Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte Teaches Seasonal Lesson

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Setting your calendar to Starbucks  (SBUX) pumpkin spice latte is a bit basic, but reeling in repeat customers with a signature seasonal items is basically just a great idea.

The Starbucks pumpkin spice latte inhabits a place in our culture that the coffee chain's fast-food competitors and retail counterparts just can't find. In its 11th year of existence, the pumpkin spice latte has its own Twitter feed (@TheRealPSL), its own Tumblr, a post-Labor-Day release date, secret codes to get the drink as early as Aug. 26 and lengthy historical accounts and passionate defenses from esteemed publications. The flavor has been replicated so often by competitors including McDonald's (MCD) , Dunkin Donuts  (DNKN) and even Mars' M&M's, that the amount of "pumpkin spice"-- a mix of pumpkin, nutmeg and cinnamon -- in food served by restaurants increased 234% from 2008 to 2012, according to Datassential Menu Trends.

The knockoffs are flattering -- especially with limited-time menu offers up 143% over the same period -- but why hasn't anyone tried to stake out a portion of the calendar for themselves? Why hasn't McDonald's made the McRib a staple of summer barbecue season? Why hasn't Panera  (PNRA) introduced a limited-edition cinnamon bread to coincide with the holiday shopping season? Why isn't anyone savoring the first Blood Orange Orangina of spring?

It's not because the pumpkin spice latte has shown any weakness. Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz said on an earnings call last year that the pumpkin spice latte is still Starbucks' most popular seasonal drink. Starbucks Chief Financial Officer Troy Alstead at one point outright admitted that "We are continually, frankly, even amazed internally at its ability to keep driving its proposition, comping over itself every year." During its 10th anniversary last September, Starbucks noted that it had sold nearly 200 million pumpkin spice lattes since 2003. At a median $4 a pop, that's $800 million from one drink alone.

That roughly $20 million a year helps push Starbucks into what are typically its strongest portions of a year in the fourth and first quarters. Starbucks' annual revenue chart for the year looks a whole lot like a ramp, at its lowest point in spring but climbing each quarter into the dead of winter. The cold has something to do with that, but sales in the fourth quarter -- when pumpkin spice latte hits its peak -- climbed 13% last year from a year earlier.

That's inspired a whole lot of impostors, but no other signature seasonal items on the same cultural scale as Starbucks' spiced specialty beverage. The McDonald's McRib is frequently thrown into the same category, but it isn't offered every year and, when it is, it often isn't offered nationwide. Though previous McRib releases have aimed for October or November, the folks at The Awl noted three years ago that those dates just happened to coincide with low points in the pork market.

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