It was a blistering hot day in August when I saw it in my inbox: The first pumpkin spice latte promo of the year. “Starbucks brings the fall feels with the return of their seasonal menu,” I read, while clad in a tank top and shorts.
The rest of the email went on to announce that “the pumpkin spice latte was back for its 17th year!” Seventeen years. That’s how long the PSL has existed, and really, it’s a little difficult to remember a time when it didn’t. Back when the drink debuted at Starbucks in 2003, Von Dutch hats and velour tracksuits were high fashion, “In Da Club” by 50 Cent played on repeat, and The O.C. was the most popular TV show. (Feel old?)
While we’ve stopped wearing trucker hats, the pumpkin spice latte has not only withstood the test of time but has continued to essentially define fall. Two years ago, Nielsen and Forbes calculated that the pumpkin spice latte trend was a $600 million market, continuing to grow every year.
It’s not even just about lattes anymore. A sampling of some of the pumpkin spice products that I’ve been emailed about in the first days of fall: CBD pumpkin spice latte tinctures, pumpkin spice deodorant, pumpkin spice kettle corn, and pumpkin spice protein shakes.
After 17 long years as fall’s reigning flavor, some folks might roll their eyes at even the mere mention of the PSL. But according to Kara Nielsen, the director of food and drink at trend forecasting firm WGSN, there’s a reason why the pumpkin spice latte trend has such staying power. And the pandemic, she says, is only going to solidify its status as the It Drink of the season.
How PSL has morphed from lattes to include literally everything else
Lattes, of course, are central to the pumpkin spice latte trend. “The PSL remains Starbucks’s most popular seasonal beverage of all time, with more than 424 million beverages sold in the U.S. since its debut in 2003,” a spokesperson for the brand tells me, adding that sales have grown year after year. There are now also Starbucks PSL frapps, K-cup pods, cold brew, scones, and muffins.
Paige Gregory, the brand marketing manager for Dunkin’, says that the pumpkin spice latte is one of the company’s most popular drink items too. It’s so beloved that this year Dunkin’ released the drink earlier than Starbucks did (on August 19) because of consumer demand. “Pumpkin is by far the most talked about flavor among our fans on social media, and we’re excited to bring them one of the most anticipated flavors earlier than ever before,” she says. Like Starbucks, Dunkin’ is no one-trick PSL pony. It also sells PSL munchkins, muffins, and K-cups.
Fun fact: Starbucks has sold 424 million pumpkin spice lattes in the U.S. since the drink debuted in 2003.
According to the big report from Nielsen and Forbes, Starbucks sales account for $110 million of the PSL market. Other coffee chains, including Dunkin’, account for about $10 million in sales. Other top categories for the trend include cereal, bread (and bread mixes), Greek yogurt, dog food, and ice cream.
“When I first started working at Whole Foods [seven years ago], I think there were one or two pumpkin spice products,” says Rachel Bukowski, Whole Foods’s team leader of product development. “But what I’ve seen both anecdotally and by looking at our data is that it’s grown to include almost every product category. Every year it continues to expand and get bigger.” (For the record, Bukowski says Whole Foods’s best selling PSL product is PSL ice-cream sandwiches, and she makes sure to stock up in early September because they always sell out.)
Most recently, Bukowski says she’s seen the trend expand from food and drinks to beauty and body care. The predicted hot item of 2020: PSL hand sanitizer. Despite it invading seemingly every product category, Bukowski says she doesn’t think we’ve reached the point of saturation yet; in fact, she expects it to continue to grow.
In case you ever randomly happen to get sick of the PSL, here are some other great things to order from Starbucks:
Why PSL has staying power—and how the pandemic may cause us to crave it even more
But what is it exactly that is so potent about the pumpkin spice latte? For one thing, Nielsen says that compared to other types of seasonal foods, it tends to be more palatable to more people. “If you consider peppermint, for example, that’s more of a divisive flavor than pumpkin spice,” she says. “Some people love it and some people don’t. But the majority of people like how pumpkin spice tastes.”
The fact that the PSL is available for a limited time only is a selling point too, and Nielsen says there’s less competition for seasonal items in fall than in winter. “In fall, you have pumpkin, apple, maple, and that’s pretty much it as far as seasonal flavors go. But there is just so much competition during the holidays for what people can buy,” she says. “There’s so many different types of pastries, there’s fancy chocolate, eggnog drinks, and of course the peppermint drinks and foods. There’s a huge array of what consumers can buy.” Which makes the PSL a very big fish in a small, seasonal pond.
“There’s so much unrest and uncertainty right now that the return of PSL brings some normalcy to this weird year.” — Kara Nielsen
Plus, Nielsen says, people just really love fall. It’s a season that, for many, conjures up happy memories like apple picking and buying shiny new back-to-school supplies at Staples. In contrast, winter holidays can often bring more mixed emotions: some people love it and all the Hallmark movies it brings, while others feel their anxiety levels start to rise as they think of all the presents they need to budget for and the perhaps not-so welcome family get-togethers. “We have a Facebook group dedicated to loving all things fall, which has 40,000 members,” the Starbucks spokesperson says, to the popularity of the season.
That desire to embrace fall (even in mid-August) has never been more prevalent than in 2020, Nielsen says. “Who isn’t ready for this year to be over?” she says. Between the pandemic, economic uncertainty, a turbulent election season, and devastating wildfires and hurricanes, 2020 has been so particularly hellish that she says it makes sense for people to embrace the familiar. “There’s so much unrest and uncertainty right now, that the return of PSL brings some normalcy to this weird year,” she says. The country may be on fire, but you can still count on your local cafe to sweeten your coffee with a pumpkin-flavored syrup.
Nielsen also points out that a pumpkin spice treat is an affordable boost of temporary happiness, compared to, say, a spa treatment (which many don’t feel safe booking right now anyway) or a vacation (which is largely not possible right now). The pandemic hasn’t exactly been kind financially, but for $5.25 you can enjoy a quick serotonin boost in the form of a hot drink.
“This is going to be a big year for pumpkin spice,” Nielsen says. “Who doesn’t need a little joy right now?” Even PSL haters can agree with that sentiment.
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