Starbucks. Picture TMG ENTERTAINMENT

Starbucks. Picture TMG ENTERTAINMENT

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Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. Picture: ISTOCK

Shop Talk: Sweet talk sometimes just doesn’t cut it

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When Starbucks launched in SA, Taste boss Carlo Gonzaga faced a gust of questions. Some, from twitchy investors, perhaps went along the lines of when (oh, when) they might get a meaningful return. There was the proprietary vanilla inquisition from news hounds: how many more stores would be opened, where would they be and lastly, was the coffee market in SA saturated? Snort.

And there was one question, impassioned and ceaseless: come September, would the Pumpkin Spice Latte be launched?

For the uninitiated, some Starbucks 101. The Pumpkin Spice Latte is a seasonal drink sold during fall (autumn to you and me, dear reader). It is made with steamed milk, espresso and what one calls "warm" spices like cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves.

Cue bearded coffee snobs and baristas recoiling in horror as they clutch their artisanal flat whites made with micro-textured milk.

The Pumpkin Spice Latte is finished with whipped cream and pumpkin pie spice — which can best be described as the love child of Mixed spice/pudding spice and Allspice (not a member of a 1990s band that shall remain nameless).

About 13 years ago the R&D folk at the Seattle-based coffee giant were working on a batch of fresh seasonal drink concepts — so, drinks they would launch for a limited time only. Apparently the pumpkin idea didn’t really fly in a preliminary market test so product developers worked on the taste some more. Add in some clever PR, and the beverage now has cult status as a harbinger for an entire season.

Keep in mind that from September to November, it’s pumpkin-palooza in the US — an all-out commercialisation of the humble cultivar of squash, from hummus to toothpaste to doggie treats. Last year, figures from market research firm Nielsen showed that sales of pumpkin products grew by 79% since 2011, totalling $361m in the year ending July 25 2015. Big US conglomerates get in on it — Dunkin’ Brands, McDonald’s, Kraft. Yes, the battle for pumpkin spice supremacy is a thing.

We’re not too big on pumpkin in SA, but we sure do like hype, particularly around consumer products. One only has to think back to the snaking queues at Burger King, Krispy Kreme and also at Starbucks’ first local store. And I am told that among us there are Slytherins, Ravenclaws, Gryffindors and Hufflepuffs who gathered at Exclusive Books for Harry Potter Midnight parties when the latest JK Rowling book was launched. For "reals".

Now, the foundation of seasonal product and also its cousin, limited edition, is built on hype. But there’s a greater (psychological) retail and marketing tactic at play: scarcity.

People tend to perceive a product as more appealing (and more valuable) if it’s not widely or readily available. Michael Lynn, a professor at Cornell in the US, published a paper about the psychology of unavailability and included a comprehensive list from psychologists on why scarcity enhances desirability. This stood out for me: The possession of unavailable resources provides a valued sense of self-uniqueness.

So when something is scarce and you have it, you feel special and different — dare I say, distinguished? You will not find a more ubiquitous example than the waiting list for a Hermès Birkin bag.

But other brands (mid- and high-tier, and across sectors from shoemakers like Nike to make-up brands like MAC) have used this strategy.

In much the same vein is a concept gaining traction, even in SA: pop-up stores.

Other than testing a market for expansion potential, the lifeblood of a pop-up store is scarcity.

Lift your hand if you stood in line to get a Magnum ice cream coated with pistachio and rose petal ... Rarity sells well.