A mixed Black Friday amid hope and trepidation

Twenty-one months after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, a Black Friday filled with hope and trepidation for retailers was a mixed picture in Connecticut, with many shopping centers packed with customers and others showing smaller crowds.

Hundreds of people descended on the Danbury Fair mall for its 7 a.m. opening, for example, but far smaller numbers appeared for The SoNo Collection’s own opening a few hours later, down Route 7.

Likewise, later Friday morning, drivers on Intrstate 95 east of New Haven eased into the breakdown lanes for the exits to the Clinton Crossing Premium Outlets. But the Westbrook Premium Outlets, just six miles farther east, were quieter.

A late fall drizzle affected some shoppers’ plans but not others, while the specter of rising prices and shortages of some merchandise may have played a role in drawing shoppers out to the stores, or perhaps gluing them to their laptops at home for online purchases.

And in some places, an early Hanukkah — the Jewish festival that starts Sunday evening — added to the Black Friday hubbub.

Throughout the region, crowds were building steadily into the afternoon hours, whether to get a jump on gift shopping or simply turning out for a little magic of the holiday season after the COVID-19 virus curtailed many activities and gatherings last year.

Just before 8 a.m. Friday, Jon Lessard had finished his shift stocking shelves overnight at the Target store inside the Connecticut Post Mall. Taking a break on a mall sofa, Lessard unwrapped a gift he bought himself as a little reward for a night of hard night — a tin of “Magic: The Gathering” game cards on sale for $10 — before strolling the mall himself with an eye peeled for any other deals.

“I just want to see what they have,” Lessard said.

Lessard was not alone, with ample numbers of shoppers turning out throughout southern and western Connecticut, at select stores in the earliest hours but building throughout Black Friday. That included at Stamford Town Center where foot traffic was well above its levels on a typical day.

“I wanted to see if they had some good deals here,” said Stamford resident Jonathan Hermosura, after a stop at the Banana Republic store at Stamford Town Center. “I got two pairs of pants and a sweater. It was 40 percent off, so you can’t beat that.”

Since late October, retail executives have said repeatedly their greatest worry is not whether people will turn out to shop, but whether stores will have enough stock to meet demand.

On that expectation at Best Buy stores in Norwalk and Danbury, boxed TVs were positioned throughout the store. And at Walmart in both cities, bins of items priced under $10 were positioned throughout the store, unwrapped only Friday morning for sale.

But barricades Best Buy positioned on its exterior walkway were not needed the morning of Black Friday, with ample traffic but shoppers not overwhelming the store’s capacity.

Some shoppers were already mostly done with their holiday purchases outside of spur-of-the-moment items that might surface in the coming weeks, according to a National Retail Federation survey in early November.

One shopper loading a minivan at Walmart on Connecticut Avenue in Norwalk early Friday morning, who did not want to be identified by name, said it was the first of just two stops on the day to put a bow on the holiday shopping season.

Fairfield resident Mark Lundvall said the extended window for deals in recent years takes some of the appeal out of bargain hunting on Black Friday.

And Lundvall sees signs of inflation creeping into Black Friday pricing this year, with some products selling for more than he would have expected to pay at regular prices in prior years.

“I think Black Friday has lost its luster completely,” Lundvall said.

Elsewhere, shoppers found the opposite.

“I see lots of stores have discounts, so I think I’ll be buying,” Stamford resident Hassan Sharif at the Stamford Town Center mall.

An analyst with the financial data firm Refinitiv backed up Lundvall’s observations with hard numbers on Friday, during an appearance on CNBC.

“The average promotional discount is much lower this year compared with the previous two years,” said Jharonne Martis, director of consumer research for Refinitiv, in the CNBC apearance. “This is mainly because of supply worries.”

With toy safety as another pernnial worry, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal joined representatives from the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center to discuss the warnings of ConnPIRG’s annual “Trouble in Toyland” report — a guide to protect families from toys that present choking hazards, data security problems and other dangers.

Jared Greenman, owner of the Funky Monkey toy store on Greenwich Avenue in Greenwich, said Black Friday is all about having products on the shelves.

“Hanukkah is early this year — Christmas and Hanukkah are spread out — so we’ve already seen a big spike in sales,” Greenman said. “Our stock rooms were packed to the ceiling maybe a month or two early this year, just to hedge our bets and make sure we had the supply. We didn’t want to take the risk of going into the holiday season without the proper amount of inventory.”

With mall corridors and big-box aisles the focus on Black Friday, attention shifts to independent shops on “Small Business Saturday” and then to online channels on “Cyber Monday.” On “Giving Tuesday” charitable donations take center stage.

Is there plenty more consumer spending power left in the tank for the weeks to come? Matt Seebeck, general manager of The SoNo Collection, is among those who believe.

“The holiday season really pumps up to the Saturday before Christmas,” Seebeck said. “We’re just happy to be in the position that we’re in this year compared to last year.”

Paul Schott and Luther Turmelle contributed reporting.

Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-842-2545; @casoulman