Holiday Markets Rise to COVID Challenge

Photo by Jamie El-Khal
Santa poses with children at the 2019 Procrastinators Holiday Market.

As the coronavirus halts holiday market traditions, new practices emerge to help vendors boost sales. 

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For Jamie El-Khal, removing Santa Claus from her annual holiday market was not an option. 

Now in its ninth year, the Procrastinators Holiday Market in Happy Valley has always had a booth for children to have pictures taken with Mr. and Mrs. Claus. In addition to fewer vendors, hosting the event outdoors and stricter eating guidelines, sitting on Santa’s lap was deemed not to be COVID safe. So El-Khal modified the tradition.

Employing the same actor to play St. Nicholas as she does every year, children can now ring a bell for Santa and his wife to come out of their workshop and wave. 

It is not an ideal solution, but holiday markets across the state have had to find cheer in their COVID-19 workarounds. 

Procrastinators Holiday Market operations team. Credit: Fletcher Wold Photography

While holiday markets have had to do away with time-honored traditions, some pandemic strategies such as selling products online, introducing card-reading software and hosting events outdoors have led to new efficiencies. Some new traditions could carry on after the pandemic has run its course. 

When COVID-19 first hit, El-Khal and her family considered not holding the annual event. One of the hardest parts about the pandemic was how few vendors would be able to participate. Distancing requirements mean the market is only able to accommodate 150 vendors, down from 350 last year.

While this meant saying ‘no’ to more than a few regulars, pandemic precautions have led to some new faces being able to take part. 

Normally held inside Clackamas High School, hosting the event outdoors meant winemakers and distilleries could sell their wares. It also allowed for a snow machine to create perfect North Pole conditions.

The market has also adopted a new cleaning system for food court tables. Patrons leave red flags on the table to signal it needs cleaning, and employees leave a green flag on the table once the cleaning is through. The system has proven highly efficient and will be permanent protocol moving forward. 

All vendors at the market have now adopted Square or other digital payment systems. It was a change El-Khal had been pushing for a while as the systems have been shown to increase overall sales.

The state also approved placement of a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) machine at the market this year for patrons who use food stamps.

Gov. Kate Brown deemed farmers markets essential businesses, which gives the market an advantage over other food and gift shops. El-Khal expects this year’s holiday market to be more profitable than usual, given the trends she has observed through the rest of the year.

“Our foot traffic has picked up this year. There are fewer people on vacation and the SNAP machine is a big help. I’m expecting a good day unless rain pours down on us,” she says. “In the back of my mind, I’m always worried, but this market is essential to these vendors’ livelihoods. I keep a lot of faith and I stay passionate.”

For some vendors, pandemic conditions make attending holiday markets more cost-effective. 

The Lane County Holiday Market is traditionally held indoors at the Lane County Fairgrounds. Without having to rent the pavilion, vendors can purchase a spot in the outdoor holiday market for about half the price. While many farms that appear in the weekly market will not take part in the holiday market due to cost, more farmers than ever will have booths this year. 

“Farms are continuing to sell that would have normally stopped in mid-November,” says Meghan Verberkmoes, membership and marketing coordinator for the Lane County Farmers Market.

“We have been getting positive feedback from our vendors. People are buying a lot of food and things are going well.” 

While some staple elements of the holiday market are not happening this year, such as live music and food sampling, the growing trend of online ordering at holiday markets saw a big boost. More orders are coming to vendors online than ever before, meaning vendors have made sales before their booths have been set up. 

“It’s exceptional because we’re using our online marketplace and it’s really blown up. Vendors are coming to our market already knowing they’ve sold a lot of product,” says Rebecca Landis, market director of the Corvallis-Albany Farmers Markets.

The postponement of certain holiday traditions has taken its toll. Usually children receive their own special coins to buy products from vendors. Not so this year. Hot cocoa samples, children’s arts and crafts tables, and live music have all gone from the holiday market, leaving some parents frustrated. 

“We asked the parents to leave the kids at home, and that didn’t work so well.” says Landis. “I’ve had people on social media coming at us, saying “you hate children.” I have had to develop a much thicker skin.”

For her vendors, however, the pandemic has ushered in new, more technologically savvy ways of doing things. Landis has used the pandemic as an opportunity to teach some of her vendors how to use bluetooth and chip reader software, and get more vendors registered with her market’s online store. 

This year Landis decided to not charge vendors a fee for using the online marketplace. When vendors see the increased sales from online orders, she expects online ordering to become a much bigger part of their strategies. 

“We are sad about the things we have had to give up this year. I’m doing my best not to be seen as a soldier in the war on Christmas,” jokes Landis. “But as much as we want things to get back to normal, there are plenty of positive changes we have made that we hope will continue.”  

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