It used to be slow, but now, it's almost impossible.
Cindy Jones is referring to procuring the eight-ounce glass jars her Longmont, Colorado-based business, Colorado Aromatics Cultivated Skincare, needs to package its herbal facial steam product. Finding the jars used to be as simple as, well, ordering them, from Walmart.com or Ace Hardware. Last time she checked, she could find them only on Amazon and for about $1.87 a jar, twice the price of what Jones paid only a year ago. If she can't find cheaper jars elsewhere, she says she'll likely need to up the price on the $10.95 facial steam product or discontinue it. "I just don't know if I could sell the product if I added three to four dollars to it," says Jones.
Jones's glass sourcing dilemma is one business owners currently face across a range of industries, from shower door installers to tequila makers. Food and beverage, or "container," glass is caught up in a larger, international logistics backlog affecting industries across the U.S., says Scott DeFife, president of the Glass Packaging Institute, which advocates for container glass manufacturers in North America.
Starting in the '90s, glass manufacturers began to move overseas, especially to China. Along with Mexico and India, those three countries exported the most glass and stone to the U.S. in 2019, according to World Integrated Trade Solution. The U.S. imports roughly 20 percent of food and beverage glass produced, DeFife says. "There's no shortage of materials to make glass," DeFife adds. "It's an import problem for all commodities."
Smart businesses are working to replace glass with alternative materials or think of creative solutions to beef up their supply chains. They might need to do so for a while--DeFife estimates glass issues, along with other types of material shortages, will remain until the ports clear up, which could take until the end of the year. Here are three ways to maneuver around the glass shortage in the meantime.
Find Substitutes--and More Suppliers
In Q1 of 2021, Mark Anderson, founder and CEO of Minneapolis-based Drake's Organic Spirits, kept trying to pick bottles for a tequila product. Each time he tried to set up production dates, the bottles were unavailable. So Anderson ditched the glass (the price had gone up by at least 30 percent) and aluminum (of which there is also a shortage) and created a cocktail in a box with easier-to-source and more sustainable cardboard. The product now sells in Walmart, Costco, and Sam's Club, and rolled out internationally last year. Anderson also picked a new vehicle for Drake's tequila: handcrafted ceramic bottles sourced in Jalisco, Mexico, near the liquor manufacturer. "There are a lot of alternatives to look at," he advises.
Liquor is a tough business for substitutes because people associate other packaging materials, like plastic, with cheapness, says Alan Dietrich, CEO of Bend, Oregon-based Crater Lake Spirits. So while the company decided to stick with glass, it widened the net for suppliers. "We have a person who has spent many years finding a bunch of alternative vendors," he says, which is vital when lead times for glass have lengthened by about four months.
The key is to bond with suppliers early on, advises Angel Ferrer, chief marketing officer at Las Vegas-based Hemper, which produces novelty glass pieces for smoking and a subscription box for smokers. If you need a couple thousand products, "but [a manufacturer] can do only 500, take the 500 and help them scale, just by being a customer," he says. DeFife adds that you ought to investigate where your glass comes from so you can anticipate geographic disruptions and make adjustments accordingly.
As a long-term strategy, Jones of Colorado Aromatics Cultivated Skincare aims to go circular. She plans to email customers and ask if they're willing to sell or trade old glass jars. "My feeling is that people have jars in their basement. We'll see," she says. Jones also has ramped up selling wholesale to local stores in gallon jugs that customers can use to refill their own containers. It cuts cost by about 25 percent--no labeling and filling--and reduces the stress, as she also doesn't have to worry about plastic supplies, which have been trailing two to three months behind schedule.
Zach Lawless has been in the circular packaging game for a long time. He started a company, Fresh Bowl, in 2017 to provide reusable meal packaging in New York City. After the pandemic hit, he saw an opportunity to expand into alcohol, which saw sales skyrocket, and pivoted to selling reusable wine bottles. The new company, Good Goods, brings the bottles to winemakers; consumers bring back the bottles to their local store and get a dollar back on a future purchase. Then Good Goods washes and sells the bottles again. In the winemaking industry, bottle manufacturing generates the most carbon in the process. "We can save the producer 40 percent of their carbon footprint by reusing the bottle," he says--and reduce time waiting for glass shipments.
Store Up and Communicate
Dafna Mizrahi took a risk when the pandemic hit. As she prepared to launch her tequila business, she began to hear about general shortages, so she went ahead and bought a couple of storage units worth of glass bottles. "It definitely dented our bank account," she says. If it didn't work out, she figured she could always sell it. Because of the buy-early strategy, Curamia Tequila had enough glass to launch the product in New York in September and will launch in 2022 in Florida, Georgia, and west Tennessee.
Some owners simply don't have that option, like James Upton of Tiger Mountain Tile, a contracting business that focuses on bathroom renovation. He can't order a piece of glass until he's done tiling a bathroom, and the work is all custom. Consumers used to just wait about a week for shower glass to get in, he says. With glass delays, he had one family who waited to take a shower in their own bathroom for three weeks. So, he says, all he can do is be honest with customers: "Once you have bad news, you just gotta give it to them," Upton advises.