Bargain hunters and retailers both get a present this week from the state of Florida when the tax-free holiday returns for the first time since 2007.
This year, shoppers better move quickly. The tax break kicks off at 12:01 a.m. Friday and lasts just three days, until midnight Sunday. In previous years, the sales tax holiday lasted at least a week and typically nine or 10 days. But with a tight budget, legislators weren't willing to lose that much revenue.
While the tax break is timed to help parents save on back-to-school purchases, it's not restricted to items for kids. It applies to clothes, shoes, certain accessories and books selling for $50 or less. It's also good on certain school supplies that cost $10 or less.
It doesn't matter how many items you buy, as long as each one falls under the limit.
One of the trickiest areas for exemptions are accessories. Watches, jewelry, duffel bags and briefcases are not tax-exempt, but ties, handbags, wallets and diaper bags are.
The exemption applies to more school supplies this year. New additions include binders, lunch boxes, construction paper and markers. But missing from the list are staplers, computer paper and masking tape. The book exemption does not apply to audio books, magazines or newspapers.
The three-day tax-break is expected to save Florida's taxpayers an estimated $26.1 million in state and local taxes, according to data from the Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research.
But a study by the Washington Economic Group shows that's only the beginning of the economic boost. Had a weeklong holiday been held in 2009, it would have represented a statewide increase in economic activity of about $1.7 billion, the study found.
"It's not just a tax break, it's a stimulus to the economy," said Rick McAllister, president of the Florida Retail Federation. "If you can get people out spending money, they spend money on other items that are not necessarily tax-free."
Nationally, the average family is expected to spend $606.40 this year on back-to-school clothes, shoes, supplies and electronics, according to a National Retail Federation survey. That's up from $548.72 last year and slightly higher than 2008's average of $594.24. Total spending on school-aged children in grades K-12 is expected to reach $21.35 billion.
But industry analysts still expect consumers to be cautious in their spending this year.
"Most back-to-school purchases are not going to be want-based. It's need-based," said James Russo, vice president of global consumer insights for the Nielsen Co. "Most consumers are not taking as many trips to the store, so retailers need to find ways to generate interest."
That's why retailers like the state tax-free promotions.
JCPenney tried last year offering its own tax discount promotion to Florida shoppers to make up for the lack of the tax holiday, but it wasn't the same.
"We saw the difference when the tax-free week wasn't there," said Tim Lyons, a spokesman for JCPenney. "It really is what brings everyone out shopping that weekend. Some of our stores compare it to Thanksgiving weekend in the way they plan and prepare for it."
But this year the tax-free holiday is only a week before school starts in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Hernando counties — and ends the night before classes start in Pasco. In Citrus, school starts Monday, too soon to take advantage. Savvy parents have already started shopping: If you shop the bargains, it may be a bigger savings than waiting for the tax-free weekend.
Office Depot is one of the retailers that has been going out of its way to lure in early shoppers with aggressive promotions on school supplies that kicked off in mid July.
Each week Office Depot has been offering between eight and 12 items frequently found on kids' school supply lists, for between a penny and $1. The sales feature everything from notebooks to crayons and protractors.
"We want to give customers a reason to come into our store every week," said Mark O'Connell, Office Depot's senior director of merchandising for back to school. "Back to school is a very competitive time and it's a chance to attract new customers.”