Justine Griffin/Sarasota Herald-Tribune—As a single mother with an 11-year-old daughter entering middle school this year, Ryann Jay started shopping for clothes and back-to-school supplies early.
Jay, whose daughter will start as a sixth-grader at Booker Middle School next month, has been browsing thrift store aisles and Walmart’s back-to-school sections for more than a week. She was not waiting for the crowds retailers are expecting for the three days of state tax free holiday sales during the first weekend of August.
“Salvation Army is always tax free and runs 25 percent off days,” Jay said. “The thrift stores are great. On Wednesday, I got a pair of jeans and three tops for $7.”
Heading into the school year next month, Florida shoppers can take advantage of another tax holiday during the first weekend of August that will allow them to buy clothing and school supplies and not pay state or local sales tax.
For the first time, the Aug. 2-4 tax holiday will also exempt personal computers and related equipment up to $750 in value. Shoes, clothing and backpacks will be limited to $75 or less, while school supplies will capped at $15 per purchase.
“While we’ve already seen many early shoppers, we do expect many first-time and repeat customers will come out again in force for the special tax free savings on clothing, footwear, supplies and laptops,” said Susie Gordon, manager of the Walmart Supercenter at 8320 Lockwood Ridge Road in Sarasota. “They know the money they can save during this time at Walmart can mean an extra shirt or backpack.”
For the first time this year, the retail giant is offering free shipping on school uniforms and supplies purchased online. All Walmart stores will also feature a “Teacher’s Corner” in back-to-school departments this year, that puts all school supplies in one location inside stores.
Kimberly Mudge, a mother of four, said she will pick up her children’s uniforms from Children’s World, a locally owned retailer on Bee Ridge Road, but will buy supplies from Target. Mudge’s children attend Suncoast School for Innovative Studies in Sarasota.
“I have never had a bad experience at Target and their deals are just as good as Walmart,” Mudge said. “I buy everything from Target; it’s one of my favorite stores to shop at and the quality of their products is the same or in many cases better than Walmart.”
Target’s back-to-school promotions have focused heavily on social media this year. An Instagram promotion that runs Aug. 7-12 encourages parents to share pictures of their children showing off their unique style on the smartphone picture-taking app, using the hashtag #KidsGotStyle and tagging @Target. The retailer will create customized looks featuring colors, items and supplies inspired by the photos they receive from parents.
>Sales to fall short in 2013
Back-to-school shopping, the second-largest shopping season of the year, is expected to be flat compared with 2012, when pent-up demand and a growing population of school children drove sales, according to projections by the National Retail Federation.
Families with school-age children are expected to spend an average of $634.78 on clothing, shoes, supplies and electronics, down from the $688.62 average in 2012.
Total spending across the county is expected to reach $26.7 billion, an NRF survey shows.
“Last year was an aggressive year for back-to-school sales and even though the market is holding up this year, we won’t likely see those same kinds of numbers,” said Jeff Green, retail analyst with Phoenix-based Jeff Green Partners.
“What’s interesting this year is that some traditional retailers that have never highlighted back-to-school sales before are getting into the mix.”
Bed, Bath and Beyond, a home furnishings retail chain, is offering an online registry for college students, similar to the chain’s bridal registry, and checklists for students who are shopping for back-to-college supplies. This is the first time the chain has put together a back-to-school promotion.
Tax free weekend
Not all school-related items are exempt. For instance, book sales will be taxed. However, as the result of a bill (SB 406) unanimously passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in May, consumers can make tax-free purchases of electronic book readers, laptops, desktop computers, tablets and other electronic devices if they are less than $750.
The exemption does not include smartphones, video game consoles, digital media receivers “or devices that are not primarily designed to process data,” according to the Florida Department of Revenue.
Florida, which has had an annual sales tax holiday most years since 1998, is following more than a half-dozen other states, such as Georgia and North Carolina, in exempting low-cost computer sales this year.
Rick McAllister, president of the Florida Retailers Federation, which lobbied for the inclusion of the school computers in the annual sales tax holiday, said “We think it’s a great deal for families.”
Sales tax holidays have their opponents, including the conservative-leaning Tax Foundation, which criticizes the national use of the tax breaks by the states in a report last year.
“Despite their political popularity, sales tax holidays are based on poor tax policy and distract policymakers and taxpayers from real, permanent, and economically beneficial tax reform,” the report said, adding that they distort the economy “without providing any significant boost.”
But McAllister said Florida retailers have reported an increase in sales leading up to the tax holiday and higher sales during the holiday period, including taxable items that can offset the loss of revenue from the tax-exempt sales.
State economists estimate this year’s three-day holiday could result in a loss of $34.7 million in sales tax revenue, split between $28.3 million in state collections and $6.4 million for the local governments that impose optional sales taxes.
The retailers point to several studies that bolster their argument about overall sales, including a review of the 2010 sales tax holiday in Florida by The Washington Economics Group.
The study found the holiday generated $115 million more in taxable sales as compared to the same period in the previous year with overall sales projections for the month exceeding the original estimate by $289 million.
The study found the state collected $7 million in taxes from those sales than what would have occurred without the holiday.
“It’s a win-win,” said McAllister.