5 Ways To Tell It's The First Day of Fall

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- When's the first day of fall, you ask? When retailers are good and ready for it, that's when.

According to the U.S. government, this year's autumnal equinox takes place today at 11:09 p.m. Thanks NASA, but America really isn't going to wait that long to truck out bags of candy corn and plastic Jack O' Lanterns, start sipping coffee drinks that taste of caramel and gourds and stop watching men with bats and balls in favor of armored athletes who run into one another at full speed.

By that measure, it's been autumn since the last beach blanket was rolled up on Labor Day. However, even in a retail environment that's known to put out holiday items a second after the last back-to-school notebook leaves the shelves, there's still a slight respect for seasonal offerings. Lunar cycle notwithstanding, here are the five biggest signs autumn has arrived:

5. Pumpkin Spice Lattes: Starbucks ( SBUX) rolled out this perennial favorite a few weeks ago, but is far from the only pumpkin in the patch these days. Dunkin' Donuts, Panera ( PNRA) and Peet's ( PEET) are just some of the retailers who've figured out that a little nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger goes a long way once the temperature drops.

4. Pumpkin Beer: Long shielded by the bewilderment of American drinkers who couldn't figure out why you'd want beer to taste like a pumpkin, pumpkin ales became the sole domain of craft brewers. Variations including Brooklyn Brewery's Post Road Pumpkin Ale, Dogfish Head's Punkin', Southern Tier's Pumking and Shipyard's Pumpkin Head prospered among generally open-minded craft beer enthusiasts. As craft brewers began biting into the big boys' market share and larger breweries churned out any microbrew-style flavor they could to compete -- hello wheat and lime -- pumpkin brews became a battleground. Anheuser-Busch Inbev ( BUD) released Jack's Pumpkin Spice Ale, while its competitors at MolsonCoors ( TAP) countered with Harvest Moon Pumpkin Ale. Purists will argue that autumn should be about Oktoberfest beers -- including traditional brews from German mainstays Spaten and Paulaner and American takeoffs including Boston Brewing's ( SAM) Samuel Adams Octoberfest -- but piles of pumpkin brew in liquor and packaged-goods stores' fall displays say otherwise.

3. Fun-sized candies: It's all the candy and chocolate you love, but roughly a quarter of the size. What's fun about that? Supermarkets and health and beauty supply stores amass their Halloween candy stockpiles sometime in early September, leaving tempted shoppers to wonder whether they'll be cutting calories by picking up Hershey ( HSY) or Tootsie Roll ( TR) fun sizes now and eating them one at a time. The answer? Absolutely not. With few exceptions (11-piece bags of candy corn are only 70 calories), fun-sized candies weigh in at roughly 100 calories per piece. Eat four of them, and you'll have the caloric and fat equivalent of a serving of McDonald's fries. For the calorie-conscious, this is also less fun than advertised. By why be so dour? That beach body isn't doing you any good beneath long sleeves and layers, and winter's coming in a hurry. Get yourself a bag of Baby Ruths, throw a log on the fire or a DVD in the player and have the fun your downsized candy demands.

2. The End of the Baseball Season: Average Major League Baseball ticket price, $27. Average day at the ballpark for a family of four: $195. Average fantasy baseball league entry fee: $25. Knowing your 162-game odyssey is coming to an end and that you won't have to watch meaningless matchups between mediocre teams by this time next week: Priceless. Sorry, MasterCard ( MA), but the league you sponsor gets about as dull as a canvas bag full of rusty sledgehammers around this time of year. The last time most baseball fantasy team owners updated their rosters, they were still fighting off a sunburn and riding out the tinnitus from their town's Fourth of July fireworks display. While teams at the top of their divisions have reduced their magic number for clinching a playoff spot to single digits, there's a broad cross-section of the league for whom the season ended when their area's NFL team kicked off its preseason. For eight towns, autumn means pennant chases and October baseball. In 28 others, it means cold weather and "wait 'til next year."

1. Week 3 of the NFL season: In Week 1, fans know nothing about your team and are told nothing by the result of its first game. In Week 2, the team shows fans something, but not enough to inspire any sort of faith or despair. By the third week's game, a team's loyal following will know exactly what it is dealing with that year, for better or worse. Amid a blitz of ads for Verizon ( VZ), Papa John's ( PZZA), Pepsi ( PEP), Visa ( V) and other companies, die-hards will discern whether their injury-laden team can overcome adversity and mount a playoff run or if their 2-0 team's record will hold up, or if it masquerades myriad offensive or defensive ills. Either way, baseball will be in the rearview and Sunday trips, plans or family events will require intense negotiation and effective time management. Nothing says "fall" quite like an October wedding scheduled for a bye week.

--Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.