Black Friday at Crystal Mall quieter than years past
Waterford ― Just before 9 a.m. on Black Friday, the rhythmic thumping of an escalator dominated the music-free air at one end of Crystal Mall, with security gates still down at some stores and the parking lot mostly empty.
But by the afternoon, an environment one teenager described as “eerie” had given way to the ambient hum of customers, longer lines and more cars in the parking lot, and kids riding around on “Dream Riders,” plush motorized animals such as a tiger, giraffe and panda.
But it’s still a very different experience from Black Fridays at Crystal Mall in years past, and from the Westfarms Mall in West Hartford of the present, which is more bustling during the holidays.
This was the first Black Friday outing for 14-year-old Leena Egbert, who mostly shops online from Shein or Amazon but was on a mission Friday to find some Mary Jane shoes.
“I thought it would be way more crazy. I expected to see someone sleeping somewhere,” she said, basing that on Instagram posts and stories from her mother, Theresa Valunas, with whom she was shopping. They are from Gales Ferry.
“I remember people waiting in line for Furbies, and I was one of them,” Valunas said of her own memories.
By 8:45 a.m., Jennifer Norton and her 16-year-old daughter ― who were wearing matching “Oh, what fun” shirts ― were already getting ready to head to Old Saybrook to get some movies and then back to Westbrook, where they live.
Norton said they used to go to the outlets but decided to switch it up this year, going to Target before heading to Crystal Mall to go to the Christmas Tree Shops and Old Navy. Julie Norton also had some purchases from FYE and Hot Topic.
Jennifer Norton has been Black Friday shopping for 25 years and used to go with friends, saying now it’s “completely different than it was years ago. It’s dead. It’s dead.”
Brent Harmon, 29, stood against a railing with his fiancé and stepfather as he waited for his mother to come out of a store.
“The lines were out the doors, and now it’s just, ain’t nobody here,” he said. His stepfather, Sam Hassan, described the changes over the years as “sad.”
This was also the word that 25-year-old Melissa Weglein used as she was shopping with her sister, Emily, and mother, Joni. But it was still a happy day: “The idea is being together,” Joni said, since her daughters live in Maine and New York but are home for the holidays.
Without any particular shopping goal in mind, just to people-watch, they had come from Canterbury in their matching “Thankful” sweaters.
Store managers talk changes and trends
There’s a complex variety of factors feeding into the Black Friday landscape this year: We’re in a different place in the COVID-19 pandemic than in 2020 or 2021, the holiday shopping season seems to start earlier each year, and many stores have a glut on certain items as they over-corrected from shortages earlier in the pandemic. Shoppers also may be cutting back on discretionary spending due to inflation.
On top of all that, there’s the specifics of Crystal Mall: In addition to following the direction of other malls, with the number of stores dwindling since its heyday, the latest news from the mall is that the loan holder foreclosed on the property. Simon Property Group had owned Crystal Mall since 2012, but the commercial real estate information company CoStar reported that investment management company Rialto Capital now owns the mall.
“I feel like the mall is trying to come back under the new ownership,” said Bath & Body Works manager Heather Hartley, greeting people entering the store. She has been here for six years and said “definitely it’s declined year after year” on Black Friday.
She opened the store at 5 a.m. ― while the Crystal Mall website listed overall mall hours as 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. ― but said Bath & Body Works didn’t have its first customer until almost 6:30. One thing she has noticed this year is people not shopping unless they have coupons.
At Ice Imports, manager Collin Zimmerman said TikTok has become a driver of what people are buying. He said Friday afternoon that foot traffic in the store was on and off throughout the day and not as busy as last year, and he was hearing from customers that the date “snuck up” on them this year.
Hallmark manager Jessica Tefft said the store had been busy, with a steady flow of people, but not as busy as Black Fridays of the past.
“It’s kind of crazy to see how much it’s changed,” Tefft said, having been here eight years. “I remember the parking lot was chock full of people. You couldn’t even find a spot. You had to come here way early.”
A shopping trend she’s noticed is that “a lot of people seem to be nostalgic,” wanting things like a ceramic Christmas tree or gnomes. And she’s also hearing nostalgia from customers in comments they make about the mall itself.
“They always get sad about the mall. They remember how it used to be,” Tefft said. But she also hears people say they don’t want to shop online, that they want to feel and look at items. Tefft added, “I’m hoping brick and mortar stores make a little bit of a comeback, just because people are feeling nostalgic.”