NEW YORK — On a recent evening in early November, shoppers at New York’s Bryant Park Holiday Market were in the holiday spirit long before Black Friday. The smell of pine drifted from the stalls of candle vendors, people bought gingerbread cookies and hot apple cider, and ice skaters swirled around the ice rink in the center of the market.
After two years of pandemic holidays during which people spent more money online, shoppers are back in force 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 Sallie Austin Gonzales, CEO of Beacon, New York-based soap company SallyeAnder. This is her 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 enjoying 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 United States over the past few decades, popping up in Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco and many other cities. In New York, the Grand Central Holiday Market and the Union Square Holiday Market began in 1993.
Urbanspace now operates three vacation marketplaces in New York: Bryant Park, Union Square and Columbus Circle. The pandemic put a damper on the festivities in 2020, when only a scaled-down Bryant Park opened. Last year, Bryant Park was open at capacity, but Union Square was at 80% and Columbus Circle at 50%. This year, not only are all three markets at capacity, Urbanspace is adding another in Brooklyn which opened on November 28. Sellers request ephemeral spaces and pay weekly or monthly rent to Urbanspace.
“We 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 am very optimistic.”
So far, foot traffic is up 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 one 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, the 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 jar of natural insect repellent have been 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 stores do a great job for us,” she said. “We see thousands and thousands of customers and get tons of new tips, ideas, suggestions and testimonials.”
For some small businesses, the markets are a welcome respite after a few trying 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 drop 80% in 2020.
Ryan is a founding member of the Union Square Greenmarket and a staple of Manhattan’s holiday markets, where she sells cider, cider donuts and gingerbread cookies. She said her orchard has largely recovered, thanks to a good apple harvest this year. But holiday markets are giving him a much-needed income boost.
“We love working for Holiday Markets, it has helped us a lot in overcoming many and varied issues,” she said.
Preparing for holiday markets is labor intensive, as many small businesses have to ship their goods miles away and spend long hours outfitting their stalls. Ryan’s farm is 100 miles north of town and Ryan drives most days. But being at the market and watching New York recover from the pandemic is worth it.
“The reopening of stores and the return of Christmas last year was very exuberant and joyful. I hope this year will be the same,” she said.
While holiday goers may be feeling the pinch of 40-year high inflation rates, Lisa Devo, owner of Soap & Paper Factory, a maker of candles and other scented products based in Nyack, New York, said that shoppers are always looking for an affordable treat or gift. Devo, which had a booth in Bryant Park for about seven years, has six or seven products under $25 and few items over $50. She had to raise some prices, for example, candles that used to be $28 are now selling for $32.
Buyers return year after year for his line of “Roland Pine” products, including candles and diffusers, which have a pine scent emanating from his stand. Devo calls the fragrance “the star of our business”.
“We’re a good thing for under $50,” she said. “People are going to spend $30 for a candle. It’s not like spending $10,000 on a couch or something. … I haven’t really seen much recoil.
Most of Soap & Paper Factory’s income comes from bulk orders, but selling items in marketplaces 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 good start.”
She said crowds seemed more robust than last year, although they still didn’t feel quite back to pre-pandemic levels of “normal”. She feels the fear of COVID-19 has faded and is happy to see fewer masks.
“So yeah, I think it’s good. It feels like things are kind of on the right track.
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