Nothing says “festive cheer” as much as the sight of a bustling Christmas market, filled with fragrant food and warming drink – the perfect place to while away an afternoon, and stock up on gifts for the family.
For the stall holders, these events are often the backbone of their Christmas income and a welcome chance to sell to their customers face to face. For the areas that host them, they bring much needed footfall.
Many high profile markets such as Winter Wonderland in London’s Hyde Park, as well as Christmas markets in Bath, Edinburgh and Winchester have all been cancelled due to the huge crowds they attract.
Some events, including smaller independent markets are still going ahead, but with the threat of further shutdowns looming over this year’s festivities, how will these markets adapt?
Many market organisers have opted to cancel their events, but “approximately 30% have returned to physical markets” states Nicki Capewell, founder of Pedddle.com, an independent and creative market community. “These are almost always reduced in capacity.”
Sarah Taylor, Director of Pexmas, a market held in Peckham, South London, agrees. “We are employing a multitude of COVID-19 safety measures, and have extended the length of the event from 2 to 9 days; hosting smaller groups of traders and fewer visitors each day”
The complex new restrictions and strict measures to keep shoppers safe seem to be giving the consumer confidence to visit the markets. “Customers are returning to the markets and on the whole are very supportive of their return.” said Capewell.
Ventilation is key
Creating a safe space for shoppers is easier for those markets partially or fully outdoors, as opposed to those who have indoor markets.
Urban Makers, who run markets in London’s East End are hoping to be able to continue to run their events in the Old Spitalfields’s Market. “As this is a well ventilated space we have our fingers crossed that the market can continue through Christmas” said Ilka Dickens, co-founder.
Creating an online shop
Many market organisers are embracing permanent online shops, to help boost their sales, support their stall holders and lessen the impact of the uncertainty around physical markets.
For Urban Makers, their online shop has been a big boost to the business. Dickens explains: “We opened our online shop a couple of years ago and it’s going from strength to strength with over 200 businesses selling through us.”
In South London, the Pexmas team are also embracing an online store. “Our first proper ecommerce venture launches in November, which will be a permanent part of our portfolio from now on.” says Taylor. “We hope by offering a range of routes to retail this Christmas, we will be accessible to all sellers and shoppers alike, one way or another.”
Markets move online
For the 70% of market organisers who are not returning to physical markets, some are choosing to replicate the event online.
One such organiser is Sinead Koehler, founder of Crafty Fox markets. “At Crafty Fox Market, we are focusing on the online this Christmas and will be hosting two large online markets in November and December” she says.
“Some of the benefits of online markets include our ability to host a greater number of traders, providing shoppers with more variety and also the ability to attract global customers rather than being limited to those who can attend the event in person.” explains Koehler.
Capewell also notes the benefits of online markets – “With online markets, we can shop from home and stay safe. In all honesty, they kept some small businesses alive during Covid.”
Can online markets replicate that real-life experience?
Online markets are a growing phenomenon, but they are not a complete substitute for visiting a market in person. They need extensive marketing to generate sufficient online traffic, as well careful planning to bring the products to life.
“Nothing beats a designer talking about their products in person. You just don’t feel that passion and excitement online.” says Dickens. Urban Makers have decided to not pursue an online version of their events.
Taylor agrees, noting that her vision for Pexmas is still one of a physical event. “While we appreciate that online markets have been a vital outlet for traders during this bleak time, the heart and soul of our markets lies in the connections made between people in the live moment.” she elaborates.
But for Koehler and Crafty Fox, the key to a successful online market is in re-creating the physical event as closely as possible. “Many of our makers will produce video content for the online markets with tours of a stall they have set up at home to replicate the in-person market experience.” she explains.
Koehler adds “The online market experience overall is unquestionably different to in-person markets but those makers who put the most effort into creating online content and engaging with customers have the best chance of translating the engagement to sales.”
Physical markets remain an important part of local areas
Despite this growth in online events, many shoppers will be keen to get back to markets in person as soon as they can.
Capewell is confident that “in terms of online markets replacing the in-person events, that will certainly not happen.”
“The markets provide such an important place to gather, experience and purchase, and it’s the social aspect of such events that we are craving intensely right now” she explains.
It is clear that markets play an important role for their communities, their customers and the businesses that they serve. While moving online may help get them through the uncertain times ahead, for many, the countdown will be on for when the physical events can resume once more.