How Collectible Starbucks Cups Became Millennials' Under-the-Radar Obsession
At first glance, they look like a ransom note your college roommate might have sent you as retribution for eating her Ben & Jerry’s without asking: A photo, posted to Facebook, showing a Starbucks tumbler alongside a note with the date, the poster’s name and, often, a series of acronyms that make no sense to the casual observer. But to a collector, it’s just the information they need to ensure they aren’t getting scammed, especially if they’re thinking of dropping $100 or more on a reusable cup. Yes, one cup.
The posts appear on Poshmark, Mercari, Etsy and eBay, but arguably, the most activity occurs on Facebook, where Marketplace is flooded with resellers and custom cup-makers alike, and Facebook Groups boast tens of thousands of members, all selling and trading their finds. We’re not talking about the clear plastic cups you see by the shelf-full at stores. As Starbucks has rolled out more and more limited-edition Cold Cups—aka the tumblers designed for their iced drinks—a hardcore fandom has emerged. One that owns its love of the siren-logoed chain (“basic” connotations be damned), is not afraid to visit several stores in a day to score a rare find and has a keen eye for the styles that will be in highest demand.
HOW IT STARTED
Starbucks launched its reusable Cold Cups in 2018, and in no time, people started snapping them up. The appeal is simple: “They’re cute and functional,” explains Charisma Starke, who started collecting that year, sharing any new Starbucks cup finds on her Instagram account. It was a chance to be a little more eco-friendly, as more people started to avoid single-use plastics, and an opportunity to infuse your caffeine habit with a little personality.
Plus, they were a great last-minute present to have on hand: “Most people like them,” Starke adds, “so you can gift them to family and friends for birthdays and holidays.”
But the drinkware really didn’t take off as collectors’ items until Fall 2019, when the LBD of tumblers emerged—the studded, matte black Cold Cup. Every collector we spoke to could name it immediately, and its launch coincides with the first major spike in Google searches for “Starbucks reusable cups.”
“When black matte came out, even I coveted it,” says Étienne Garafano of California. At the time, she was helping a friend manage the Starbucks Cups Hunt Facebook group. Her then-boyfriend was a barista, and she liked the cups, but she didn’t consider herself a collector.
That cup changed things for her, and she started getting into the thrill of the search. “There’s something nice about hunting one down; it’s this feeling of power,” Garafano explains. “I’m guilty of going store-to-store to find [a specific cup]. I think five stores in a day was my max.”
Plus, as the group grew—swelling from 50 members to 20,200 and climbing—friendships formed online as people bonded while sharing tips for uncovering rare designs and trading tumblers they’d found.
HOW IT’S GOING
At the same time, the matte black cup that started it all began to decline in popularity (Starbucks released more, reducing overall demand) and the most sought-after designs became international finds.
“The international ones have more variety—there are iridescent cups and rainbow and oil slick designs,” Starke says. They also tend to deviate more from Starbucks’s traditional aesthetic, with more whimsical styles, like a ceramic cup in the shape of a bear wearing swim goggles, popping out of a melting ice cream cone. While most tumblers cost about $20 to $30 in stores, that design was listed for $100, plus international shipping costs, and it sold within two hours of being posted.
Still, that’s hardly the highest a cup will go for. When a studded, iridescent tumbler, known as the Unicorn Cup, hit the market, “you couldn’t get your hands on one,” Garafano says. “If you found it, it was $300 easily.”
While overseas collections can garner the highest prices, there’s also a solid resale market stateside—especially if you can get your hands on a new design before it officially launches (say, if you visit a store that’s stocked their shelves a few days early).
“I’ve seen a $20 cup go for $100, $120, but once you get closer to the launch date, the price drops,” Starke says. “If a launch is February 1st, and a store got them on January 10th, for example, some people are willing to pay hundreds because it’s new. It’s a hype thing. Some people can’t wait.”
Starbucks launches new drinkware designs about six times a year, a spokesperson confirmed, timing them to the seasons and major holidays, like Valentine’s Day and Pride. The brand is also known to drop special edition merch that’s exclusive to certain licensed stores, like ones in grocery stores and airports.
“Licensed stores, from what I’ve heard from managers there, can place a big order, so you might see more cups there than in a stand-alone Starbucks,” Starke says. And, to prevent a few people from buying up the whole inventory, they’ll often limit the number of cups you can buy.
Even then, a popular tumbler can disappear quickly.
“In places like California, there’s a lot of resellers, so there’s a lesser chance of getting a cup,” she says. Some resellers befriend employees and call stores to find out when new products will launch so they can be first in line when they’re stocked.
While the steep competition—and prospect of making $80 off a $20 cup—can be alluring, the thrill of the chase fizzles quickly when you’re racing from store to store, trying to get your hands on a particular design.
“In the past, I resold to friends or followers, but it got stressful,” Starke says. “If you found seven cups but needed ten for people, you’d have to say sorry to three. Plus, you have to drive to stores, and you need to factor in your time, your gas, packaging and shipping it. If the cup breaks while shipping, you take that loss. It wasn’t worth it to me.”
She still collects cups—mostly just the studded designs—and shares photos of new finds she spots in stores to Instagram.
Similarly, Garafano has taken a step back. She’s no longer actively moderating the Facebook group. “I was living and breathing Starbucks cups daily,” she says. Her inbox was full of people asking questions or wanting their listings approved, and it was all getting to be a bit too much.
Still, that doesn’t mean she’s totally out of the game. To Garafano, whose collection tops out at about ten cups—compared to some collectors, who boast more than 100—it’s less about what’s popular and more about what resonates with her. Though sometimes, those circles overlap. Then it’s game on.
“I have a friend who’s a flight attendant, and she helped me find the last one I got—it was a Hawaii exclusive,” she says. “It looks like a pineapple. I love it; it’s so cute.”
Clearly, it pays to have friends in high places—literally.
WANT IN? HERE’S HOW TO SHOP LIKE A PRO:
- Compare the price to other listings online. Does it seem comparable? Is it a pre-launch? (If so, waiting until the day before the launch could result in a lower price, Starke says.)
- Do a reverse image search. Click on the camera icon to the right of the Google Image Search bar and upload a pic of the tumbler being sold. If it appears on multiple sites from different sellers, there’s a good chance someone’s using a screenshot of another person’s wares and pretending its theirs.
- Ask for a photo with the person’s name and date in it. This ensures the product is actually theirs—and currently in their possession.
- Make sure their name matches with their PayPal name. If it doesn’t, that’s a red flag, Garafano says.
- Pay using PayPal or another service that offers purchase protection.