By Sabina Mollot
As national retailers lament a soft Christmas selling season, small businesses have found holiday markets to be a sweet spot.
Vendors are paying up to $15,000 for a five-week run at the Union Square Holiday Market run by Urban Space, according to one stall holder.
“It’s the busiest hub in the city,” said the vendor, who was selling t-shirts to holiday shoppers looking for one-of-a-kind gifts and crafts, which the market specializes in.
He, like the majority of merchants there, are repeat tenants, and those thinking of becoming one might want to sign up soon.
Rachel Van Dolsen, a spokeswoman for Urban Space, said that the “footprint” for the event has gotten as big as it’s going to get.
The news is welcome on a retail landscape that has produced a mixed bag this year.
According top ShopperTrak, U.S. retail store sales fell 0.8 percent year on year for the week that ended on December 15, while store foot traffic plunged 19.9 percent.
Saturday, December 14, experienced a particularly large decline in retail sales and traffic when snow battered much of the country.
“Last weekend’s extreme weather prevented many consumers from completing their holiday shopping,” said Bill Martin, the founder of ShopperTrak. “But those items remain on their shopping lists and we expect these individuals will add to the high levels of in-store shopper activity we usually see the weekend before Christmas.”
The International Council of Shopping Centers has called the season’s sales “sluggish.ˮ
But there was no sign of lethargy at Union Square last week. Along with its location on top of an entrance to the Union Square subway, the market has become a hit with shoppers looking for items that are handmade or hard to find as opposed to mass-produced items, which Urban Space doesn’t allow.
Last year the amount of money the company shelled out to the city in exchange for use of the park was $1,378,972, so even without official numbers, it’s clear the bustling bazaar must do pretty well for the organizer. The city of course makes out too, with its cut going to a general fund.
Of course, being that the event runs throughout one of the year’s coldest months, even with the built-in foot traffic, there are still going to be retailers who don’t want to conduct business outdoors as well as businesses that wouldn’t be able to sell effectively in one of the stalls.
As Faith Hope Consolo, a broker for the real estate firm Douglas Elliman, explained it, “The holiday market is for a very specific customer, and if that retailer sells products for that shopper, sure, it makes sense to go there.
“These can include holiday decorations, ornaments, one-of-a-kind gifts. But a pop-up probably makes more sense for apparel. You might want to try on something, and an outdoor market is not the place for that.”
Electronics are also not a big seller at markets, noted Consolo, though accessories are.
At this time, asking rents for retail spaces around Union Square are around $60 per square foot to $90 per square foot on the side streets, while asking rents on the avenues are a whopping $400 per square foot. The rent gets higher closer to Flatiron, added Consolo. And of course, these are the prices for longterm leases, not pop-up shop spaces, which around holiday time, are hard to come by.
“There are fewer pop-up opportunities at the holidays because many retailers will lease a holiday shop well in advance,” said Consolo. “But someone can always find something if they look long and hard enough.”
Ultimately, as for whether it makes more sense to rent at the market or at a store, “Holiday markets have the same rule of thumb as any retail site,” said Consolo.
“Better locations have higher rents. You pay more to be near entrances, etc. And Union Square certainly is bustling as more retailers, restaurants and services open to appeal to all the high-tech workers and residents there.”