These days there is more to discover at Germany's Christmas markets than wooden ornaments, mulled wine and roasted peanuts. Young entrepreneurs are discovering the traditional venue for selling their creative products.
When three students in Cologne decided they needed to earn some extra money, they decided to get creative. Their idea: sew hand warmers filled with rape seed in the shape of ducks. Why ducks? Well, why not, the group of thirty-somethings thought.
As it turns out, the hand-made product Vincent Barthel and his friends created is a hot-selling item at local Christmas markets in Cologne, Germany.
It's a story many young creative types in urban centers are telling: think outside the box, use your hands and market your product. But what's different about Barthel's tale of success is the venue chosen to sell the ducks. The German Christmas markets - typically full of traditional crafts items like wooden ornaments, hand-dipped candles and gingerbread - are not the go-to place for launching products that appeal to a younger crowd.
A market for launching new ideas
For Barthel, who together with his friends sewed 180 hot ducks in the first year of production, Christmas markets were also not the obvious first choice when they started out five years ago. Initially Barthel wanted to sell the ducks at flea markets, but decided to take a risk with the local Christmas market at the Stadtgarten in Cologne, a city which has several popular holiday markets. Because the cost for renting a stand was too high for the students, the trio only booked a spot for four days.
The Stadtgarten market is different from many others in that it allows small businesses and craftspeople to book a stall for just a few days. Christmas markets in Cologne and other big cities typically charge a five-figure sum to rent a stall throughout the month-long season. The high price discourages individual producers who are just starting a business or launching a new product.
Fatos Dogan-Grocholl, a jewelry designer based in Cologne, sees the Stadtgarten market as a good opportunity for craftspeople like herself. The jewelry maker, who incorporates traditional Turkish handcrafts in her designs, started selling her products three years ago, initially for just one week to test the market. "All my pieces are unique and individual," she said. "If I see one piece is in more demand than another, I get up at 6:00 am and create more jewelry of a similar design before I come to the market."
A market for creative design
The Christmas market in Cologne's Stadtgarten caters to creative craftspeople like Barthel and Dogan-Grocholl. All products must be handmade, unique and creative, according to the organizers. "More than 100 producers apply for a stall, but the market has only space for 80," Laura van Welck of the market's organizing team said.
Barthel and his friends recall how happy they were when the hot ducks were first selected to be sold at the Stadtgarten. The organizers are extremely selective when it comes to choosing the candidates for its stalls. This ensures a variety of original products and high quality for the shoppers.
"We have no products made in China and India," van Welck said, emphasizing another one of the differences between the Stadtgarten and other Christmas markets. All products sold in the stalls are made locally.
The hot ducks were a success at their first market five years ago, when they sold out within four days. Since then, the group has booked a stall every Christmas market, extending the sales period to two weeks.
Barthel has also ventured beyond the Christmas season and sells the hot ducks through a small online shop. Although the ducks are popular, he is skeptical about delving into the business full-time. "There is a risk and I am scared of spoiling the fun. As a hobby it's wonderful and the most brilliant job I have ever had."