them won’t. Once those start ripening, you’ve got to do something with them. That’s something you may not fully appreciate until you’ve (e.g.) picked a half-bushel of cucumbers and said, now what?
So, for me, a lack of lids is an annoyance. But for some others, this lid shortage involves elements of hardship and waste far out-of-proportion to the 30 cent cost of the lid.
That’s something that a lot of newspaper coverage of this just doesn’t quite seem to grasp. If it’s covered at all, the lid shortage is covered as a quaint oddity. And yeah, there is that aspect to it. But that’s not the entire story. Maybe it’s just me, but every time I read some cutesy headline about this, (“Local Canners in a Pickle”), I wince.