The Union Square Holiday Market, now in its 19th year (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
For small businesses looking to boost foot traffic during holiday season, there is arguably no better location than a holiday market, specifically, the 150-plus booth one that takes place at Union Square Park each year.
The market has grown over the 19 years it’s been run there by the company Urban Space, occupying the south end of the park, and a stroll through on any day it’s open clearly shows there’s always a steady stream of shoppers.
Urban Space has kept a tight lid on what it charges vendors for use of its red and white striped booths, but on a recent day, an operator of a medium-sized booth said his rent was about $15,000. This is for the five weeks, November 21 to Christmas Eve, that the event runs. Not that he was complaining. “It’s the busiest hub in the city,” he said. He, like the majority of merchants there, are repeat tenants, and those thinking of becoming one might want to sign up soon. A rep for Urban Space, Rachel Van Dolsen, said that the “footprint” of the event has gotten as big as it’s going to get.
Van Dolsen declined to discuss rents for booths although she said the aforementioned figure didn’t sound accurate. (Another vendor at last year’s event, however, told T&V that amount sounded similar to what she paid, though hers was a little higher. “Expensive, but worth it,” she said.)
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.
The Union Square Holiday Market (Photo courtesy of Urban Space)
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.”
In related neighborhood retail news, to help push shopping at neighborhood stores as the market is open, the Union Square Partnership has been offering District Deals booklets at the information booth at the market (across from the subway entrance gazebo). The booklets contain over 40 deals from retailers like Union Square Wines and Spirits and Jivamukti’s yoga school.