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In NYC, Christmas Without Tourists Is Not Merry For Businesses

Window shopping at an outside market in New York City's Bryant Park.
Window shopping at an outside market in New York City's Bryant Park.

Walking through Midtown Manhattan in December is usually like navigating a chaotic maze. This year, you can actually move — easily!

For many small businesses in New York City, that drop in customer traffic is troubling. Businesses count on a big bump in revenue during the city's busy holiday season. Now, they are facing a 66% drop in tourism, restrictions on shopping and dining, and a surge in COVID-19 cases.

But there's still a steady stream of shoppers at Bryant Park's annual outdoor holiday market.

At his market stall, Ron Menin is handing out samples of hot sauces with flavors like blueberry maple, ginger pear, and cinnamon ghost pepper. Menin owns Hell's Kitchen Hot Sauce and normally gets 80% of his annual revenue during the holiday season.

Business at his year-round Columbus Circle store is far below average because of limited foot traffic from tourists and commuters, so he says his Bryant Park stall is his best chance of breaking even this year.

"Otherwise there is no holiday season or revenue," Menin says.

Visitors to Bryant Park are at about a third of last year — but Menin is trying to use that to his advantage.

"When you have less guests, but they're more quality, you have more time to spend with people to maybe get your quote unquote, check average up."

Menin has also increased online marketing and promotions. The research firm CBRE projects that this holiday season online shopping will jump from 14% to 40% of total retail sales.

Anthony Cirone is trying to make sure his company captures those online sales.

Cirone is a co-owner of Li-Lac Chocolates. Li-Lac is Manhattan's oldest chocolate house and has five locations in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn.

Outside the Brooklyn store, there is a delightful chocolate smell all the way down the block.

"Actually our air conditioner when you walk by there it blows like the hot air right onto the street," Cirone says.

Despite the chocolate smell, Cirone says store sales this year are down by at least 60%, up to 85% at some stores — like the ones in Chelsea Market, Hudson Yards, and Grand Central, which mostly rely on tourist and commuter traffic.

To counteract that drop in sales, Cirone has added more delivery, pickup, and online ordering options. He's hoping Christmas turns out like Easter, when Li-Lac's inventory actually sold out online.

"And many, many, many of those customers had never ordered from us online before. So that's when we realized people are going to get their chocolate for the holidays. No matter what."

This holiday season is all about adaptability, says Larisa Ortiz, managing director of the business consulting nonprofit, Streetsense.

"Those are the better businesses, right? They know they have to switch it up and make it interesting, they're the ones who are going to be in a better position after the holidays."

Ortiz says shifting online is probably the smartest adaptation for many businesses. But going big on holiday decorations and spirit could help too.

Things are strange. But we still love dazzling lights.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.