'It's important to support local businesses': Undeterred by pandemic, Connecticut shoppers turn out for Black Friday

In a year of unprecedented disruption and hardship, customers across southwestern Connecticut gave retailers a boost Friday by turning out in large numbers for the biggest day on the retail calendar.

With ubiquitous masks, social-distancing signs and hand-sanitizing stations, Black Friday looked acutely different for customers and retailers than it did in years past.

The crowds might not have rivaled the throngs of those earlier years, but many shoppers said they still wanted to shop locally. The turnout was large enough to raise hopes among merchants about their prospects during the rest of the holiday season.

“It’s a beautiful day, so we decided to come out,” said Maureen Harper, a Greenwich resident, during a visit with her sixth-grade son, Owen, to Funky Monkey Toys & Books on Greenwich Avenue. “It’s important to support local businesses.”

‘It’s going to be a crazy weekend’

Many shoppers made an early start on their to-do lists, with the malls in Danbury, Norwalk, Milford, Stamford and Trumbull ranking among the most popular destinations.

Danbury Fair’s parking lot filled steadily heading into the lunch hours. Bethel residents Eric and Sylvia Guido emerged from the newly expanded Dick’s Sporting Goods with a Yeti cooler they purchased for themselves, after finding no better deals online. They said it marked their last stop of the day, having already done most of their gift-shopping online.

“We generally go out on Thanksgiving and do all the shopping then, maybe a little the following day,” Sylvia Guido said. “With the whole situation, we just started early — and a lot of stores had online deals which were a little better.”

At the United House Wrecking home furnishings store on Hope Street in Stamford, a steady stream of customers filed in and out of the approximately 40,000-square-foot showroom. It was operating for the last time on a Black Friday, as it is scheduled to shut down on Monday after a 66-year run. The store’s closing sale is aiming to move approximately $8 million worth of inventory, with about 20 percent to 30 percent still remaining.

“It’s going to be a crazy weekend,” said co-owner Ross Lodato. “We need to sell a lot more stuff.”

Shoppers were also bargain-hunting at Connecticut’s Lord + Taylor locations.

After filing for bankruptcy and announcing in August that it would shutter all of its establishments, the country’s oldest department-store chain has been holding going-out-of-business sales at its properties at the Danbury, Trumbull and Westfarms malls and on High Ridge Road in Stamford.

In response to the customer traffic Friday, many merchants have grown more optimistic about the next few weeks.

“We’re noticing a lot more out-of-towners, particularly from New York City as they seek a less crowded and more spatially accommodating environment for in-person shopping,” said Funky Monkey owner Jared Greenman. “Overall, we’re making solid gains on ground lost during the lockdown. However, we’re going to have to sell a lot of toys in the next 30 days to hit our original sales estimates for 2020.”

Nearly nine months since Connecticut recorded its first COVID-19 case, a number of store owners said they were encouraged by the extent to which customers had adjusted to the disruption caused by the pandemic.

“It’s good now that we’re on this side of it — everything’s set, we’ve got the systems all in place and they’re working,” said Kim Ramsey, owner of The Toy Room in downtown Bethel. “People are adapting more. I’ve heard more and more people saying, ‘I’m shopping local.’ Everything seems to be getting shared more on Facebook. People seem to be making a conscious effort at staying local this year.”

Retailing’s outlook has brightened nationwide too. The National Retail Federation projected holiday sales in November and December would increase between 3.6 percent and 5.2 percent year over to year to a total ranging from $755 billion to $767 billion.

On average, holiday sales have increased 3.5 percent during the past five years. Those numbers do not include automobile dealers, gas stations and restaurants.

Focus on safety

State officials had cast an eye on retail’s biggest day of the year when Gov. Ned Lamont announced Tuesday that businesses could face fines of $10,000 if they violated coronavirus-related regulations such as capacity limits.

Lines formed outside many stores, but shoppers generally waited patiently. Retailers said that modifications already made in response to the pandemic — including installing social-distancing signs and hand-sanitizer stations, enforcing mask-wearing mandates and stepping up cleaning and disinfecting — prepared them well for Black Friday.

Some stores added a few flourishes. At Westfield Trumbull mall, women’s-clothing seller Cozy outfitted its window mannequins with masks.

“The retailers have been smart this year knowing that overcrowding would put people at risk, so they’ve made arrangements to spread the cheer throughout the season,” said Stamford Town Center General Manager Dan Stolzenbach. “Therefore, we don’t anticipate the usual large crowds that we’ve seen in prior years.”

Customers who turned out said they did not feel anxious about shopping in person.

“I think they’re doing a great job,” said Greenwich resident Harper. “I think stores like this one (Funky Monkey) are safe places.”

End of an era

Amid the bustle, wistfulness tinged the day at United House Wrecking.

The Lodato family members who own the business have decided the time is right to wind down an enterprise that has amassed thousands of pieces of furniture, decorations and other collectibles from across the country and around the world.

No single factor led to the closing, but the Lodatos started to consider closing after Ross Lodato received in November 2019 a cold call from someone who offered to acquire the property.

Ross Lodato declined to disclose the terms, but he said the proposal was a “more-than-fair offer.” When the pandemic emerged a few months later, it reinforced his decision.

“I’ve been so busy, and I’ve worked straight the past 90 days. It took my mind off the reality that there’s only four days left,” Ross Lodato said. “But it is really coming to an end, which is hard to believe.”

Longtime customers such as Franca Vitagliano and her daughter Anna Delicata, both of New Canaan, were also feeling nostalgic.

“They’re very nice people, and they really work with us,” Delicata said. “We’ve been shopping here for years. It is sad to see them go.”

pschott@stamfordadvocate.com; twitter: @paulschott