Prepping For The Fall Of Pumpkin Spice

Ghirardelli offers a pumpkin spice chocolate as part of a larger fall assortment pack.

Every year for the past five years the same question is asked among the candy and snack industries — “Has pumpkin spice hit its peak?”

From cosmetics and toothpaste to pet food and mustard, the flavor trend seems like it’s everywhere and it just keeps growing. That’s because it is and it has. In 2015, pumpkin-flavored products sold more than $385 million across all departments, according to The Nielsen Co., which is a 13.2 percent increase compared with the previous year. In the same period, more than 151 million items were created to generate that cash flow, which is an increase of 10.9 percent.

Pumpkin spice is big, it’s growing and it’s here to stay, at least for a while longer. However, it’s not growing for every sector, and where sales are up, the trend shows snacks winning over confections.

Pie fillings, coffees and creams have remained atop the list of best selling pumpkin items for years, according to data from Nielsen, but segments such as ready-to-eat cereal, yogurt, nuts and salty snacks are the other current leaders among this flavor trend, out pacing all other sweets except ice cream.

Baking supplies are expanding rapidly with sales up 215 percent in 2015, with gum and ready-to-eat desserts also showing promising sales.

“There obviously have been a large number of categories outside of candy that continue to focus on pumpkin spice for the fall season, resulting in numerous product introductions that account for the broader rise in the flavor overall,” says Peter Goldman, director of Brach’s and seasonal confections at Ferrara Candy Co., Inc. “While I’m not sure if pumpkin spice has peaked, per se, across all categories, we would not be surprised if pumpkin has plateaued a bit for confections.”

In fact, candy saw a 100 percent decrease in sales from the flavor trend between 2014 and 2015, just the latest in a multiyear decline for the sector, Nielsen reports.

As a result, Goldman says the company is reducing distribution of pumpkin spice flavored-candy canes.

Manufacturers know the tend can’t last forever, so consumers are bound to see myriad new flavors this fall as suppliers look for the next trend. But, pumpkin spice isn’t going anywhere fast, because, simply put, consumers still want it and there’s no clear successor — yet.

Hostess Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes
Hostess Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes

Replacing Pumpkin Spice

Caramel apple, cinnamon spice, maple, pecan pie, chai, apple cinnamon, snickerdoodle, brown butter, maple syrup, brown sugar, candy corn, hot cocoa, cranberry and ginger are just some of the fall flavors up for the top spot this fall, manufacturers tell Candy & Snack TODAY.

The flavor mentioned more than any other though is salted caramel, a taste already utilized at Starbucks Corp., which is widely regarded as the birthplace of the pumpkin spice trend.

“We may have hit a pumpkin spice peak, but I know people can’t wait for Starbucks to offer its Pumpkin Spice Lattes every year so I don’t think the flavor is going away,” says Jan Stevenot, general manager of marketing at Galerie. “You will see other flavors start to infiltrate in 2016, where pumpkin spice will remain a front runner, but it will likely face competition from other up and coming flavors.”

But, when choosing a successor, there is more to consider than just taste, the merchandising scheme has to be a right fit too. Pumpkin comes with natural colors, which connote the beginning of the season, a cultural barrier proving hard to overcome.

“Pumpkin flavor is so iconic for the fall — the orange color, the spicy notes, the references to pumpkin pie, Halloween and Thanksgiving celebrations,” says Ellen Copaken, vice-president of marketing at Hostess Brands, LLC. “It has a timeless connection to the season, which helps it stick around as a classic seasonal flavor.”

The peak of the fall flavor lineup also falls at an odd time for manufacturers, stuck in the middle of back-to-school releases and Halloween. Given retailers have limited floor space, Melanie Leyden, director of marketing on seasonal confections for Ghirardelli Chocolate Co., says it can be a fight to get displays in front of consumers.

“Sometimes Halloween wins out and the retailers don’t find opportunities to get the display with pumpkin spice out on the floor,” Leyden says. “It’s about getting it out even earlier but then we’re fighting against back to school . . . There’s definitely growing interest on the part of retailers to do something in response to the fall flavor.”

The other thing pumpkin spice has going for it, which competitors could utilize, is its potential to tap into the natural and organic trend sweeping all food categories.

Copaken says this is a strategy already utilized with pumpkin flavors and it’s something consumers will start to see come to other natural flavors, especially in RTE baked goods.

“Real pumpkin is an ingredient that blends nicely into packaged goods formulations.  It definitely leverages consumer interest in real ingredients,” Copaken explains. “Competing flavors could do the same. Using real apples, real cranberries, real cinnamon and sugar, could help other flavors be perceived as natural or more homemade.”

PEEPS Pumpkin Spice Chicks
PEEPS Pumpkin Spice Chicks

Where Pumpkin Spice Is Growing

RTE pumpkin desserts generated $551,911 in 2015, Nielsen reports, and while that represents a 23.6 percent decrease compared to the year prior, the sector grew by 484 percent between 2013 and 2014.

A report from Packaged Facts backs up these findings, claiming the RTE baked goods sector is poised to grow 3 percent by 2019. Pumpkin has been a big part of that growth.

“While consumers are more health-minded these days they are willing to pay more for convenience and quality products,” says Carman Allison, vice-president of consumer insights for Nielsen. “Consumers are eager for products that are convenient and make their lives easier, RTE desserts satisfy this desire for quick and easy indulgent items.”

However, this trend for quick and easy is paralleled by a trend toward more home baking.

The number of baking supply items more than tripled between 2014 and 2015, according to Nielsen. Those items are driving confectionery growth in pumpkin with $1.7 million in sales, which is a 1,562 percent increase from just three years ago.

“Pumpkin product sales spike in the weeks leading up to major holidays,” Allison notes. “Pumpkin is a prime ingredient in many holiday desserts and many consumers are trying to eat a more natural diet.”

Noelle Porcoro, Peeps brand manager for Just Born, Inc., says the company has been able to riff off this trend and turn the marshmallow treat into something consumers pair with their regular holiday baking regiment.

“The beauty is it’s not just an indulgent treat, but it also lends itself well to crafting, baking and toppers,” Porcoro says.

As fall flavors such as cranberry, cinnamon apple and more come to the forefront to challenge pumpkin’s dominance, manufacturers will look to tap into these existing trends, from natural to baking, in order to leverage a new king of fall flavors.

Still, Allison recognizes that as more products become available the more fragmented sales will be, adding: “While it’s always important to stay on trend with consumer flavor preferences, in the end consumers decide if flavor trends will stay popular and which products they will flock to.” CST

A version of this article originally appeared in the January/ February 2016 issue of Candy & Snack TODAY.