The pandemic and social media have fostered an intense level of commitment from collectors, as well as fraudsters creating fake cups
Most people who love Starbucks are in it for the drinks. Whether you’re obsessed with dirty chai lattes or love the sugar rush of a white chocolate mocha Frappuccino, it’s what’s inside the cup that you care most about. But for a growing number of seriously devoted collectors, Starbucks’s reusable cold cups, tumblers, and mugs are the number-one real draw, so much so that people are hitting upwards of 20 Starbucks locations in a single morning — driven not by the caffeine in their veins, but the hope of scoring the most coveted new releases.
Obviously, we’re not talking about Starbucks’s regular, disposable paper cups or cold-drink single-use plastic cups. These collectors are obsessed with Starbucks limited merch, like hard plastic tumblers decorated with flowers or iced coffee cups made from recycled glass. The drinkware retails between $20 and $30, and is almost always sold out on the Starbucks website. Which means that collectors have to visit the stores or make a foray into a secondary market that is both thriving and competitive.
Ashley Spaulding, a collector in Fort Worth, Texas, got her first reusable Starbucks cup as a gift from her husband in 2017. Over the next couple of years, she slowly collected more cups and became involved in online Facebook groups for cup collectors. Things really changed in 2019, though, when Starbucks released its now-iconic matte black studded tumbler for cold drinks. “I fell in love with that studded look,” she says. “And it just opened up a whole new world for me, and then I really got into it.”
Scattered across Facebook groups, Instagram accounts, and reselling platforms like eBay and Poshmark, this secondary market gives collectors the opportunity to score special-edition, limited-release cups that are only available in certain locales. Hundreds of seriously dedicated resellers wake up in the wee hours of the morning, sometimes forming lines outside Starbucks locations, to clear the shelves of newly released tumblers before anyone ever orders a cup of coffee.
That shared level of intense commitment has produced a great deal of camaraderie in these groups, with collectors making close friends with the folks they’re selling to and buying from. It’s not uncommon for collectors to post photos in their Facebook groups of what’s available at their nearby Starbucks while they’re actually at the store, willing to snap up cups for those who can’t make it out for the hunt. Spaulding doesn’t consider herself a reseller, but does occasionally snag duplicates when she’s out shopping to help her fellow cup enthusiasts find the specific colors and prints they want.
When the cups hit the secondary market, it’s often at a pretty substantial mark-up. Spaulding’s first beloved cup retails for $24.95 at Starbucks, but sells for as much as $50 on eBay. A clear cup decorated with pink alpacas from a 2019 collection released only in China sold on December 4 for $1,075.99, and a 2009 mug from a store in Corfu, Greece, fetched a whopping $1,875 in late November. In Starbucks cup collector groups, most of which are private, it’s not uncommon to see even less-rare cups selling for $100 or more.
The resale market really ramped up during the pandemic, as cup collectors found themselves stuck at home and many actual retail locations were closed. They started buying cups from previous collections released in China, Hong Kong, Australia, and other locales, and trading amongst themselves. In May 2020, Poshmark CEO Manish Chandra told CNN Business that his site had seen a 100 percent increase in sales of Starbucks merchandise, much of it centered around cups and mugs.
And of course, a market this hot has predictably inspired some fraud. The Facebook groups for Starbucks cup collectors are replete with warnings about scammers who take a collector’s money for a cup, never ship it, then ghost. Other scammers steal photos from legitimate cup sellers and try to pass them off as their own. Counterfeits are also surprisingly common, which means that collectors have to inspect each and every online photo for specific details like the cup’s barcode to discern whether or not it is legit.
According to Spaulding, Starbucks baristas are an invaluable resource, often providing intel to Facebook groups and Instagram gossip accounts on when Starbucks will debut new merchandise in stores. “We’ll get a heads up about basically all the release dates of the year, and on release days, a lot of us collectors are waiting at the store before it opens so that we have a chance to grab what we’re really hoping to get,” she says.
It’s a little surprising that Starbucks baristas are, at least anonymously, willing to help cup collectors. Back in November, baristas began sharing their experiences with merch obsessives on TikTok, saying that they’ve been harassed and assaulted for refusing to sell as many as 42 cups at a time to resellers.
The company itself is less willing to get involved in the Starbucks cup craze. When Eater reached out for comment, it declined to make a representative available, but did provide a statement on how the popularity of its reusable cups will help the company meet its sustainability goals. “We know our customers look forward to new drinkware at Starbucks each season, with some even taking up collections, and we love being able to bring a moment of joy to their day,” the company said. “Customer adoption of reusable cups is one part of Starbucks’s ongoing commitment to reduce single-use cup waste.”
Mostly, though, Starbucks cups collectors don’t seem to be actually using their cups for Starbucks drinks. Now that the brand sells its coffee, syrups, and other accoutrements in both its own cafes and grocery stores, it’s easy enough — and cheaper — to make your own iced lattes at home. “It’s just fun to walk around with a pretty cup,” Spaulding says.