Seasonal food extremists: Starbucks PSL, candy corn, eggnog – they gotta have it
Destiny may be to blame for Ashley Mock's infatuation with Pumpkin Spice Lattes. The 36-year-old public relations executive is a lifelong resident of a city that's called PSL for short: Port St. Lucie.
The Floridian buys a Starbucks PSL every single day on her way to work – and sometimes goes back in the afternoon for an iced version. At $5.45 for each 20-ounce cup, she spends a minimum of $27.25 a week for as long as they last, approximately three months.
Before you go and mock her, know that Mock is not alone. Millions of Americans go ga-ga over seasonal flavors from the iconic coffee drink that ushered in the Age of Pumpkin Spice – think beer, Twinkies and Cheerios – to candy corn-inspired popcorn and Hershey bars to eggnog-flavored tea and Publix ice cream. All that adds up to hundreds of millions of dollars in sales for the companies that sell the foods.
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Mock is so friendly with her local Starbucks manager that he lets her know in advance when Pumpkin Spice Latte season is starting. When it's ending, she trades the real thing for the PSL Christmas ornament her brother gave her and a mug that teases her with "This might be pumpkin spice" written on the front.
"All of my friends know I’m obsessed. As Facebook memes start to pop up that time of year, everyone tags me. I have a problem, but I don't really have a problem," she said. "The way I justified it to my husband is it makes me happy to do it. I feel I work hard and if that’s what makes me happy, so be it."
Devoted super-fans will go far to feed their obsession for fall-flavored foods –and manufacturers and chain restaurants know it. They're motivated by the desire to drum up business from both existing devotees and consumers who like to sample new products. Sometimes, they even serve as gateway foods to convert new customers to other items in a company's line-up. Come in for the candy-cane-infused cookie and leave with the year-round staple pound cake.
These now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t foods make for great bait. Few things motivate customers to buy like a limited-time offer, which is essentially what seasonally flavored foods are.
"What they’re doing is creating this idea of scarcity," said David Henkes, senior principal for Technomic, a Chicago-based food industry consulting firm. "You're heightening that demand by having it available only for a short time. The fact that it disappears after a month or two or three focuses the consumer."
It's not just an autumn move. Quick-hit products are available in blips all year round, such as the Arby's duck sandwich, Sonic's Pickle Juice Slush and the McDonald's McRib sandwich, various ice cream brands' Girl Scout cookie flavors and the expanding array of maple-infused foods.
However, temporary offerings mean changes that complicate inventory and supply chains.
"It's definitely worth it, because you're really getting consumers to come to visit or pay attention to you when other parts of (your) message may get lost in the noise of promotion or marketing or advertising," Henkes said, adding that season-linked offers lead to increased sales as well as a boost in brand awareness.
The artificial sense of urgency they create lights a fire in food fans. Randy Scott is always on the lookout for deals on candy corn, specifically the Brach's brand, which he can find only this time of year. He calls it "a good obsession" and once was gifted 12 bags by a store near his office, aware of his dedication to the tri-colored niblets.
Scott buys about 45 bags a year to feed a love he's had since childhood and remains unimpressed with all candy corn-flavored foods, except Oreos.
"I’ve tried a few things here and there, but nothing ever lives up to original candy corn. They try to take advantage of us candy corn lovers," said the 37-year-old radio personality from Salisbury, Maryland. "There's a bag and a half in a secret-but-not-so-secret cabinet. It moves when the kids find out."
The fear of missing out – or FOMO for short – is a strong instigator, according to experts. Plus, scarcity can create the perception that something's more valuable or appealing.
"When it's predictable, it’s even better, because you can plan for it and anticipate it and then, you can savor the opportunity to have it," said Edward Hirt, an Indiana University Bloomington psychology professor who's an expert on fandom. "Some people will take advantage of it as long as they can. They go back multiple times and buy out the store of those limited-supply items, so they can enjoy themselves pumpkin-flavored whatever."
And then, it comes to an end. At least until next year. The fun is over and the feeling of specialness dissipates. For those enamored with fall flavors, that happens once the trees are bare; and for the self-described "nog hogs," it's after the start of the new year.
As Pumpkin Spice Lattes start to fade, Mock described herself feeling "totally sad."
"I distinctly remember last year asking for one and they were out. They were gone, and I was really upset," Mock said.
At least until they return again the next year.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Zlati Meyer on Twitter: @ZlatiMeyer