Belfast Christmas market - a strong economic model for business

Merci beaucoup: French pastries on sale at Belfast's Christmas market. Picture: Cliff Donaldson
Merci beaucoup: French pastries on sale at Belfast's Christmas market. Picture: Cliff Donaldson

CHRISTMAS markets first appeared in the form of the Chriskindlmarkt. The literal translation refers to an angel-like spirit of Christmas. The first version appeared in 1484 in Dresden, with earlier versions of the December market Dezembermarkt taking place in Vienna from 1289.

Today, these markets are found all over the world, from Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Krakow, even in Australia, and they are still popping up and embedding in new territories.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the advent of the Christmas market in the UK. Edith Lovegrove, who founded the company Xmas Markets, was instrumental to bringing the festive market to the UK. Fascinated by people’s willingness to travel long distances to visit these markets elsewhere, she identified the opportunity to create markets initially at South Bank and Hyde Park London. She recognised the importance of creating the right atmosphere to make these markets resemble the original format and experience.

The Belfast Continental Christmas market this year opened on November 16 and runs until December 22, offering 30 international stalls. Throughout this period, it has had a constant flow of traffic through it, which will continue until the end. This is unsurprising, given the market scores high in experience. In the experience economy, where experiences have as much value as the product itself, standing in a beer tent, drinking mulled wine and tasting food from elsewhere has a premium currency.

Lovegrove was a precursor to the experience economy, and though she may not have being referring to it, she understood the components essential to making an experience work. She recognised the importance of speciality products that are authentic.

For example, that the crepe stall comes from France, chocolate from Belgium or the bratwurst and schwenkgrill speciality from Germany. It is the combination of tangibles (product) and intangibles (atmosphere) that customers seek in this economy.

There is a lot to be learned from this example. The wintry village feel created by the small wooden chalets as people wander through, the continental treats and the smells that greet the customer at every turn that create memorable occasions that last. In the transition from one economy to another, people have equated experiences with entertainment, but an experience also occurs whenever customers feel treated in a personal, memorable way. The interactions, encounters and atmosphere are part of the economic transaction.

The example of the Christmas market is a great one to illustrate the distinct economic offer that is the experience, which is different from commodities, service, or goods. This fourth economic offering - experience - is one that consumers will increasingly seek. In fact, no longer is experience an additional extra, but there is an expectation that businesses will provide it. Pricing is only one component in a purchasing decision. In fact, it is the perception of the overall experience and perceived value that has more impact.

Businesses take note: break down your offer into the tangibles and intangibles, think about interactions and interpersonal exchanges. Think about what these add. You will find that they do add significant value from the customers perspective.

A value that has a financial return which will exceed your expectations. Spend a little time over the Christmas period reflecting on this. It will bode well for your business in the new year.

:: Elizabeth Meehan ( trained as a service designer in Milan and has a PhD in Sociology from Queen's University. She strives to educate businesses about the changing economy and the challenges this brings.