Helmet Hamberger travels in November and December. The trip from Munich to Chicago is how he makes a living. The craftsman sells wooden ornaments at the city’s popular Chriskindlmarket, where he has been selling for 17-years, since the market’s opening. This year, his hottest product was the “jumping jack Santa.” It sold out after just two weeks of show. He couldn’t help feeling nervous every time Chinese customers took pictures in front of its display.
“They come here, they take pictures and that’s it,” he said. “In the good old days they would buy something, but that’s all over. Now they just take a picture.”
Recently, Chicago vendors have seen an increase in the number of ornaments — original decorations that were shown in Chicago the year before — copied and displayed by Chinese producers at Christmasworld, the world’s largest holiday decoration trade show held annually in Frankfurt, Germany. Customers at Chriskindlmarket Chicago are usually shopping handmade ornaments, so cheap Chinese knockoffs don’t affect artisans’ business. But, copycats’ alleged presence means Chicago may have become an important link in the holiday’s global supply chain, where decoration manufacturers can travel to see what American customers are flipping over, and what ornaments are flopping.
“This is a place that if you wanted to see almost everything, and do it in a stealthy way that wasn’t in the heart of the industry, then Chicago provides a great opportunity for that,” says Ted C. Fishman, author of the New York Times bestselling book, “China Inc.”
Chriskindlmarket Chicago is the largest ornament market outside of Germany. It’s the second largest in the world. The bazaar specializes in one-of-a-kind, German Christmas products. Some three million visitors attend each year to shop stalls’ lights, glitter and glass ornaments. Vendors charge more for ornaments made in the traditional ways their relatives have been making them for centuries. Customers pay more, too. Chicagoans also seem to be willing to pay a premium if they can smell sauerkraut while they browse.
But for big retailers buying wholesale goods, China is where holiday decorations are likely sourced. Sixty percent of the world’s Christmas decorations are produced in Yiwu, an eastern Chinese manufacturing hub that also happens to be a well-known center for commercial piracy. There, fake trees as tall as Santa cost $4.00. A box of six sparkling ornaments costs 36 cents. The majority of Yiwu’s Christmas business is with American customers.
Retailers such as K-Mart provide Yiwu’s factories designs for their Christmas orders, shipping in rolls of red ribbon with exact instructions on how and where it should be tied onto Christmas wreaths. Increasingly, however, companies have been cutting costs by buying products, spec’ed, designed—or copied—and made by Chinese firms. To make ornaments Americans want to hang on their holiday trees, Chinese producers need to understand the market demand. A reporting trip to Chicago, the home of the largest Christmas market outside of Germany, is a logical way to gage American tastes.
In “China Inc.,” Fishman describes how Chinese manufacturers make reporting trips to Rothenburg, Germany to gain design insight from the shops that invented the Christmas nutcracker. German news agency Der Spiegel recently issued a report saying that cheap Chinese copies were threatening the country’s traditional holiday decoration trade. Area Christmas shops have posted stickers reading “Original Instead of Plagiarized” to raise awareness of the problem, and local German officials are working with China’s government to enforce China’s intellectual laws which are strict on paper, but lax in practice.
Yet, factory owners looking to produce “original” ornaments could look to Chicago stalls for inspiration, Fishman says. The agents that act as go-between among retailers and manufactureres can also come to Chicago’s Chriskindlmarket for product ideas. Family, friends, anyone with a connection to China’s $900 million holiday decoration industry can choose to take a strategic vacation to Chicago that is both fun and fruitful, Fishman says.
“Sometimes I feel like an animal at the zoo,” says vendor Rene Stadler. “They even take ornaments out of the display and hold them up and take a picture with them. They don’t even ask.”
Stadler owns Glaszauber Lauscha, a shop that specializes in holiday glass decorations that has manned a stand at Chriskindlmarket Chicago for the past 15 years. Stadler says he spends all-year making glass ornaments. The business is a Thuringia tradition. One Chicago customer buys a $300 orb from him every year. Stadler said Chinese copycats don’t affect his sales.
“When people say, ‘That doesn’t affect my business,’ it’s just because the Chinese haven’t moved to that part of the value chain yet,” Fishman said. “They’ll get there.”
Some Chicago vendors have already embraced the Chinese ability to produce cheap, lookalike products.
The Kathe Wohlfahrt company is celebrating its 13th year at the Chicago market this year. Inside the vendor’s tent is a veritable Christmas wonderland, with tinsel, twinkling lights and music boxes looping cheerfully. Wohlfahrt is a family-owned brand, one that claims to offer the largest selection of German Christmas ornaments in the world. The corporation pulls in approximately $22 million a year in profit.
“She’s [Kathe Wohlfahrt company] not going to be making stuff in a $70 an hour labor market, she’d rather be making stuff in a $5 an hour labor market,” Fishman said.
All Kathe Wohlfahrt items are crafted by “artists” and carry stamps, some clarifying authenticity, others design originality and still others declaring origin; “This symbol indicates that items are designed in the Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas Workshop in Rothenburg, Germany,” the product catalog explains. If items don’t have that symbol, they are likely made in China, Johann Kempter, director of tourism in Rothenburg, told Fishman in “China Inc.”
“It was evident that the Wolhfahrt company had to go to Asia to produce the items there, as the clients are even looking for lower prices in the shops,” Kempter said.
At Chriskindlmarket Chicago, customers are self-selected, and the low-cost of Chinese labor doesn’t affect their spending habits. As long as sales are high, vendors do not seem concerned about the Chinese copycats. But, if German artisans licensed their designs and were looking to grow their business, then Chinese copycats would be a huge threat and could be considered creative theft.
“The Chinese didn’t invent this practice, the world’s been copying everything forever. If you go to some of the Christmas markets in Germany you’ll find that the sellers are selling things that look pretty much the same. They’re copying from each other already,” Fishman said. “I think it’s just human nature to find it particularly galling when somebody from a different place does it, after you’ve already reckoned with the fact that your neighbor is doing it.”