The Christmas market business in Germany is booming, with a record number of "Weihnachtsmärkte" open around the country. But is an increase in mass-produced wares and chain-retailers turning off visitors?
Frankfurt's Christmas Market is one of Germany's most-visited
If Christmas markets seem to be everywhere in Germany these days, it's because they are. According to diverse estimates, somewhere between 2,500 and 3,500 markets are open across the country -- in town squares, pedestrian zones, within the walls of castles, even on cruise ships.
Historically, Christmas markets date back to the Middle Ages. They began as places for German villagers to buy and sell holiday wares and a venue for local performers.
Many people go to the market to drink mulled wine and socialize
Today, the markets -- generally a collection of stalls selling handicrafts and ornaments as well as snacks and beverages -- are a huge tourism draw, long considered an economic factor in and of themselves.
In the weeks leading up to the holiday, busloads full of visitors from Holland, France and Britain flood into major cities such as Munich, Frankfurt, Berlin, Hamburg, and Düsseldorf, as well as Christmas-specific hubs like Nuremberg and Dresden. There, they browse the stalls, eat German specialties and drink mulled wine in an authentic, if often kitschy, holiday ambiance.
According to a 2002 study by the German Market Sellers Association, an estimated 160 million people spent some 4.8 billion euros ($6.3 billion) at the markets; around half of the people polled were in town specifically for the market itself.
Wooden ornaments are often big sellers
Underlying the growth in tourism revenues is a change in the nature of the Christmas market itself. Still mostly run by individual municipalities, the markets are nonetheless trading their humble-origins approach for a marketing attack worthy of big business, said Peter Sedlacek, a professor of economic geography at the University of Jena, who recently published an in-depth study comparing the Christmas markets in the eastern cities of Jena and Erfurt.
"There are Christmas markets being opened with a much more professional marketing push behind them," Sedlacek said. This includes doing targeted advertising to promote a given market, and beefing up entertainment offerings, for example.
"Municipalities have realized what an important source of revenue this is," he said. "This trend is not going to stop."
Hand made objects -- here a Käthe Wohlfahrt music box -- are more expensive than mass-produced
Parallel to the overall professionalization of the markets is a trend that sees local craftsmen being nudged aside by makers of mass-produced Christmas items, making it more and more difficult to distinguish between one market and another, said Klaus Schultheis, who runs a German Web site on Christmas markets.
"What (the big) markets are suffering from is a product range that is really homogenous," Schultheis said. "You can go from market to market, and always see the same things."
A different Christmas market: Cologne's medieval bazaar
The mass produced items are often made in Asia or eastern Europe, and can be significantly cheaper than similar items hand-made in Germany. Schultheis points to the typical offering of ceramic incense burners.
"They used to be hand made, and you had to really look and choose," he said. "Now, there are only one or two companies who make them. I see the same ones every time I go to one of these booths. The hunting is completely lost, hunting for some unusual or rare gift."
The more the markets look alike, Schultheis said, the more letters and e-mails he gets from consumers and editors asking for tips on unusual Christmas markets. He steers them toward "romantic markets" or smaller ones that focus on local handicrafts or a particular atmosphere.
Yet, Shultheis said, attendance at Christmas markets continues to grow – despite some dissatisfaction with the products. The reason?
"People go after work with colleagues – its more of a social event, for them it really has nothing to do with shopping," he said.
For his part, economist Sedlacek compared today's Christmas markets to the omnipresent chain of Aldi supermarkets, which are known for offering a reliably steady supply of cheap, quality goods.
Want to buy a beeswax candle? Check your local Christmas market
"Whether you see the trend toward unified Christmas markets as positive or negative really depends what you expect from a Christmas market," he said.
Ambiance is key
In fact, Sedlacek noted, the people who he polled in his studies were less concerned by what was sold at the market's stalls than by its general ambiance.
"It should be full, but not too full," he said. "And the quality of sound was important; there should be music but not too loud. The products weren't decisive. There should just be a good program, lots to see."
His study, and others, showed food and drink booths had primary importance, as well. According to the 2002 German Market Sellers study, more than 57 percent of visitors went to the Christmas markets with plans to eat and drink there, but only 35 percent went intending to buy a gift.