Fall is Pumpkin Spice season in the US and Canada. It traditionally starts when Starbucks reintroduces the Pumpkin Spice Latte. The drink recipe for success has two ingredients: anticipation and positive feelings.
Fall at Starbucks begins in late August with the return of the popular Pumpkin Spice Latte. A date that thousands of fans of the coffee chain look forward to every year. The coffee creation will be on the menu in a total of 82 countries by the end of November, but nowhere in the world are people celebrating the hot beverage more than in North America.
The numbers speak for themselves: Since its launch in 2003, Starbucks has sold more than 600 million Pumpkin Spices, according to the Guardian. Its cold brew counterpart, Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew, is catching on fast. As of 2019, the range has sold over 100 million drinks to date. This year, the fall latte lives up to its reputation as the most popular seasonal drink at Starbucks. Shortly after the classic’s relaunch, the company posted its best-selling week to date.
Pumpkin Spice Latte sets a new sales record at Starbucks
“The best sales week in our 51-year history was two weeks ago,” Starbucks interim CEO Howard Schultz told Restaurant Business in mid-September. The number of visitors to coffee shops has increased significantly. The “Plaser” platform, which analyzes pedestrian traffic in retail sales, recorded a 25.7 percent increase in customers. What is behind the success of the Pumpkin Spice Latte? And why are North Americans in particular addicted to the sweet coffee specialty? The answer is pumpkin pie, the dessert on which the hot drink is based. A seasonal dessert traditionally served around fall, Halloween, or Thanksgiving in the United States and Canada.
Tastes and smells can trigger memories. This is ensured by neurological connections in the brain. That’s why certain foods are associated with certain situations or – in this case – certain times of the year. Psychologist Matt Johnson told Tasting Table that the taste of pumpkin pie “evokes nostalgia for back to school, the fall season, family gatherings and cozy atmospheres.” The effect is well known in the market economy: “Seasonal products are associated with the feelings of that season, and emotions are powerful motivators for purchase,” Bruce Clark, associate professor of marketing at Northeastern University, told CNBC.
An unchanging flavor profile for centuries
It’s a matter of perception, says Jason Fisher, professor of psychology and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins University. “Most people have clear memories of eating an apple and an idea of what an apple tastes like,” he explains. But no one has such memories of raw pumpkin. “When you add spices and imagine something sweet and creamy” is different. Because spices, not pumpkin, give pumpkin pie its characteristic taste. The earliest recipes from 1793 mention mace, nutmeg, ginger, molasses and allspice. This flavor profile has never changed.
The mixture that North Americans now know as “pumpkin pie spice” was introduced to the market in 1934 by McCormick Spice Company, the world’s largest spice manufacturer. It contains cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and allspice. Although the spice is available year-round, 76 percent of annual sales are made between September and November. According to Starbucks legend, Pumpkin Spice Latte was created after the success of winter drinks. They were determined to create a seasonal specialty for the fall as well. Former Espresso director Peter Duke and his staff are said to have spent a day tasting pumpkin pies and sipping espresso to find out which dessert flavors pair best with coffee.
Anticipation and positive emotions
Since 2015, Starbucks has only used flavored syrup in its hot drink, which contains real pumpkin. One of the largest manufacturers of coffee flavors, Torani offers 15 different varieties of Pumpkin Spice syrups and sauces. According to the Guardian, the manufacturer sells more than half in August, when coffee shops stock up for the season. “The limited-time seasoning is what makes it so special,” says Andrea Ramirez, Torani’s consumer and customer insight manager. “If we could drink Pumpkin Spice Lattes all year round, we wouldn’t have the same expectation.” Another factor determining the success of the autumn drink.
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“It’s very simple economics,” Virginia Tech economics professor Jadrian Wooten said in an article on CNBC. “If it was available year-round, we wouldn’t want it.” According to the expert, as products disappear from the range again, customers want them more when they are available again. Therefore, companies benefit from seasonality in two ways: the positive emotions people associate with the season and the limited time frame. Not long after Starbucks’ success, rival coffee chains like Dunkin Donuts and Einstein Bros Bagles copied the drink. Pumpkin Spice Latte is also available now at McDonalds and 7-Eleven in the US.
The food industry is jumping on the trend
The creation of coffee also led to the hype of Pumpkin Spice in the North American food industry. In a late 2019 study, market research firm Nielsen IQ examined “how coffee is becoming a source of innovation for the US grocery market.” The analysis concludes that the aroma of coffee has “led to a taste frenzy that now defines the entire season.” Supermarkets in the US and Canada are full of it in the fall. Pumpkin Spice flavored cookies, hummus, protein powder, yogurt, cereal, pasta sauce and more. According to the report, these products have “become a half-billion dollar industry.”
From the end of July 2021 to the end of July 2022 alone, according to Nielsen IQ, consumers in North America spent $234 million on Pumpkin Spice-flavored groceries, a 24 percent increase over the previous year. The analysis does not include many fall-scented household and cosmetic products, such as shampoos and scented candles. There are no drinks in cafes either. So it’s unclear how much the Original Pumpkin Spice Latte has sold so far. But Starbucks sales tell us: a lot.
Sources: CNBC, Nielsen IQ, Placer, Restaurant Business, Starbucks, Tasting Table, The Guardian