Why pumpkin spice? An economist explains our obsession with the flavor

Why are we so obsessed with pumpkin spice-flavored items?

Americans spend more than $500 million on pumpkin spice products each year, according to data from Nielsen.

There’s a psychological reason behind this trend.

“If it’s just a seasonal, limited time only, you’re more likely to consume it multiple times over that same time period than if it was spread out over a long period of time,” said Jadrian Wooten, an economics professor at Virginia Tech.

“The longer it’s been since you had it, you have very fond memories of it. So a really famous example is the McDonald’s McRib that just sort of comes out at random times. You just sort of forget what things tasted like,” he explained.

@scrippsnews Today, Starbucks released the pumpkin spice latte for the season. Why are we so obsessed with pumpkin spice? Scripps News reporter Chloe Nordquist talks to an economist on why Americans spend nearly half a billion dollars a year on pumpkin-flavored items. #pumpkinseason #falltok ♬ original sound – Scripps News

So the second we see those advertisements for something limited-edition there’s emotional value there, which experts say can drive sales because of exclusivity. But not forever.

“Customers can really only sustain pumpkin-flavored items, or any sort of seasonal flavored items, for so long. So in economics terms we consider that diminishing marginal returns,” Wooten said. “That’s why we don’t have it all year long; we’d get tired of it.”

Sometimes these stores can use limited-edition items, like pumpkin spice-flavored items, as a driver to get people back into their store.

What about the idea that seasonal items are being introduced earlier and earlier? Wooten says there’s a game theory-type strategy happening.

“If I release it early, somebody else is going to do it next year. You want to get those consumers to buy your product first,” he said.

For example, this year Starbucks released the Pumpkin Spice Latte on Aug. 24. In 2022, the day was Aug. 30.

“But they can’t go too far back; we have things like inventory concerns, they have to have warehouses to store all this stuff. It does take up space from other items,” Wooten said.

Whether it’s lemon in the summer, peppermint in the winter or pumpkin spice in the fall, sometimes these limited-time scents and flavors can give us a break from the usual.

“We have our routines and this is a moment we can sort of disrupt our routine for a little bit, even if we’re not a full pumpkin spice lover that we have it every single day,” Wooten said.

“I think that’s really fun for a lot of people,” he said.