Christmas, which seems to start in early October and end somewhere around New Year's Eve, is my favorite part of the year. Family togetherness, Halloween, hanging out with friends, Thanksgiving, eggnog, and over-the-top decorations are crammed into one, big happy season. To me, it's an emphatic period on the calendar year. Of course, merchants try to get in on our holiday happiness, setting up great sales and attempting to bolster their bottom line before the ball drops.
Such is the purpose of the Holiday Shops at Bryant Park in New York. My favorite park in the city morphs into an old-fashioned holiday market featuring more than 120 artisans and merchants from around the world. Retailers large and small offer a variety of special promotions, including discounts and samples. All of them are looking for exposure and, more importantly, revenue from the crowds passing along 42nd Street between Times Square and Grand Central Terminal.
The retail booths run alongside the seasonal ice rink in the center of the park. The popular rink offers free admission and $14 skate rentals, adding to the traffic of Bryant Park.
I decided to visit this retail festival to gauge the mood of holiday shoppers, see what kind of merchandise grabs their attention, and get a better sense of the retail climate. The National Retail Federation says consumers are spending money faster than they have in years, though reasonable people may question the data. (See: Confessions of a Black Friday Scrooge.)
What's the mood when people gather to shop sans pepper spray?
Click for more images from the Holiday Shops
A view of some of the holiday booths.
Photo by Tom Cartelli
On my visit to Bryant Park, I saw a variety of stores -- some common and some a little strange. J-wave, for example, sells Japanese-made hooded footie pajamas designed to look like Pokemon, dinosaurs, and assorted adorable animals. You won't find this stuff at Wal-Mart.
Retailers of more orthodox goods allowed passers-by to sample their products, whether that meant handing out a piece of chocolate or demonstrating just how warm their special brand of hand warmers can get. The sportswear retailer Columbia (Nasdaq: COLM) gave free ski hats to people willing to sing temperature-themed karaoke in a minus-15 degree chamber while wearing its new line of coats. (Yes, it was as fun as it sounds).
The familiar hustle and bustle of the city was sometimes hard to hear over the noise of the park, but the people inside were all very much New Yorkers. That means they weren't too interested in being solicited by a stranger with a notepad while they were trying to shop.
Vendors were similarly averse to my attempt at investigative journalism. They were willing to let us take pictures (except for one hat vendor), but they refused to quantify pretty much anything.
Having only been able to get the most basic answers to the most basic questions, I created a formula that concisely and accurately represents the results of my study: [Insert vendor name here] has participated in the Bryant Park Holiday Shops for x number of years and has always benefited from it. How much the vendors are benefitting and whether this year is particularly strong are virtually impossible to quantify with any objectivity.
Merchants tend to paint rosy pictures, even when the reality claims otherwise. But here's what I can tell you: The Bryant Park shopping experience is the opposite of Black Friday. No lines, no fighting. No real bargains, either.
I personally didn't leave the park with a bag full of goodies, but I did leave with a heart full of Christmas joy.
Sales seemed steady, though not brisk, and many consumers just browsed as others were buying.
The families, friends, and vendors in the park certainly didn't want much to do with the creepy guy with the notepad, but they seemed to have no problem associating with one another. They may have been spending modestly, but they seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. And in the end, isn't that what Christmas is all about?