'“The sight of tourists bustling around the city centre is more than welcome”: Is Edinburgh's Christmas market a gift - or a curse - for the city's independent firms?

Returning this year, and already attracting huge hordes of revellers, Edinburgh’s Christmas market is bringing the sight of twinkling lights, the sound of fairground rides, and the scent of Glühwein to the city centre.

By Emma Newlands
Monday, 29th November 2021, 4:55 am

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More than 92,000 people turned up to the opening weekend of Edinburgh's Christmas festival this year, while the city’s festive market has just been voted one of the top rated in the UK – and one of the most Instagrammable in Europe, with 661 hashtags.

But with some Edinburgh firms complaining that the market in fact takes away business from them in favour of temporary stalls, is the attraction proving more style than substance, dazzling on the surface but casting a shadow of negative longer-term impact underneath?

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Some Edinburgh business-owners would like to see some Christmas market activity in the Grassmarket, citing its many food outlets and independent shops, for example (file image). Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.

A recent survey regarding the Christmas and Hogmanay festivals, which have collectively been found to inject more than £158 million into the economy, found that nearly three-quarters of businesses said they had benefited in terms of turnover and footfall.

And when Edinburgh’s Christmas attractions were officially announced in October, that included The Neighbourhood Market returning, offering free listings for local businesses and attractions.

Kevin Buckle, the owner of music shop Avalanche Records, which is based in Waverley Market, says the shopping centre does see increased visits due to being right next to the Christmas market on Princes Street.

But he says that while it ups casual footfall for his business, it sees the dial turned down on its regular custom, as some customers avoid the city centre, especially at weekends.

The FSB, for example, hopes that visitors will also spend time at 'our brilliant local independent businesses' as well as the Christmas market (file image). Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.

“However, businesses only have to be a small distance away to not benefit from footfall at all,” he said. “I remember Jenners staff telling me when there was late night opening that whole departments would sell nothing at all after hours, and when the occasional person did appear, it was only to ask for the toilets.”

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He reiterates his belief that nothing is being done to encourage spending in local shops, while the survey regarding Edinburgh's winter festivals was not all positive, suggesting a lack of public support for “mass gatherings”, and flagging demand for events to be more spread out across the city.

Mr Buckle suggests some market activity in the Grassmarket, due to its open-air space “surrounded by food outlets of every description”, but he adds that such proposals have been knocked back, due in part to objections from locals.

Also in favour of Christmas stalls in that location is Paul Duncan, owner of Grassmarket restaurants Mamma's American Pizza, El Toro Loco and O'Oliviero.

The restauranteur says the Christmas market, which has been starting earlier and earlier in the year, has previously had an immediate, negative impact on his midweek trade – and this looks set to continue this year despite his hopes to the contrary. Mamma’s, for example, has seen business fall by about 60 per cent from previous weeks, and on midweek day recently “two of our businesses didn’t cover the wage costs”.

He also reports some other restaurants nearby now closing at the start of the week “because it’s just not worth it” – while he has spoken to a local retailer who is seeing a drop in trade outside the weekends during the festive period and is consequently very concerned about the future of the firm.

However, Mr Duncan enjoys a big uplift in business around Hogmanay, with the torchlight procession firing up demand, while in pre-pandemic times he got some trade from people keen to escape the hustle and bustle of the Christmas markets.

Beneficiary

Location, location, location is seemingly key, with hospitality brand Signature Group saying it is very well-placed to capitalise on increased footfall due to the Christmas festivities including the market, and has already seen an increase in custom in the city after the lull of Christmas 2020.

Its roster of venues include 11 in Edinburgh city centre such as The Huxley in the West End, as well as Copper Blossom on George Street, which sees a big benefit from the ice rink there, points out the group’s business development director Louise MacLean​.

She deems Edinburgh’s Christmas festival activity very positive for the group’s turnover – with the festivities’ appeal to all ages seeing revellers, including daytrippers from, say, Fife, Dundee, Aberdeen and Newcastle, making a day of it, often stopping off at one of Signature’s venues for lunch.

Ms MacLean adds that being in business in Edinburgh “can often be quite challenging”, and if she’s speaking to say Essential Edinburgh, where she is a board member, or the city’s council, she states that if they can bring people into the city, “it's my job to make those people my customers” with an appealing offering. “It's up to us in the hospitality sector to make these occasions brilliant for people,” she adds, noting how young people in particular are so keen to seek out experiences, which are their “currency”. They “want to be entertained”, she also states.

Roddy Smith is the chief executive and director of Essential Edinburgh, which lists as one of its aims ensuring that the city centre “excels” as a place to shop and a place to visit. It is also one of the organisations putting on the temporary ice rink on George Street.

He says Edinburgh’s Christmas, along with Hogmanay, will bring hundreds of thousands of visitors into the city centre over next six weeks, adding: “Of course this gives more competition for hospitality and retail offering in the city – but the numbers attending more than make up for this.

Range of experiences

"The experience of eating food from a takeaway stall or enjoying a glass of mulled wine outside is vastly different from enjoying food and drink inside with friends and family – there is a demand for both.”

He also echoes Ms MacLean’s belief that people visiting the market also will spend across the city centre more broadly – and among other firms to be picking up a slice of extra business as a result is @pizza, whose branches in the city include one in the West End.

“It is great to welcome visitors back to Edinburgh,” says the pizza restaurant’s sales and marketing manager Alex Reily. “This vibrant city thrives on being a destination and we’re proud to be a part of the experience for those here to enjoy the Christmas market.”

Also hailing the influx of visitors is Andrew McRae, who is Scotland policy chair at the Federation of Small Businesses, but also an Edinburgh business-owner – and says “the sight of tourists bustling around the city centre is more than welcome”.

He adds: “We would hope that, as visitors are reminded of what they’ve been missing in our capital city centre, they’ll come calling on our brilliant local independent businesses.

“That being said, we would urge Edinburgh City Council and other decision-makers to look at how this major cultural event and others like it could bring more benefits to Edinburgh’s local and independent businesses.

"That might mean more partnerships with local operators, or better signage, or incentives to shop locally. As we approach these sorts of initiatives in future, we need to see a real partnership between local people and businesses, with the council and incoming operators.”

Mr Buckle agrees that the close proximity of permanent hospitality and shopping offerings should be prominently signposted. “There is a huge amount within ten minutes of Princes Street Gardens,” he says.

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