New York City holiday markets make a comeback

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On a recent Thusday afternoon in mid-November shoppers at the Bryant Park holiday market in New York City were in the holiday spirit, despite some unseasonably warm weather. 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 center 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.

“We’ve seen a lot more customers here able to interact with our products, smell our products, pick them up, touch them. We’re really happy with the amount of people we’re seeing and from all over the world, as well as local New York City”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 back 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.

The holiday shopping season of November and December is key for many businesses since it can account for 20% of annual sales. Preparing for holiday markets is labor intensive, because many small businesses have to schlep their goods from miles away and spend long hours staffing their booths. But small business owners say it’s worth the effort to connect with customers and promote their holiday wares.

For Austin Gonzales,the CEO of SallyeAnder in Beacon, New York, Bryant Park is a way to meet new customers and see what resonates with them.

“At Bryant Park, we get to meet tourists from all over country and people who live in the city as we try to make a name for ourselves in N.Y. state,” she said. “Holiday shops do a great job for us. 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 punishing few years.

“COVID was very challenging for our family bakery, as ridership in most transit hubs were down dramatically for a very long period of time. But we are starting to see the terminals come back to life. And you can really see the life and the energy here at Bryant Park this winter,” said Brian Zaro, 4th Generation Owner of Zaro’s Family Bakery.

Lisa Devo, owner of Soap & Paper Factory, a Nyack, N.Y.-based maker of candles and other scented products, said she is really happy to see the return of foreign tourists.

“A lot more tourists from overseas. Yeah, again, which feels great. And, you know, when you’re selling, we’re talking and you’re hearing their stories of like, you know, they haven’t been overseas for a couple of years and they’re so happy to be here. So it’s a very kind of it’s not just coming to New York for Christmas. It’s like emotional, like we’re all together here,” siad Devo.

Shoppers return yearly for her products “Roland Pine” line of products including candles and diffusers, which has a piney scent that wafts out of her booth . A number of products are infused with the scent, which Devo calls “the star of our company.”

For tourists like Donna Hudson, from Charleston, Illinois, the holiday markets are a refeshing shopping expericence, after years of online-shopping during the pandemic.

“So did almost all my shopping online in the last few years. And we’ll still do some of that this year, too. But it’s there’s nothing like being out and about seeing actual merchants and people making and selling things. It’s really fun,” said Hudson.