For these Waterford women, Black Friday is about friendship, tradition and a love of the 'insanity'
West Hartford — Waterford friends Sue Strong and Linda Milligan have been Black Friday shopping together for more than 35 years, a tradition that has typically involved convening after Thanksgiving dinner to take over the dining room table, spread out flyers, and create a "plan of attack."
Their Black Friday start time has varied between 5 or 6 a.m., after midnight, and 8 p.m. Thursday, though they both noted they don't like stores opening on Thanksgiving.
They didn't go through flyers together this Thursday night; there weren't many flyers this year. But Strong, Milligan, and Milligan's older daughter, Amy Plungis, were at the Westfarms mall in West Hartford just before 6:30 a.m., less than a half-hour after the mall opened.
They came festively dressed: Milligan in a red sweater and a green scarf with Santas on it, Plungis in a red-and-black checkered Sherpa jacket, and Strong in a long red cardigan.
"I love the insanity of the people and the craziness of the crowds and all that," Milligan said. "Susan and I would always approach it, we were always very jolly, like crazy nice, because it's the season, right? It's the season to be jolly."
Strong said ahead of time they love to touch the product and are "always a touchy-feely group," and to see them in the bedding department of Macy's is to know they're not kidding.
Within the first two hours, they also hit Madewell, Lucky Brand and The North Face, but they'd have to wait until 10 a.m. for the opening of Nordstrom, where checking the shoe sales is a Black Friday mainstay.
In The North Face, Plungis eyed strangers to see if she could find a man about the same size as her husband, to ask if he could try on a jacket to see how it would fit. Strong identified a willing participant, and Plungis went bounding after her.
Plungis, 38, has been going Black Friday shopping with her mother and Strong for at least 10 years. She remembers waking up as a kid to find them already gone, and when it was time for bed, they were still out.
Strong and Milligan, now in their 60s, previously went to Crystal Mall when there were more stores there, and would end the day with dinner and a glass of wine at Charlie's.
Milligan said she and Strong "are just great shopping buddies. There's only so many people you can shop with." But Plungis said she has yet to find someone her age who would get up with her at 5 a.m. to do this.
"I have co-workers that laugh at me; I love to get up at 5," Plungis said. "I enjoy the craziness of it. I don't mind the long lines. Some people get all stressed out; I just stand there and smile."
Milligan said her other daughter, Kaitlyn Turner, doesn't like to shop as much. But she was answering texts from Plungis before 8 a.m., about what Plungis could get her sister's son.
Strong's daughter, Samantha, joined in on the Black Friday tradition before she moved to California.
"When I first started, it was just really exciting for me to be able to be a part of it, because for so long I had seen her go and do it," said Samantha, 31. Four years ago, she surprised the group with "Expert Black Friday Shopper" shirts for the mothers and "Black Friday Shopper in Training" shirts for she and Plungis.
She recalls that at age 18 or 19, when the group went out after midnight, she fell asleep standing in a Walmart.
Sue Strong's son, Matt Foster, never took part in the Black Friday shopping.
"When I was young, I (was) just there for the presents," said Foster, 37, with a laugh. Now, he does pretty much all his shopping online.
Strong said Foster created her first email address: Shoptilludrop328.
Changes over the years
Strong and Milligan met when they both worked at Millstone Nuclear Power Station, and then Strong sent her kids to the in-home daycare Milligan ran for 23 years. Milligan used to buy gifts for all her daycare children.
Strong thinks Black Friday was probably at peak popularity and craziness about halfway through the 35 years of this tradition. She said Toys "R" Us used to be the best place to go.
Last year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Milligan met at Strong's and did Black Friday shopping online.
"I hated it, and it was not nearly as much fun. It was more frustrating to me," Milligan said. But Strong noted that her husband made breakfast "and no one could complain about it being too cold outside."
They were pleased to resume in-person shopping this year but agreed it wasn't as busy as Black Friday in 2019.
Milligan hasn't traditionally started her Christmas shopping until Black Friday but did so this year, amid supply chain issues and Black Friday specials starting early. Going into the day, Strong had already finished shopping for Plungis' 22-month-old but still needed to shop for her older child's daughter.
"Will I be done today? Absolutely not," Milligan said Friday. "Not even close."
Following Black Friday is Small Business Saturday; the Niantic Holiday Stroll is taking place from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and the Greater Norwich Area Chamber of Commerce is holding its holiday bazaar at Holiday Inn Norwich from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.