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What Disappearing Jam Jar Lids Say About Turkey's Economy

Taylan Bilgic

(Bloomberg) -- For a vivid reminder of a grinding downturn that’s settled over Turkey, look no further than a supermarket in Gungoren, a working-class district of Istanbul, whose outdoor display of glass jars features many with lids curiously absent.

It may seem like a small thing, but one that fewer and fewer Turks can do without. Lids are becoming so hard to find that some feel the urge to steal them outright.

As Turks hunker down for the winter, a time of higher food prices, they’ve traditionally turned to home canning to stretch the summer harvest, cooking vegetables and fruit and pickling them to stock up for the colder months. An unprecedented shortage of lids, used to keep a tight seal in place, is giving a glimpse of the urgency that many Turks feel about the task this year.

“Lids have become black-market items,” said Bilal Onar, a supermarket worker in Gungoren, as he checks out just how many his store still has left. “We probably sell about 5,000 of these a day. People are snatching them,” he says, laughing.

Their budgets gutted by a currency shock a year ago, Turks are in the grip of frenzied demand for lids as households rush to take advantage of a lull in inflation. Only months earlier, it skyrocketed near the highest levels since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power 16 years ago.

Never Before

“People think prices will surge in the winter, so they take precautions,” said Ibrahim Bilici, owner of a dollar store hawking cheap items. “I’ve been doing this job for almost 30 years. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Still seared in people’s minds are memories of a spike in the cost of fresh fruit and vegetables, whose annual price increases peaked at almost 73% in April.

Authorities pulled out all the stops to contain food inflation, hounding retailers, blaming hoarders for runaway prices, and even setting up stalls to sell state-subsidized items. With the central bank forced into a dramatic hike in interest rates a year ago, a brief recession took hold and has since given way to a halting recovery.

With unemployment now hovering near a record high in seasonally adjusted terms, consumers have embarked on an era of thrift. When canning food, people usually recycle the jars from year to year, but they tend to throw out the lids, or just lose them. Hence the deficit.

Metin Onbasili, who operates a store in the seaside Besiktas district, says that if only he could find some, they sell for 0.7 lira (12 cents) each, double last year’s price.

Lid Boom

“Demand has boomed because of how prices surged last year,” he said.

The shortage seems to stretch beyond Istanbul. Local newspapers in Kocaeli province, just east of Turkey’s commercial capital, have been reporting on a “lid crisis.”

Arzu Sen, who makes tomato paste in the western region of Canakkale, suddenly faces stiff competition. “It’s like everyone has started to make their own canned food,” she said by phone.

Two local companies manufacturing the lids declined to comment when contacted by Bloomberg on Thursday.

“Tradesmen are queuing up at wholesalers in the early morning hours to get lids,” said Ali Bayram, another shop owner in Istanbul.

“These will be gone in a few hours, too,” he says, showing off the few dozen left in his inventory.

To contact the reporter on this story: Taylan Bilgic in Istanbul at tbilgic2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Onur Ant at oant@bloomberg.net, Paul Abelsky, Constantine Courcoulas

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