With their stalls selling artisan goods, shoppers sipping on mulled wine and festive decorations aplenty, Christmas markets have become a familiar sight in cities across Europe in recent years.
As their popularity grows, they’ve become both a boost and a challenge for city centre retailers and restaurants.
In the UK alone, the number of markets has more than tripled since 2007, according to a report by the country’s Local Government Association, which estimates that Christmas markets generated at least £500 million for the UK economy in 2017. It’s a chance to draw in visitors from near and far – in Newcastle for example, out-of-town visitor levels rose 72 percent during the UK city’s festive period.
“People are increasingly seeking out something cultural,” says Tim Vallance, head of UK Retail JLL. “In a modern town, the tradition of a Christmas market offers a welcome contrast – while in towns such as Bath which are already steeped in heritage, the market can conversely complement.”
Getting into the festive spirit
As the home of Christmas markets, Germany attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists in December looking to browse, buy and soak up the atmosphere. While the likes of Cologne have become synonymous with Glühwein glugging revellers, lesser-visited German cities such as port town Rostock are also getting in on the act.
“The city’s retailers are enjoying the boost in revenues, while putting Rostock’s Kröpeliner Strasse firmly on the festive map,” says Dirk Wichner, head of retail leasing JLL Germany. “The market gets bigger every year and visitors come from the wider region. It’s a relatively easy way to create a sense of destination.”
Some 600km away, Düsseldorf’s proximity to the Dutch border, says Wichner, has drawn in visitors by the coachload.
“The sight of more than 20 coaches of Dutch visitors arriving is true testament to a city’s appeal at this time of year,” he says.
However, the one-hour drive back to the Netherlands means the city’s hotel industry does not necessarily enjoy a boost in bookings. Conversely, the likes of Dresden and Leipzig are destinations in their own right, resulting in higher hotel occupancy.
The heart of the action
Location within the city plays an important role, says Wichner. The positioning of markets varies in many cities, especially those which have only recently joined in the Christmas market tradition. London makes use of its large royal park to create a Winter Wonderland, often catering for large groups of colleagues on Christmas socials.
“Winter Wonderland has grown from being a market to a major food and beverage and entertainment destination and there’s no doubt it’s extended London’s central tourist district,” says Vallance.
Regional UK cities such as Birmingham, which launched its German market in 2001, have hosted market traders in their town hall squares, following the Leipzig or Dresden approach of grouping market stalls around a major city centre landmark – more often than not in an already pedestrianised area of town.
Regardless of location, the way market traders are managed is key, says Wichner.
“Retailers obviously get to enjoy the benefit of more people on the street in the seasonal period,” he says. “But there needs to be some consideration for high street tenants who may find sight lines and their store entrances blocked off.”
But Wichner says retailers and city administrations are well aware of the positive impact markets can have; temporary crowding and increased traffic are however, a small price to pay for the boost in spending.
In the first weekend of December this year, major Christmas market destinations such as Cologne, Leipzig and Nuremberg all saw footfall rise considerably on their long-term averages, according to German retail data specialist, Hystreet.com. In Leipzig, footfall was up 37.66 per cent.
A break with tradition
Tradition is, of course, a major mainstay of the Christmas market but that’s not to say that some aren’t updating both their image and the goods on offer for modern times.
In the Bavarian town of Würzburg, an alternative Christmas market offers revellers vegan, fair-trade and sustainable products.
“I expect we will see change very soon, with more choice of food and products as tastes evolve,” says Wichner. “There’s demand for more alternative markets selling wooden, sustainable goods generally – just look at the growth of organic farmers markets in recent years.
“This will very much depend on location however – some cities and districts are more geared towards such tastes than others.”
As we enter the festive season, that says Wichner, is something for cities across Europe to mull over. Irrespective of product on offer, the arrival of huts and garlands is, says Vallance, a welcome boost for any town – getting people out spending.
“In an era where it’s very tempting to stay indoors and shop with your thumb, markets offer customers the chance to experience the emotional dimension of hand-picking a gift. You can’t create those smells, tastes and the aesthetic online.”