Photo Gallery | Black Friday in Lee
LEE — Driven by savings of 40 percent and up, atypically warm weather for late November, and free goodies like chocolates, shoppers of all ages flocked by the thousands to the Berkshires' main buyers' paradise — Lee Premium Outlets — on America's consumer holiday, Black Friday.
People began assembling at 10 p.m. Thursday as stores opened at midnight and remained packed well into Friday evening ahead of a 10 p.m. closing time. Stores had prepared by hiring more than 100 seasonal employees, and managers of the outlets had devised scrupulous parking plans.
Some shoppers new to the Black Friday game commented very favorably on the experience.
"We usually avoid the stores today on purpose," Leslie Lindgren, of West Hartford, Conn., said. "But this was fun — nobody rushing or pushing. We had a great time people watching."
Carlton Lindgren, also of West Hartford, added, "You're getting a great deal — basically 40 percent off of everything here — so much different than people slugging each other for fire sale prices on 50 TVs."
Natalie Swiller, another West Hartford resident, complimented store employees.
"I've never done this before," Swiller said. "I was wondering if it was a bummer for the people who had to work but everybody seems to be in such a good mood."
The West Hartford shoppers said they opted to come to the Berkshires for the enjoyable drive and less hectic atmosphere compared to closer options in Connecticut.
Carolyn Edwards, general manager of Lee Premium Outlets, said management begins planning six months ahead for Black Friday and the holiday shopping season generally.
"We feel like we have it down to a science," Edwards said. "We always take the experience from last year and say, 'How can we get a little better for next year?' "
At the busiest times Friday, shoppers were directed to an overflow parking lot at the bottom of the hill from the outlets and shuttled up to the stores.
"We do expect that we're going to be up significantly [in traffic] from last year [on Black Friday]," Edwards said. She could not provide exact figures except to say Black Friday "easily doubles and more" normal weekend traffic. "I spoke to a lot of store managers during the morning hours, and their thought was, 'Wow, if this continues all season long, we're going to be happy.' "
Crowds could also be seen on Friday at the Pittsfield and North Adams Wal-Mart stores and other big box stores, like Target, at The Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough.
Low gas prices and milder weather would continue to contribute to an atmosphere favorable to shopping, Edwards said.
"You look at Black Friday and say, 'This is how the season's going to run,'" she said. "If this is an indication, I would definitely say it's going to be a good holiday season for retailers."
Elsewhere in the nation, The Associated Press reported that there overall "seemed to be smaller crowds throughout stores and malls across the country."
In Colorado, so-called "Weed Friday" — big discounts on marijuana and related items — made headlines, while a "largely peaceful" Black Lives Matter protest in Chicago's high-end shopping district — inspired by the police killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald last year — also garnered media attention.
The AP reported that "many shoppers seemed to take the [Chicago] disturbance in stride, and some even snapped photos of the crowd." Later in the day, the Rev. Jesse Jackson led a prayer with a group from the steps of Chicago's historic Water Tower.
In the run up to Black Friday, financial analysts predicted that for the first time, online sales would top in-store sales. Figures on whether the prediction bore out remain to be seen.