It is hard to imagine Christmas in the Czech Republic without the annual Christmas markets that fill up squares in cities and towns across the country during this period, offering all kinds of practical or decorative wares.
This year the situation has been different. While the government has been careful not to snuff out the tradition completely, safety rules have severely limited the number of stands that can sell their wares this way and there are also fewer people on the streets in general.
Naturally, this has not just had an impact on the atmosphere, but also on the many self-employed craftsmen and entrepreneurs who make most of their income speficifaclly during the Christmas season, potentially spelling ruin for many of them.
This is what farmer Jana Kuntošová and copywriter Hana Šormová were thinking when the second wave of the COVID-19 coronavirus hit the Czech Republic in the autumn. Small-time businesswomen themselves, they chose to help their colleagues across the country by starting the initiative Darujeme české Vánoce (Lets gift a Czech Christmas). Hana Šormová explains how the idea came about.
“Our project started at the end of October. It was in response to the lockdown measures that were implemented at that time, particularly the closure of Christmas markets. These did end up opening in a limited way, but back then it was not clear that would happen.
“My colleague Jana Kuntošová is a farmer, who makes most of her sales at markets during the winter season. I am self-employed and also run a company selling toys. I wanted to do some offline activities such as a book christening, selling board games for children and such, so the project we embarked on was in part also a response to our own problems.
“However, most importantly, it was sparked by our realisation that the majority of Czech craftsmen do not operate online. Whether it be blacksmiths or glassmakers, very few actually sold their products in other ways than personally. They had no way to present themselves virtually and that is why we came up with the project.”
The two women decided they would try to start an online campaign to get people to support local craftsmen and businesses in the Czech Republic during the Christmas season. At first, they tried to start a hashtag trending on social media – #Darujemeceskevanoce – which could both raise awareness and give local businesses the chance to get themselves noticed. Soon after that, they created a Facebook page under the same name, where they hoped the public and craftsmen could find some form to connect. It was a major success, attracting thousands of people in just a space of a few days, says Mrs. Šormová.
“We did not expect our project would take off in such a way. We thought it would serve as a marketplace where we would would create posts every now and then that would be specially focused on a certain product with relevant craftsmen then being able to present themselves and their wares in the thread. The idea was that people could then contact them. We had no other plans.
“We thought there would be a couple of thousand followers of the page, but in a space of four days we already had 8,000. Then Forbes magazine got interested and several other media outlets as well. We jumped to 37,000 followers within a month and could not believe it. We had to react somehow to this huge surge in interest. I came up with the idea of creating a special website and it all went on from there.”
The website, unsurprisingly, goes by the name darujemeceskevanoce.cz. It was the result of not only Jana Kuntošová and Hana Šormová’s work, but also the input of several other volunteers ranging from software engineers to coordinators. The platform seves as a connector between buyers and sellers, but it does not charge any money from purchases for itself. Rather, it is simply a place of the web where people can find a wide range of Czech craftspeople and brands and get in touch with them. Hana Šormová explains.
“Right now there are several ways in which sellers can get involved on our website. There is a catalogue of brands where they can register. Right now there are around 680 of them advertising on our site. Then there is a sorted catalogue of over a thousand products which people can download, pick out what they would like and purchase. It will be available for the whole year, so beyond the Christmas period. Finally, we of course have the Facebook page where there are around 38,000 followers at the moment.
“Our website works like this: If you you know roughly what you want when you visit, I recommend you go straight into the catalogue of products and choose the specific piece you would like. The catalogue connects you directly to the seller. That is important to mention – we are not a third party sales site. We just connect you for free to those who make the products, giving craftsmen the opportunity to be visible.
“Another option is for the visitor to look through the brands catalogue where there are several filters that they can use. Let us say, for example that there is a man who wants to buy his wife a present in the price range of up to CZK 1,000 and that the product should be made out of cotton. He can sift through the products and find what he wants through the filters. This gives him a list of brands and he can then click on their own sites and pick what he would like.
“However, it is not just our site that people use. Some just find something they really like via our instagram posts, where there are details on the product as well as a contact to the seller. We really tried to create a wide range of ways in which people can get interested and find the ideal product. For example, we also had a special ‘advent calendar’ page on our website where specific products where highlighted on each day which featured a discount, free delivery or an extra gift.”
She says that data and feedback both suggest the advent calendar did bring about much needed revenue for the brands.
“Data on our advent calendar showed that it helped almost all of the brands and craftspeople who were featured on our website. Some of them experienced a jump in sales of 200 percent during that specific day. There were also companies that had virtually no sales online before they joined our project in November.
“Others write to us that the Darujeme české Vánoce project did not raise their sales, but it did help them get discovered by companies with which they have since signed bulk deliveries, which is a big help. There are also tales of human kindness. For example, a lady wrote to us that she was contacted by a software developer who saw her situation and decided to create, pro bono, a website for her to sell her products.”
The advent calendar is not the only competition that visitors of the website can take part in. In November, darujemeceskevanoce.cz offered those who purchased at least one item the chance to take part in a lottery that offered several prizes in the form of Czech handcrafted products. Currently, another competition is being prepared called the ‘golden days’. What exactly it will entail is still being kept as a secret.
Just as at Christmas markets, the items people can buy on darujemeceskevanoce.cz are varied and often include quite unique items made by resourceful craftsmen who use unexpected materials, says Mrs. Šormová.
“It is amazing what crafty people can create. For example, we have a lady who uses makes beautiful handbags out of clotheslines, or there are people who laminate surgical steel into lovely jewelry. It is so diverse in fact that we had trouble sorting it all into a few separate categories.”
If there is one thing that Mrs. Šormová is particularly eager to share, it is the extraordinary ability of Czechs to come up with all kinds of hand-made products. She calls this phenomenon of creativity ‘Zlaté české ručičky’ (Golden Czech hands). Her own view is that it can have both positive and negative effects.
“What I mean by golden Czech hands is that people here are very crafty and I mean that both in a positive but also a negative sense. It may also be in part due to the climate we live in and our history.
“I used to live in Malta, where people are much more relaxed and less stressed out about things. I find that Czechs are more stubborn in their professions, which can help them, but can also make them blind to seeing new or different opportunities that arise. They are crafty in what they do, but also conservative in the way they do it. Our hope is that this project may show them that looking at things with a bit more distance and listening to feedback can really be beneficial in a business sense. However, the change has to come from the person themselves. You can not force it.”
Having established a sizeable community of both buyers and sellers, the question is whether the two creators of the website will try to monetize their product. The coronavirus epidemic is not likely to disappear any time soon after all and could help both them and the businesses it has attracted.
Mrs. Šormová does have ideas in this respect, but they are quite different to simply monetizing the platform and rather extend into offering a wider range of services that could serve craftspeople learning to do business online.
“There certainly is potential there to make it a long-term project. We are not planing to end it any time soon. After all, the webpage registration is for one year and we have created the catalogues. However, we both have small children, so there is the question of how much time can we invest.
“Where I really see the most potential though is in educating craftsmen to use the virtual space to advertise their products. We have already created several blog posts on the website where we give tips on this. For example, how to create a brand, a community of customers and how to avoid common mistakes. We are also hosting weekly webinars on the topic where experts give advice and we plan to continue with that next year.”
One idea that she has includes the creation of a virtual, interactive town market online.
“Imagine a site where craftspeople can play the role that they really are at their stand in a town market. An environment where they can use the sales method that they are used to. For example, they can record themselves in the way they like and then we can find ideal ways to present them online. I do not want to reveal too much yet, because I am not sure if it will actually be possible to realise a vision like that.”
It is undeniable that the darujemeceskevanoce.cz project has been a success that far exceeded original expectations. But even with this tool at their disposal, self-employed craftspeople and other town market operators have been hit by a significant fall in revenue this year. Even those Christmas market stands which are allowed to operate have difficulty attracting enough customers due to the fear many people have of public spaces and other aspects, such as the government ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol outdoors, which makes it impossible to buy one of the iconic beverages of the season – mould wine.
Several stands have reported their income has fallen by half compared to last year and that they are struggling to to at least balance the books, let alone make a profit. Another key aspect of this year is that Christmas market operators have to be extremely flexible, as the changing epidemic situation can bring about significant changes in government measures very suddenly.
Asked about how she sees the economic impact of coronavirus measures on small-time businesses and the self-employed, Mrs. Šormová says that the government has helped, but could have been more effective in the way it did.
“I will give you two subjective examples. One is my own and the other that of the craftspeople and self-employed who we help.
“I was employed as a copywriter at the beginning of this year, focusing mainly on travel and real-estate writing. These sectors were heavily hit and, when the virus arrived in the Czech Republic in March, I lost 90 percent of my income almost from one day to the next. I had a choice: either to apply for state compensation or try and find another way. I do not like to be dependent on anyone, let alone the state, so I chose the other option. I founded my own project called “Tulackuv svet”, which focuses on Czech made smart toys for children. The offline world was of course very much closed during the epidemic, so I was looking at online methods of how to get this across and help Czech schools and parents. It has led to positive outcomes such as our project for craftsmen.
“When I look at Czech business in general, Personally, I feel that state compensation in the Czech Republic was not as strong as in many countries abroad. Our family is partly Dutch and it was a different story from what I heard over there, especially when it comes to the bureaucracy. For the self-employed there certainly was some compensation. Based on what I have heard from the people we work with, its effectiveness is very much based on surrounding factors, for example if you are renting spaces or not and so on.
“Overall though, I feel that the people who have partnered with us are seeing the glass half full rather than half empty and our project has helped do that. At least that is the feedback we have received. If someone is a pessimist, it is highly likely that this whole pandemic has got them down. For the optimist it is just the end of another chapter in a book and the story may turn for the better soon.”
Hana Šormová and Jana Kuntošová’s project can be found on the website Darujemeceskevanoce.cz, or on Facebook, Instagram and Pintrest. Those willing to support Czech craftsmen, or just find a nice item or two to buy, can use it to contact them directly and order what they like.