When Zack Alper found out that the Christkindlmarket had canceled it’s in-person experience and moved to a virtual platform due to the pandemic, he was disappointed but hopeful for the good that would be brought out of it since he had just joined the Christkindlmarket family.
“After hearing such great things about Christkindlemarket, I finally visited last year and knew it would be a great opportunity for my small business,” said Alper, the founder of Dr. Silkman’s, a lotion and beard product brand.
While he won’t be able to sell his product to customers face-to-face, Alper said going virtual was the right move for the market. “But even in that disappointment, it was still clear the management at Christkindlemarket absolutely made the responsible decision,” Alper said.
This new platform is available not only for shoppers to purchase their annual Christkindlmarket mug but as an opportunity for vendors and small businesses to stay afloat.
During such a hard economic time for small brands and businesses, local Chicago shops with German roots such as Rare Dirndl, a dirndl and accessory store, can still be a part of the market.
“For me and Rare Dirndl, this platform is ideal because it is a major source of traffic to my online store,” said Erika Neumeyer, founder of Rare Dirndl, which specializes in German-style dresses and women’s clothing. “My primary products are dirndls and blouses, and if I can’t sell those at a larger vendor show, like the Christkindlmarket, then it is not profitable enough to participate.”
However, there are still downsides to this new platform for small businesses that weren’t prepared for such a dramatic switch in the market.
A handmade Slavic gift vendor, Olga Romanova, has been selling with the Christkindlmarket for 25 years and this switch landed on the company’s anniversary with the holiday market.
“We did not plan to go online prior to the cancellation announcement, and the transition required a lot of effort on our part,” said Romanova, founder of Syrin Slavic Gifts. “We had to develop an e-commerce presence in only a couple of months, which included building a new website and photographing our entire stock of products. As great as the website turned out, we still believe that our handmade gifts should be seen, touched, and talked about to be truly appreciated.
The pandemic has brought many barriers to the small business community in order to stay afloat financially. A study done by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America or PNAS found that out of 5,800 small brands, 43% of them had temporarily closed nearly all due to the pandemic. They found that these businesses reduced their active employment by 39% since January of 2020.
“It seems that small businesses have taken the brunt of the economic hardship both in Chicago and across the country,” said Chriskindlmarket vendor Jeff Golden, founder of BearHands & Buddies Golden, a winter accessory brand. “We have tried to enhance our online presence by increasing our advertising budget but we are falling short for a multitude of reasons. I think we just have to write off this year as an anomaly and be thankful that we are still in business.”
“It is difficult to imagine the holiday season without being able to come together at the Christkindlmarket,” said Maren Biester Priebe, CEO of German American Events, the Christkindlmarket organizer. “Although we are saddened that we cannot welcome our visitors in person for the first time since 1996, we are excited about introducing a new virtual experience that allows people to enjoy the tradition and celebration of their beloved holiday market in a new way.”
Though this may not be the ideal way of celebrating the holidays, shoppers are encouraged to support their local businesses to keep this tradition alive.
“It’s no secret that there are a handful of companies and people that have made a fortune this year, but small businesses are not in that category,” Neumeyer said. “When you shop small, you become a part of someone’s story. We do a happy dance every time an order comes through and I know we are not alone in this.”
The Christkindlmarket has become a part of the Chicago locals and tourists holiday tradition alike. While this year looks different compared to the packed Daley Plaza or Wrigleyville, with the theme Home for the Holidays, shoppers can celebrate from the comfort of home, though that means missing out on the features that define the market’s experience.
“I think the uniqueness and festive atmosphere of the market does not translate that well to a virtual experience,” said Golden. “The smell of brats and potato pancakes, the laughter of the children, the overall feeling of the market is very hard to duplicate.”
Chicago still faces the second surge of the pandemic, with a cumulative case rate of 191,018 and a daily rating of 1,331 according to the City of Chicago website COVID dashboard. These small businesses that made up the Christkindlmarket still have hope for 2021 and the possibility of reuniting with the in-person experience and their beloved shoppers.
“For many of us, the Christmas season is the main business opportunity,” Romanova said. “The shoppers’ support is crucial for the survival of many small businesses like ours. Every view, every click, and every online order make a big difference for us at Syrin. We are a family business and every time an order comes in, everyone is very excited to pack up one of our special creations and send it off to its new home.”