Small businesses and shoppers are returning to the holiday markets

People shop for Christmas trinkets at Bryant Park’s Winter Village on November 15 in New York City. Julia Nickinson/Associated Press

NEW YORK — On a recent evening in early November, shoppers at New York’s Bryant Park Holiday Market were in a festive mood well ahead of Black Friday. The scent of pine wafted from the candle vendors’ booths, people grabbed gingerbread cookies and hot apple cider, and ice skaters turned figure eights around the rink in the center of the market.

After two years of pandemic holidays when people spent more dollars online, shoppers are once again active in stores and at holiday markets. Small businesses say it’s starting to feel a lot like Christmas, both emotionally and financially.

“It’s definitely been busier than last year,” said Sally Austin Gonzalez, CEO of Beacon, N.Y.-based soap company SallyeAnder. This is its second year at the Bryant Park Market – officially called the Holiday Shops by Urbanspace at the Bank of America Winter Village in Bryant Park.

“People are benefiting from being part of society again and walking around.”

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

Urbanspace now operates three holiday markets in New York City: Bryant Park, Union Square and Columbus Circle. The pandemic prevented the 2020 festivities, when only the scaled-down Bryant Park was open. Last year, Bryant Park was open at full capacity, but Union Square was at 80% capacity and Columbus Circle at 50%. This year, not only are all three markets at full capacity, Urbanspace is adding another in Brooklyn, opening on November 28th. Sellers apply for pop-up spaces and pay a weekly or monthly rent to Urbanspace.

“We received more applications than ever before, which tells us vendors are excited to get back into the pop-up game,” said Evan Shelton, Director of Pop-Up Markets at Urbanspace. “I’m very optimistic.”

So far, foot traffic is up slightly from last year as tourism continues to improve, Shelton said. Although tourist numbers remain below 2019 levels, travel trade group NYC & Company expects 56.4 million domestic and international visitors by the end of 2022, up 30% from a year ago. This is a good sign for small businesses, as the holiday shopping season can account for 20% of annual sales.

For Austin Gonzalez, CEO of SallyeAnder in Beacon, N.Y., the Bryant Park market is a way to meet new customers and see what resonates with them. So far this year, her Lemongrass Charcoal Detox Soap and Natural Insect Repellent Bath have been popular products. Like most businesses, it faces higher costs for everything from olive oil to paper bags. She raised the price of her soaps from $8 to $9.25.

“The holiday shops do a great job for us,” she said. “We see thousands and thousands of customers and get tons of new tips, ideas, suggestions and referrals.”

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

Ryan is a founding member of the Union Square Greenmarket and a longtime fixture at Manhattan’s holiday markets, where he sells cider, cider donuts and gingerbread. She said her orchard has mostly recovered with the help of a good crop of apples this year. But the holiday markets give her a much-needed boost to revenue.

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

Preparing for holiday markets is time-consuming because many small businesses must haul their goods from miles away and spend long hours staffing their stands. Ryan’s farm is 100 miles north of town and Ryan drives over almost every day. But being at the market and watching New York recover from the pandemic is worth the trouble.

“The reopening of shops and the return of Christmas last year was very bountiful and joyous. I hope this year is the same,” she said.

While holiday market-goers may be feeling the pinch from 40 years of high inflation, Lisa Deveau, owner of Soap & Paper Factory, a Nyack, N.Y.-based maker of candles and other scented products, said shoppers are still looking for affordable treatments or a 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 were $28 now retail for $32.

Shoppers return year after year for her “Roland Pine” line of products, including candles and diffusers, which has a pine scent wafting from her booth. Devo calls the fragrance “the star of our company.”

“We’re something that feels good for under $50,” she said. “People will spend $30 on a candle. It’s not like spending $10,000 on a couch or something. … I haven’t really seen a lot of pushback.”

Most of Soap & Paper Factory’s revenue comes 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 the crowds appear stronger than last year, although they still don’t feel fully back to “normal” pre-pandemic levels. She feels the fear of COVID-19 has lessened and is glad to see fewer masks.

“So yeah, I think it’s good. I feel like things are kind of coming back on track.”

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