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Pumpkin spice: gateway drug to candy canes

Think Christmas creep, but orange: A slew of pumpkin-flavored products inspired by fall are turning up earlier each year, arriving in July and August as a harbinger of a season that this year doesn't officially begin until Friday.

And, yes, there are stirrings of a pumpkin spice pushback among many consumers who say they aren't ready for a shift from beach bod to sweater weather.

Social media is loaded with passionate advocates of the flavor. But some declared that, with pumpkin spice showing up in pet food, chips, butter and more items, it's time for the flavor to exit the zeitgeist.

Liz Dunn, founder of Talmage Advisors, a brand strategy consulting firm, said makers of pumpkin spice products were trying to capitalize on consumers' urge to engage with and discuss limited-time offerings via social media. So it's only natural they'd try to introduce the flavor earlier each year.

"If companies can get people to do it for a longer period of time, it can only increase relevance," she said. "That's brand magic right there — unless, of course, it backfires."

Stores began stocking Pumpkin Spice Cheerios cereal in mid August. Other pumpkin spice products, like Pepperidge Farm cookies and Werther's Original candy, have been around weeks before.

Dunkin' Donuts said it was "doubling down on fall flavors," offering a limited run of pumpkin coffees, doughnuts, muffins and a cream cheese spread.

"We've seen our fans ask for pumpkin earlier and earlier each year," the company said in a statement. "When we're creating seasonal flavors, timing is key, because we don't want to be too late, but we don't want to be too early either."

The capstone event is the arrival of Starbucks' cult-favorite drink, the Pumpkin Spice Latte — the best-known pumpkin spice product in the market. Two years ago, the drink returned to stores on Sept. 8; last year, on Sept. 6. Fans this year began sipping it on Sept. 1. Perhaps that is where they'll draw the line. We'll see next year.

Starbucks baristas are so nervous about the enormous ramp-up in demand associated with the launch that they began commiserating in a Reddit support group chat weeks ago.

The pageantry surrounding pumpkin-related products each year is designed to whip consumers into a buying mood before they're swept away by the onslaught of holiday retail offerings that now begin in September.

Greg Portell, a lead partner in the retail practice at A.T. Kearney, a consulting firm, calls it the calendarization of retail.

"Retailers have gotten themselves into the habit of needing an event to broaden traffic, and they have a void from a storytelling standpoint from back-to-school in early August until Halloween," he said.

Consumers associate pumpkins with fall and are most likely to seek out products when cued to the season, said Elizabeth Webb, an assistant professor of marketing at Columbia Business School.

And by setting start and stop dates — many of the pumpkin products will disappear by the end of the year — retailers can foster an aura of scarcity and exclusivity. The tactic has helped propel the popularity of items such as McDonald's McRib sandwich and Oreo's limited-edition cookies.

"The question is whether companies are effectively moving forward a spike in sales or sustainably increasing sales over a longer time window," Webb said. "Move it forward too much, and you risk the same association people have with Christmas creep — that it's a greedy ploy to take advantage of the consumer."

Sales of pumpkin and pumpkin spice-flavored items soared to $414 million for the year that ended July 29, up 45 percent from $286 million in 2013, according to data available from Nielsen.

But the craze may be leveling off. Sales surged 20 percent from 2012 to 2013, then 12 percent the next year, then 10 percent in 2015 and in 2016.

(Bear in mind that pumpkin spice isn't actually made from pumpkins — it's usually a mix of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves, and used in pumpkin pie recipes.)

Pumpkin spice lattes have developed a reputation in some circles as the drink of choice for the so-called basic consumer — a pejorative term for someone who enjoys unoriginal, boring, mainstream pursuits and products.

Being branded as boring could threaten the longevity of a flavor made fashionable largely through social media. Plenty of food fads — unicorn foods, cake pops — have struggled to extend a hot streak of success.

Can pumpkin spice keep its mojo? Dunn is skeptical.

"Pumpkin spice has been a kind of moment that consumers have coalesced around — it fit with how the consumer is shopping and sharing these days, creating social currency," she said. "But now it seems like it might be beating a dead horse a little bit."

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