Starbucks’ beloved pumpkin spice latte is back, but research shows the flavor that defined the early 2000’s is on the decline, as consumer interest in the seasonal taste—and scented products overall—wanes.
Pumpkin spice, or PSL, launched into the American zeitgeist in 2003. Now, it’s the chain’s most popular seasonal drink—selling over 600 million since its introduction, CNN said last year—and unofficially marks the beginning of fall for coffee lovers.
But the craze associated with white millennial women in blanket scarves and flannels may be on its way out. Unit sales have been on the decline for the past two years, data from market researcher NielsenIQ viewed by Fortune shows. In the same year-long period ending in July, unit sales decreased 1.5% year over year, after flatlining the year before.
“Pumpkin spice is over! Big food corporations are trying to make themselves look innovative and edgy by slapping a ‘pumpkin spice’ label onto generic products,” Ethan Frisch, co-founder and co-CEO of spice purveyor Burlap & Barrel, told MarketWatch.
To be sure, the pumpkin spice mania only starts with lattes. From pumpkin spice flavored Oreos and Cheerios, to pumpkin spice scented Poo-Pourri and murder mystery novels like the Pumpkin Spice Sacrifice, the massive market for the products alone (not including menu items from restaurants and coffee shops) totaled more than $802 million in sales for the year that ended in July 2023, according to NielsenIQ data.
But companies have begun to pull back on the number of pumpkin spice products they release in recent years. NielsenIQ counted over 3,072 products in the year-long period ending in July, down nearly 200, or 5%, from two years before.
That doesn’t mean pumpkin spice will go extinct by next year, but these numbers indicate a shift in consumer behavior that companies will need to keep an eye on.
Social media controls consumers
Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte returns on Thursday, which is arguably early for a seasonal beverage pegged to fall considering that summer in North America doesn’t end for another month. But this coffee giant isn’t the only one getting a head start—Dunkin’ released its competing pumpkin spice latte last week on Aug. 16.
Both companies have been releasing their drinks earlier every year. But why are they doing this? One expert pointed to social media and the creator economy, who influence consumer spending through viral trends.
“With social media, everything is accelerated,” Marcel Hollerbach, chief innovation officer at Productsup, a software startup helping e-commerce retailers, told Fortune. “When we didn’t have TikTok, and Instagram wasn’t as big, and shorts didn’t exist on YouTube, there was more time for organizations to adopt trends.”
Now, companies have to respond quickly if they want to ride the wave of trend-driven buying. This, in tandem with the need to keep up with the competition, results in seasonal products being released earlier and earlier, Hollerbach said.
Big companies are losing control of the consumer, he argued. Now, when an influencer says it’s time for a pumpkin spice latte, then it’s time for a pumpkin spice latte—even if it’s still 80° F outside.
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