Local businesses and the Christmas market


York's Christmas market attracted thousands of people in 2022. Oliver Peter Smith talks to local business owners to understand what it's like to take part in.

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By Oliver Smith

For most businesses, December is the most important month in the financial calendar. Hoards of shoppers can be found in city markets and shopping centres, which in turn creates valuable profits for business owners and major corporations. In fact, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC), British households spend up to £800 over Christmas, making the festive season worth up to £42 billion to the UK economy. Moreover, this spending is more important than ever. After a torrid two years of COVID-19 restrictions, local businesses are looking to get back on their feet.

If any city is to be a great case study for local business, it’s York. According to the York Press, York had 11,911 businesses in the city and was ranked as the second-best city in the UK for small business in 2020. This creates numerous benefits for the city, but most significantly of all, it creates a remarkable amount of footfall in the centre of York. This footfall sees a massive increase over November and December thanks to the Christmas market, leading to significantly higher sales in and around the area.

The York Christmas markets, also known as the St Nicholas fair, has been running since 1992, making it a renowned staple of Christmas celebrations in York. In fact, in 2018, it was voted the best Christmas market in the country by the Association of British Market Authorities, and its success attracts thousands of people to York every year. Found at the Christmas market can be hundreds of small businesses, many from York itself, and many around North Yorkshire, making it remarkably important to the local economy. I’ve set out to discover the impact of the Christmas markets on local business by interviewing the very people who run them.

Avorium opened in November of 2021 in York, with a shop located on Colliergate. Founded by three siblings, Avorium sells workplace stationery, such as pens, notepads, mugs, and more, of which can also be found on an online website. Its location is perfect to capture high footfall, situated just one street over from the Shambles. The importance of Colliergate’s high footfall was duly noted by Tom, one of the three siblings who run Avorium, when I approached him for an interview with the Nouse. Tom went on to say that much of Avorium’s performance is “driven by footfall” and that a “busy York means busy streets”. It is no secret that the Christmas market heavily increases footfall in York, making the months of November and December remarkably important to local business.

When speaking to Tom, I was told that November and December have been, by far, the most successful months of the year for Avorium. This is likely to be the same case with most other local businesses in York, too. According to MakeitYork, 71% of visitors were influenced to come to York based on the Christmas market, with 3/10 people coming for the Christmas market alone. The importance of this to the footfall in York cannot be understated, alongside its importance to businesses such as Tom’s.

Further studies have emphasised the importance of city Christmas markets elsewhere, with the findings being relatable to York, too. According to a report written by the Local Government Association, “case study areas indicated that almost all people surveyed in their own independent surveys on customers visiting the Christmas market made additional purchases elsewhere in the town centre”.  The report went on to say that “in most venues there was a reported boost for shops and cafes close to the Christmas markets with many cafes having queues throughout the day, and car parking income also received a significant boost.” For shops such as Avorium, located just two streets away from York’s Christmas market, the impact is substantial, and may be essential to the survival of the classic British High Street.

However, Avorium don’t only have a shop on Colliergate, they also ran a stall at the Christmas markets themselves, too. When asked about the application process, Tom talked of a rigorous process. “Generally, you have to start thinking about the Christmas markets as soon as the new year begins”, with Tom going on to say that official applications begin around March, with a high price tag. In fact, it took Avorium around nine months to make the money back from the application process in March of 2022. Thankfully,  however, the Christmas market proved to be profitable for the shop, and even more important for increasing brand recognition. Moreover, the high price tag for running a stall at the Christmas market isn’t the only obstacle for small business owners. Staffing the stall required logistical efforts, with Avorium managing both their shop and the stall with just four employees.

Shops who sell at the Christmas market, such as Avorium, benefit from plenty of repeat customers. Tom talked of customers visiting the shop on Colliergate after making purchases at their stall, but more so, many repeat customers also visited their online website. Repeat customers are an excellent way for a small business to build a sustainable customer base and a stable revenue stream, meaning the York Christmas markets are of huge importance to the local economy, both during winter, and the period following.

Furthermore, Avorium isn’t the only shop located next to the Christmas markets whilst also choosing to run a stall. York Gin was founded in 2016, although they officially began trading in 2018. Located just opposite the Shambles, York Gin sells a variety of different gins, glasses, and even placemats. I spoke to Emma, the co-founder of York Gin, to build on my interview with Avorium and to discover more about the impact of the Christmas markets on local businesses in York.

Most importantly of all, I wanted to know about the direct benefits of running a stall at the Christmas markets to York Gin. When asked about this, Emma mentioned the ability to employ more people, increasing turnover, and increasing brand awareness. Just as mentioned by Tom, Emma also talked of two people being required to run the stall, and that the Christmas period is enormously important to the business. It is also important to note that the main benefit of running a stall at the Christmas market is not necessarily the increased revenue, with Emma saying that “revenue levels from the stall are not make or break”, but increased brand recognition. According to MakeitYork, there were over 140 pieces of media coverage at the Christmas market with a combined reach of over 19 million people.

However, Emma also spoke of the risks of running a stall at the Christmas market. As any student at the University of York can imagine, the weather in York can be unreliable. A bad spell of weather can seriously impact the number of people attending the Christmas market, and so too the number of people purchasing products. Even more significantly, Emma spoke of the “risks posed by industrial action” and its potential to block access for thousands of people across the country to York. While many of the Christmas market’s visitors come from in and around North Yorkshire, many come from afar, whether that be a train journey from Liverpool, Manchester, or even London. Therefore, the high price tag for running a stall at the Christmas market does not always guarantee great profits and success. As is the same for most business ventures, risk is always present.

Interviewing Tom and Emma was incredibly interesting, not only for the sake of discovering the impact of the Christmas market on local businesses in York, but also because of the opportunity to learn about the intense and rigid planning needed to prepare for the winter months. It was clear to me that local businesses heavily value the Christmas market in York, treating it as an opportunity to increase their brand recognition to the thousands of people who visit, increase annual revenues by capitalising on huge levels of footfall, and employing more people.

It is important to be reminded, however, of the risks. A hefty price tag, the dangers of industrial action, and the ever-present threat of bad weather can derail plans with ease. Moreover, the Christmas market in York is facing criticism. The BBC have reported that councillors have been told to expect changes for the 2023 Christmas market after the head of community safety at the council, Jane Mowat, expressed concerns about overcrowding. Large volumes of people struggled to fit into Parliament Street during this year's Christmas market, making it an unpleasant experience for those visiting at peak times. Mrs Mowat said that “I have absolutely no doubt that the level of crowds within the Christmas markets this year will be picked up by the safety advisory group”, and that “I would anticipate that that will probably result in some redesigning around the actual market itself, the spaces between the cabins, the exit and entry points and some of those issues."