Thursday 28 November 2013

How I fell out of love with the Christmas Markets.

First of all let me say that I love Christmas. I love everything about it, the tackiness, the presents, the food (obviously), the booze, the parties etc. I always have done. I'm generally not one of these people who moan about the season to be jolly. I've been going to the Manchester Christmas Markets since they began 15 years ago. I visit religiously every single year, at least three or four times. I walk up and down looking at the stalls, past the giant singing moose head trying my best to feel 'christmassy', taking photos usually, I've always enjoyed it.
But recently a nagging sinking feeling has been eating away at me. I've started to enjoy it less and less each year. Perhaps it's me I thought, I'm just getting more miserable with age. But it seems quite a few people on twitter seem to feel the same way.
These are my main points.
1. Expense.
The prices are ridiculous, they're charging as much if not more than local pubs for drinks but without as many overheads such as seating, heating, service, etc. Although I have heard that it costs £3500 to rent a stall/cabin for a week. If this is true, it just illustrates how much profit they must be making on top of that. It seems that they can charge whatever they like and people will pay it. How did we get in this situation where a market stall can be more expensive than a proper restaurant? Meanwhile half of the shops on King street lie empty, which is ironic considering the market takes up all of this street currently. What happens when they leave? It'll be quiet again, like a ghost town.
Many restaurants profits are down because they drain all of the potential customers to the markets instead. Even proper successful restaurants like Yuzu* and Solita report quiet nights - all because of the markets. They don't have a level playing field. Most of their profits are likely to leave the local economy too.
2. Over crowded.
Last year we went to Prague and the markets there were simply stunning. Having them in a beautiful massive medieval square helped obviously, but they didn't overcrowd the square. They could have filled it several times over with stalls, but you had room to walk around. They provided lots of other things for children too, such as an animal corner in a little petting zoo, a beautiful stairway to look out from, a manger etc. It seems our council just want to ram as many stalls into the space as possible to maximise profits for them, making it difficult to move around.

Prague Christmas markets. Not overly filled.
3. Quality.
I've eaten from many stalls and I can't recall anything being that good. I'm sure there may be places that do decent food, I just can't think of any at the moment. The sausages are often just your standard mass produced rubbish. Why do we put up with it? We wouldn't eat that crap at home. There are a few quality stalls down in Spinningfields like Mumma Schnitzel and Margo and Rita, but these are more permanent street food operators that you see all year round and stand apart from the the main Christmas market in Albert Square which I'm mainly referring to.
So there we have it in a nutshell; over crowded, overly expensive and often poor quality, it's time to re-think the markets. Bigger is not always better. Or perhaps profit must always comes first? 
I'd recommend you do like I did on Friday evening after the hell of the markets; to retire to a nice calm quiet restaurant or bar where it's warm and there are seats and you get this thing called service! At Mr Coopers Bar I enjoyed a lovely Rum and Raisin Old Fashioned cocktail (or three) for the same price as a Glühwein served in a naff plastic cup standing out in the cold, freezing my nuts off! So that's how I will be feeling 'Christmassy' this year; cheers to that!
This makes me feel 'Christmassy'.
*Yuzu reported sales of just 25% of the previous weekend on Saturday 23rd November due to the markets.

For more information on the income the Council made from the Christmas Market stall holders from previous years see here. In 2012 it was £1,474,256.56.

Soundtrack: Christmas Time is Here - Vince Guaraldi Trio.
Illustration and photography ©  
If you want to 'borrow' any photos, please ask. Full res pictures are available to purchase.


  1. Hello, I'm one of the directors of Levenshulme Market - we're a community-run market which was started after Manchester Markets determined that they could not make a market in Levenshulme profitable. I wanted to pick up on some points above and expand on what I think are some important issues around markets and how they impact on high street traders.
    The Christmas Markets are a cash cow for the City Council and they're enjoyed by the visitors they receive so, many would argue, what's the issue? The Council are providing a resource while generating revenue at a time when we are facing crippling cuts to services, win-win, right?
    There has been a lot of press over the last few years on the value of markets increasing footfall on the high street and – therefore – stemming the tide of shop closures which have left units empty on even the most “prime” retail estate areas. More in depth coverage has made reference to the concept of markets as incubators – a way to encourage start up businesses into temporary, low-risk, low cost spaces to refine their ideas and build their customer base/funds before they make the leap into bricks and mortar. Many of the UK’s most important retailers started this way (M&S, Boots).
    It’s therefore understandable that Councils like Manchester want to build markets to encourage trade…but the Christmas markets don’t do that. Like you say, they suck trade away from nearby shops and restaurants, the units are so expensive only established players can afford them and because most of those are from outside of Manchester, very little of that money stays in the local economy.
    Centre for Cities’ Beyond the High Street report, published this September looked at the impact of actions of councils in addressing the woes on their high streets and concluded “the fortunes of the High Street are dependent on the fortunes of the wider city centre in which they are based” – in other words any action to improve the climate for retailers that doesn’t address the economic issues affecting their shoppers is effectively useless. Creating markets is fine, but if those markets do not also act to create jobs or new businesses then who can spend money at them?
    Manchester has the opportunity to do this – they had it in Levenshulme and they have in many other areas which are crying out for this kind of enterprise but are seeing their markets failing due to lack of investment.
    For those who are not aware Manchester Markets has two teams – the city centre team which runs the hugely profitable but low economic/social impact city centre markets, and the street markets team which does everything else and has the potential to make a real difference socially. Guess which team has the most resource, in terms of staff? The cash cow.
    I’d like to make it absolutely clear here that I do not blame any individual Council officer for the failure of Levenshulme market or any of the other street markets in Manchester (in fact I’d single several of them out for praise in helping us resurrect ours from the ashes) but I do blame the Council as a whole for their short-sightedness in how they operate their market provision. It harms retailers, communities and residents.
    Levenshulme Market is a social enterprise and we’ve set out to address exactly the issues that the Council should be addressing with their street markets – helping out of work residents to start businesses, helping market traders into high street premises that employ residents and increasing trade to existing retailers. We act with a conscience because we’re concerned about our community but this should not be our responsibility. We choose to operate ethically but the door is open for plenty of other markets operated by commercial enterprises with less concern for the communities they occupy and more concern for their profit margin.
    Sorry for the long comment but, as you may have guessed, I am pretty impassioned on the power that markets can have for good and utterly dismayed by the failure of our authorities to understand this.

  2. Ive done Prague markets for the last 2 years...Love them and love the city , food and bars are amazing.
    At least you have a xmas market , my own town is far too miserable to even consider it

  3. From the point of view of quality traders, the price of £3500 you state isn't unusual, and that's why these markets (and the summer equivalent) are taken over by cheap burger joints that can afford silly money due to low margins of selling a 50p burger and bun for £6.

    We have a Rotisserie chicken van and trailer, all our food is cooked on site and very often, due to the time it takes to cook a chicken, there will be a delay as the next batch might not be ready. People actually love this fact. The cost of our Chicken ciabatta with our homemade sauces and packaging etc is £5, regardless of what we have paid for a pitch, however our cost of product is around £1.75.

    Quality costs but if rents are fair then many traders will jump at the chance to trade, and by fair I mean no more than £100 per trading hour. However greed of organisers be they council or private, mean that this will never happen and the masses will continue to be fed dodgy burgers et al.