Small businesses, shoppers, return to holiday markets in US

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New York, Nov. 24: In a recent evening in early November, shoppers at the Bryant Park holiday market in New York City were in the holiday spirit well before Black Friday. The scent of pine wafted from candle sellers’ booths, people snapped up gingerbread cookies and hot apple cider and ice skaters swirled figure eights around the rink in the centre of the market.

After two years of pandemic holidays when people spent more dollars online, shoppers are back in force in stores and at holiday markets. Small businesses say it is beginning 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 her second year at the Bryant Park market – officially called the Holiday Shops by Urbanspace at Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park.

Christmas markets have been popular in Germany and Austria, where they’re called Christkindlmarkets, and other parts of Europe for centuries. They’ve become more popular in the U.S. over the past few decades, springing up in Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, and many other cities. In New York, the Grand Central holiday market and the Union Square holiday market started in 1993.

Urbanspace now operates three holiday markets in New York: Bryant Park, Union Square and Columbus Circle. The pandemic put a damper on festivities in 2020, when only a scaled-back 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 opens Nov. 28. Vendors apply for pop-up spaces and pay weekly or monthly rent to Urbanspace.

So far, foot traffic is up slightly from last year as tourism continues to improve, Shelton said. While the number of tourists remains below 2019 levels, the 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 resonates with them. So far this year, her lemongrass and charcoal detoxifying soap and a tub of natural insect repellent are popular items. Like most businesses, she’s facing higher costs for everything from olive oil to paper bags. She’s raised the price of her soaps from $8 to $9.25.

For some small businesses, the markets are a welcome respite after a punishing 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 plunge 80% in 2020.

Ryan is a founding member of the Union Square Greenmarket and a long-time staple at the Manhattan holiday markets, where she sells cider, cider doughnuts and gingerbread cookies. She said her orchard has mainly recovered, with the help of a good apple crop this year. But holiday markets give her a much-needed revenue boost. (AP)

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