Starbucks' Red Cup Day Drooped In 2023

The annual holiday Starbucks promotion failed to draw as much foot traffic this year.

Starbucks, as we've known for a long time, relies on a few key events throughout the year to generate momentary hype and sustained revenues. This year's release day for the Pumpkin Spice Latte, for example, saw record foot traffic, and the chain's holiday menu rollout enticed customers with cup designs featuring the all-new addition of magenta (incredible "She's got a new hat!" energy). But one Starbucks promotion seems to have fallen flat this year: Red Cup Day, in which customers receive a free reusable cup with the purchase of a holiday drink, saw only a modest boost in foot traffic in 2023, versus the certifiable spikes of previous years.

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Starbucks’ holiday performance and Red Cup Day 2023

According to analytics firm Placer.ai, Red Cup Day (November 16) did indeed result in a noticeable rise in foot traffic, but that increase was far below that of 2022, 2021, and 2020. Compared to the average foot traffic of the five weeks preceding Red Cup Day, the 2023 event saw a 31.7% bump, versus prior Red Cup Day boosts of 81%, 65%, and 74.4%, respectively.

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It's not just Red Cup Day that drew tepid reactions, either. The holiday rollout as a whole (which began November 2) has seen less foot traffic year-over-year compared to 2022. It could be that people aren't quite ready to indulge in these seasonal treats until after Thanksgiving, when the winter holiday season begins in earnest, but a few other factors might be in play, too.

For one thing, this year's holiday beverage lineup didn't inspire a ton of excitement. There are many returning drinks in 2023, including the perennial Peppermint Mocha, the Chestnut Praline Latte, and the Sugar Plum Cheese Danish. The only new beverage this winter is the Iced Gingerbread Chai Oatmilk Latte (also served hot), and while it tastes just fine, it lacks the distinct gingerbread flavor that would have helped it feel like a holiday drink. Starbucks' decision to most heavily promote the new iced beverage rather than its hot counterpart seems like a calculated business move, but despite high demand for iced beverages at Starbucks, cold drinks are a bit at odds with cozy December vibes (and they can't even be served in the fun red cups).

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Another potential reason for lower foot traffic on Red Cup Day is the fact that Starbucks Workers United, a growing nationwide union with thousands of members at hundreds of U.S. locations, has begun coordinating a highly visible demonstrations on the day of this much-hyped event. The Red Cup Rebellion, started in 2022, invites Starbucks baristas, shift supervisors, and customers to "walk out in solidarity alongside thousands of Starbucks Workers United baristas to protest Starbucks unfair labor practices." Some workers told The New York Times that events such as Red Cup Day highlight the strain on baristas to keep up with incredible demand. Even if the walkout didn't stop regulars from ordering their usual on November 16, it definitely garnered significant coverage from the nation's most prominent news outlets.

Finally, as much as Americans love a giveaway, is it possible that maybe, just maybe, some segment of the U.S. population has decided that we don't need to rush out the door to Starbucks to obtain our 647th reusable coffee cup? Those things are even harder to find kitchen space for than the zillion promotional tote bags companies give out as freebies each year, and once you have one or two, you're pretty much set. Maybe Red Cup Day should pivot to Cake Pop Day and see what happens.

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