On a recent evening in early November, shoppers at New York City’s Bryant Park Christmas Market were in the holiday spirit well before Black Friday. The scent of pine wafted from the candle vendor stalls, people munched on gingerbread cookies and warm apple cider, and ice skaters spun figure eights around the rink at the center of the market.
After two years of pandemic holidays where people spent more dollars online, shoppers are back in force at stores and 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 Sallie Austin Gonzales, CEO of soap company SallyeAnder based in Beacon, New York. 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 taking advantage of being a part of society again and walking around.”
Christmas markets have been popular in Germany and Austria, where they are called Christkindlmarkets, and in other parts of Europe for centuries. They have become more popular in the United States in recent 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 began in 1993.
Urbanspace now operates three holiday markets in NYC: Bryant Park, Union Square and Columbus Circle. The pandemic put a damper on celebrations in 2020, when only a smaller-scale Bryant Park opened. Bryant Park opened at full capacity last year, but Union Square was 80% and Columbus Circle was 50%. This year, not only are all three markets at full capacity, but Urbanspace is adding another one in Brooklyn that opens on November 18. 28. Vendors request pop-up spaces and pay weekly or monthly rent to Urbanspace.
“We’ve received more inquiries 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. While tourist numbers remain below 2019 levels, tourism trade group NYC & Company forecasts 56.4 million domestic and international visitors by the end of 2022, up 30 percent from a year ago. This bodes well for small businesses as the holiday shopping season can account for 20% of annual sales.
For Austin Gonzales, CEO of SallyeAnder in Beacon, New York, Bryant Park Market is a way to meet new customers and see what resonates with them. So far this year, her lemongrass and charcoal detox soap and a tub of natural bug repellent are popular items. Like most businesses, it faces higher costs for everything from olive oil to paper bags. He raised the price of his soaps from $8 to $9.25.
“Holiday Shops do a great job for us,” she said. “We see thousands and thousands of customers and get tons of new advice, ideas, suggestions and testimonials.”
For some small businesses, the markets are a welcome respite after a tough couple of years. Elizabeth Ryan, who owns and operates Breezy Hill Orchard in Staatsburg, New York, said the initial onset of COVID-19 caused her revenue to plummet 80% in 2020.
Ryan is a founding member of the Union Square Greenmarket and a longtime staple of Manhattan holiday markets, where he sells cider, cider donuts and gingerbread cookies. He said his orchard has basically recovered, with the help of a good apple crop this year. But the holiday markets give her a much-needed income boost.
“We enjoy working for the holiday markets, it has helped us a lot to overcome various and various problems,” he said.
Preparing for the holiday markets is labor intensive, because many small businesses have to transport their goods miles away and spend long hours tending their booths. Ryan’s farm is 100 miles north of town, and Ryan comes nearly every day. But being in the market and watching New York City recover from the pandemic is worth it.
“The reopening of the shops and the return of Christmas last year was very exuberant and joyful. I hope this year is the same,” she said.
While holiday market goers may be feeling the pinch of 40-year high inflation rates, Lisa Devo, owner of Soap & Paper Factory, a manufacturer of candles and other scented products based in Nyack, New York, said holidaymakers Buyers are still looking for an affordable treat or gift. Devo, who has had a booth in Bryant Park for about seven years, has six or seven products under $25 and a few items over $50. She has had to raise some prices, such as candles that cost $28 now retailing for $32.
Shoppers return each year for his “Roland Pine” line of products, including candles and diffusers, which has a pine scent wafting from his booth. Devo calls the perfume “the star of our company”.
“We’re a nice thing for under $50 dollars,” he said. “People are going to spend $30 on a candle. It’s not like spending $10,000 on a sofa or something. … I haven’t seen many pushbacks.
Most of Soap & Paper Factory’s revenue comes from bulk 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.”
He said the crowd seems more robust than last year, though it still doesn’t appear to be back to pre-pandemic levels of “normal.” She feels the fear of COVID-19 has subsided and is happy to see fewer masks.
“So yeah, I think it’s good. It seems that things are back on the same path.