NEW YORK (UKTN) — On a recent evening in early November, shoppers at New York City’s Bryant Park Holiday Market were in the holiday spirit well before Black Friday. The scent of pine wafted from candle vendor stalls, people snapped gingerbread cookies and hot apple cider, and ice skaters spun eights around the rink in the middle of the market.
After two years of pandemic holidays, with people spending more dollars online, shoppers are back in force in 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 in Beacon, New York. This is her second year at the Bryant Park Market – officially named the Holiday Shops by Urbanspace at Bank of America Winter Village in Bryant Park.
“People benefit from being part of society again and walking around.”
Christmas markets have been popular for centuries in Germany and Austria, where they are called Christkindlmarkets, and other parts of Europe. They have become increasingly popular in the US over the past few decades and have originated 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 New York vacation markets: 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 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 one in Brooklyn that will open on November 28. Sellers request pop-up spaces and pay weekly or monthly rent to Urbanspace.
“We’ve received more signups than ever before, which tells us that 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 slightly up from last year as tourism continues to improve, Shelton said. While tourist arrivals 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 shopping season can account for 20% of annual sales.
For Austin Gonzales, the CEO of SallyeAnder in Beacon, New York, the Bryant Park Market is a way to meet new customers and see what appeals to them. So far this year, her detoxifying soaps with lemongrass and charcoal and a tub of natural insect repellent are popular items. Like most businesses, she faces increased costs for everything from olive oil to paper bags. She has increased the price of her soap operas from $8 to $9.25.
“Holiday stores do a great job for us,” she said. “We see thousands and thousands of customers and get a lot of new advice, ideas, suggestions and testimonials.”
For some small businesses, the markets are a welcome relief after a rough few years. Elizabeth Ryan, owner and operator of Breezy Hill Orchard in Staatsburg, New York, said the initial onset of COVID-19 caused her sales to drop 80% in 2020.
A founding member of the Union Square Greenmarket, Ryan is a longtime fixture in Manhattan’s holiday markets selling cider, cider donuts and gingerbread cookies. She said her orchard has largely recovered, thanks to a good apple crop this year. But holiday markets give her a much-needed sales boost.
“We love working for the holiday markets, it has helped us a lot to get through different and diverse issues,” she said.
Preparing for holiday markets is labor intensive, as many small businesses have to lug their goods from miles away and spend long hours manning their stands. Ryan’s ranch is 100 miles north of town and Ryan drives past it almost every day. But being in the market and watching New York City recover from the pandemic is worth it.
“The reopening of the stores and the return of Christmas last year was very exuberant and joyful. I hope this year is the same,” she said.
While holiday market visitors may be feeling the 40-year high inflation rate, Lisa Devo, owner of Soap & Paper Factory, a Nyack, NY-based maker of candles and other fragrance 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, carries six or seven products under $25 and not many items over $50. She has had to raise some prices, for example candles that were $28 are now on sale for $32.
Shoppers return yearly 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 a good thing for under $50 bucks,” she said. “People spend $30 on a candle. It’s not like spending $10,000 in a bank or anything. … I haven’t really seen much relapse.
Most of Soap & Paper Factory’s revenue comes from wholesale orders, but selling items in markets for retail prices is 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 the crowds seem more robust than last year, though it still doesn’t feel quite 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 feels like things are back on track.