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New York City is decked out for the holidays, but business owners are anxious

The Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center is lit during a ceremony in New York on December 1, 2021.
Ed Jones
AFP via Getty Images
The Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center is lit during a ceremony in New York on December 1, 2021.

New York City is once again glittering for the holidays. The Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center is lit, the skating rinks are open, and department store windows have put up lavish displays.

The Union Square holiday market, which was closed last year, reopened this year with its usual outdoor maze of pop-up stores and stands that sell truffle oil, gems, spices, handmade jewelry, and specialty hot sauces.

But amid the hubbub and general air of merriment, an air of dread fills the air. Business owners who run holiday stands, stores and restaurants all worry whether there will be enough people coming out to shop and dine during this holiday season, especially with the emergence of the latest omicron variant.

The unpredictability of the virus is adding unique urgency for many of these businesses. They're feeling pressure to make money from every last sale this holiday season.

Julie Gaines, who has owned the home goods store Fish's Eddy for 35 years, says she normally makes 30% to 40% of her yearly revenue in November and December.

She's happy that the shoppers are returning this year because the holiday season was nearly non-existent for her store last year.

"It's the closest to normal that we've felt in a long time," Gaines says as she surveys her eccentric holiday collection of mugs, plates and mismatched cups.

Julie Gaines, owner of New York home goods store Fish's Eddy, poses in front of her collection of cups and plates.
Camille Petersen / NPR
Julie Gaines, owner of New York home goods store Fish's Eddy, poses in front of her collection of cups and plates.

Her store relies on in-person shoppers, especially tourists, and she has seen more of them over the past month.

"You know, no pun intended, the more the merrier," Gaines says.

Overall, it's expected to be a busy holiday season for retailers. The real estate firm CBRE projects in-person and online sales in the U.S. to increase by 8% thisyear.

"There's a lot of pent up demand to see family, to go holiday shopping, to give gifts," says Larisa Ortiz, managing director at the urban design and strategy firm Streetsense.

She says the key for New York City businesses is going to be getting as many people to come in person, as possible. "Because foot traffic drives sales."

Near Rockefeller Center, home of the iconic, towering Christmas tree, restaurant owner Eli Sussman is finally seeing that foot traffic. He's delighted to see not a trickle of potential customers, but crowds.

"They're coming to shop, see the tree, see the skating rink. I'm seeing happy people come through the doors," says Sussman, who opened his Mediterranean restaurant, Samesa, in the spring.

It was a risky bet then, because customers hadn't really come back.

But as excited as he is, Sussman is constantly worried about how long the crowds are going to stick around.

"Everyone is really worried about there being like a winter surge and what that's going to mean for us," he says.

For New York City businesses, the stakes are high — so they're holding tight to this glittering, joyful moment. And fearful of what winter might look like.

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

Camille Petersen

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