Shopping together is a tradition for the bargain-hunting Badger family of Buffalo. They showed up 10 strong Monday to be the first customers inside the TJ Maxx and HomeGoods store in Amherst, three hours ahead of its 10 a.m. opening.
The family's strategy was to divide and conquer: some would hit the shoe racks to find sneakers for the kids, others would scope out deals on tables and rugs.
"If it's looking good, throw it in the cart and we'll decide later," Elizabeth Badger of Buffalo said.
Her mother-in-law, Joyce Badger, was excited to spend the three months' worth of "Marshalls money" she would have normally spent at the retailer's sister store if Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's executive order had not shut down all non-essential stores in March.
TJ Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods department stores in the Buffalo Niagara market reopened Monday and the stores' passionate customers lined up by the hundreds to welcome them back.
It's a sign of the pent-up demand for a certain kind of shopping experience as stores slowly reopen in Western New York. As the region settles into phase two, many retailers have been met with robust but cautious receptions. Yet openings of the Massachusetts-based, off-price TJX Cos. stores repeated the same fanfare that openings garnered in other states.
But the goal of the day for many shoppers Monday wasn't only to fill the carts with deals. It was to celebrate getting back to normal after three long months in quarantine, browsing a store they love.
"Most of all, it's just the experience of opening the door and walking into TJ Maxx," Elizabeth Badger said.
The frenzy speaks to TJX stores' popularity – the company has $42 billion in annual sales and 4,500 stores around the world – but also takes the temperature of Western New York shoppers. Consumers have spent three months cooped up and bored, and have focused their spending on necessities such as milk and toilet paper. Now, as the coronavirus curve stays flat and regulations loosen up, they're ready to get back out, socialize and shop for fun again. But for many stuck in a recession and watching their wallets, the safest place for some discretionary spending may be an off-price retailer with an endless supply of stylish merchandise.
"This is therapy," said Lisa Levin of Clarence.
Shoppers tried to sum up TJX stores' appeal. Many credited its designer merchandise and low prices. Some likened a trip through the aisles to a heart-pounding, bargain-hunting adventure. Others compared it to a leisurely, relaxing vacation.
Whatever it is, the draw is undeniably powerful.
"I've been waiting months and months. I called corporate to find out when they would open," said Reenie Cleary of North Buffalo. "My husband said I need a support group."
Desi Nylander of Amherst was one of the first people inside TJ Maxx and Homegoods in Amherst Monday. He said he hadn't been shopping for a while and it felt like a good way to get out of the house. After 30 minutes in the store, he walked out with two arm chairs, some T-shirts, a 10-pack of socks and a $500 Oriental rug.
"The rug was marked down to $49," Nylander said. "I could use it and at that price I had to buy it"
Customers in line reflected the extremes of coronavirus precautions taken among consumers. Some brought their own Clorox to wipe down their carts, stayed six feet apart and squirted hand sanitizer liberally. Others stood shoulder to shoulder without masks.
They embodied the extremes of social etiquette as well.
Minutes before the store opened Monday, an elderly woman nudged her cart to the front of the line ahead of more than 200 others, some who had waited hours.
"Oh, I'm with them. The lady who works here told me to stand here," she said, before admitting quietly that she was cutting the line. "If they say anything I just play dumb. What are they gonna do, beat me up?"
The shoppers were flabbergasted by the woman's bold move, but let her pass peacefully.
"Just let her go, God bless her," one said.
At the other end of the store, a worker guarded the exit so that no one could sneak in. People still tried.
"There's someone else on the other side of the door, so they don't get far," the worker said.
When TJ Maxx closed in March, it closed with a pair of black, studded Louis Vuitton sneakers inside, which had been marked down from $1,000 to $450. A woman who would only identify herself as Tammy said she fretted over the sneakers the whole time the store was closed. She lined up early Monday to be among the first inside the store and snag them. Not only did she succeed, they were about $70 cheaper than they were in March.
But at least one other shopper, Jackie Johnston of Lewiston, walked away disappointed. She bought just a $10 tube of makeup that didn't even bear an added discount.
"We waited three hours ready to spend all our money and the prices were terrible," Johnston said. "We had it all planned out. We lost sleep over this. Nordstrom Rack's opening was way better."
Yes, more things at TJ Maxx and Homegoods were on clearance than usual she said, but even those items were minimally marked down.
One man returning an empty water jug to BJ's Wholesale Club next door stopped to take a picture of the line that blocked the entrance and wrapped around the strip plaza.
"Holy smokes. My wife won't believe it," he said as he aimed his phone from the parking lot.
Tom Woods of Cheektowaga was equally surprised by the line on his way to BJ's to buy an air conditioner. He shook his head in disbelief at the TJ Maxx and HomeGoods shoppers.
"There is nothing in there that important that I would wait in a line like that," he said. "If I came here and the line was like that I would drive away – and I need this air conditioner."
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