Small businesses and shoppers return to the Christmas markets

Small business holiday markets

People buy Christmas decorations in Bryant Park’s Winter Village on November 15 in New York. Julia Nikhinson/Associated Press

NEW YORK — On an early November evening, shoppers at the Bryant Park holiday market in New York City were in the holiday spirit well before Black Friday. The scent of pine trees wafted from the candle vendors’ stalls, people snapped up gingerbread cookies and hot cider, and ice skaters twirled eights around the ice rink in the middle of the market.

After two years of pandemic holidays that saw people spend more dollars online, shoppers in stores and at Christmas markets are back in force. Small businesses say it feels a lot like Christmas, both emotionally and financially.

“It was definitely busier than last year,” said Sallie Austin Gonzales, CEO of Beacon, New York-based soap company SallyeAnder. This is their second year at the Bryant Park Market – officially called Holiday Shops by Urbanspace at the Bank of America Winter Village in Bryant Park.

“People are taking advantage of being part of society again and walking around.”

Christmas markets have been popular in Germany and Austria, where they are called Christkindlmärkte, and other parts of Europe for centuries. They have become increasingly popular in the US over the past few decades, sprouting up in Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco and many other cities. In New York, Grand Central Holiday Market and Union Square Holiday Market began in 1993.

Urbanspace now operates three vacation markets in New York: Bryant Park, Union Square and Columbus Circle. The pandemic put a damper on celebrations in 2020, when only a scaled-down Bryant Park opened. Last year, Bryant Park was open to capacity, but Union Square was at 80% capacity and Columbus Circle was at 50% capacity. This year, not only are all three stores at full capacity, Urbanspace is adding another in Brooklyn, opening November 28. Vendors compete for pop-up space and pay Urbanspace a weekly or monthly rent.

“We’ve received more applications than ever before, which tells us vendors are excited to be back in the pop-up game,” said Evan Shelton, director of pop-up markets at Urbanspace. “I’m very optimistic.”

So far, foot traffic has increased slightly from a year ago as tourism continues to improve, Shelton said. While tourist numbers remain below 2019 levels, tourism trade group NYC & Company expects 56.4 million domestic and international visitors by the end of 2022, up 30% from a year ago. That bodes well for small businesses, as the holiday season can account for 20% of annual sales.

For Austin Gonzales, CEO of SallyeAnder in Beacon, New York, the Bryant Park store is a way to meet new customers and see what resonates with them. So far this year, her lemongrass and charcoal detox soap and tub of natural bug repellent are popular items. Like most businesses, she faces higher costs for everything from olive oil to paper bags. She raised the price of her soaps from $8 to $9.25.

“Holiday shops do a great job for us,” she said. “We see thousands and thousands of customers and we get tons of new advice, ideas, suggestions and testimonials.”

For some small businesses, the markets are a welcome respite after a busy few years. Elizabeth Ryan, who owns and operates Breezy Hill Orchard in Staatsburg, New York, said the initial outbreak of COVID-19 caused her revenue to plummet by 80% in 2020.

Ryan is a founding member of the Union Square Greenmarket and has long been a fixture at Manhattan’s Christmas markets, selling cider, cider donuts and gingerbread. She said her orchard has mostly recovered, helped by a good apple harvest this year. But Christmas markets are giving her a much-needed boost in sales.

“We love working for the holiday markets, it’s helped us a lot to overcome various problems,” she said.

Preparing for holiday markets is labor-intensive, as many small businesses must haul their wares for miles and spend many hours staffing their stalls. Ryan’s farm is 100 miles north of town and Ryan drives here almost every day. But being in the market and watching New York City recover from the pandemic is well worth the effort.

“The reopening of shops and the return of Christmas this past year has been very boisterous and joyful. I hope it’s the same this year,” she said.

While holiday market-goers may feel the pinch of 40-year-high inflation rates, Lisa Devo, owner of Soap & Paper Factory, a Nyack, NY-based maker of candles and other scented products, said shoppers are still looking for an affordable treat or gift. Devo, which has had a booth in Bryant Park for about seven years, has six or seven products under $25 and not many items over $50. She had to raise some prices, for example candles that cost $28 now retail for $32.

Shoppers return year after year for their “Roland Pine” line of products, including candles and diffusers that have a pine scent that wafts from their booth. Devo calls the fragrance “the star of our company”.

“We’re a feel-good thing for under $50,” she said. “People spend $30 on a candle. It’s not like spending $10,000 on a couch or anything. … I haven’t really seen a lot of headwinds.”

Most of Soap & Paper Factory’s sales come from wholesale orders, but selling items in markets at retail prices provides a boost. “We’re hoping for a great year – we compare our numbers every year and we’re off to a great start.”

She said crowds appear to be more resilient than last year, although they still don’t feel quite back to “normal” pre-pandemic levels. She feels fear of COVID-19 has eased and is happy to see fewer masks.

“Well yeah, I think it’s good. It feels like things are kinda back on track.

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