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A Black Friday warmup? Tax holiday means big sales for retailers

 Mug of Susan Thurston for column sig taken Tuesday, July 15, 2014.    USE THIS SIG FOR EVERYTHING.....

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Mug of Susan Thurston for column sig taken Tuesday, July 15, 2014. USE THIS SIG FOR EVERYTHING.....

Stores worried about a sluggish year aren't celebrating yet, but they are feeling more optimistic after the weekend's busy back-to-school sales tax holiday.

Florida retail officials said consumers crammed stores and malls Friday through Sunday to take advantage of the 6 to 7 percent tax discount on clothing, school supplies and electronics.

"A lot of retailers compared it to Black Friday," said John Fleming, spokesman for the Florida Retail Federation. "Once again, it was a success."

Though back-to-school sales figures won't be available until after kids go back to school, retailers were optimistic that the strong start would bode well for the rest of the year.

Area malls enjoyed a big boost, with stores in all-hands-on-deck mode to handle the crowds.

"It was like Christmas traffic," said Nina Mahoney, marketing director at International Plaza in Tampa.

Stores that cater to school-age customers, such as Hollister, American Eagle Outfitters and Abercrombie & Fitch, were especially crowded. So were electronics stores, which for the first time offered a tax break on the first $750 of a computer purchase even if the item cost more. Apple's store had waits for sales associates as shoppers combined the tax break with student discounts on computers.

At times, the parking lots were full on Saturday and Sunday, which usually only happens at Christmastime, Mahoney said.

Westfield malls in Brandon, Citrus Park and Clearwater reported double-digit increases in traffic over last year's tax-free weekend. Particularly busy were Forever 21, Rue 21, Charlotte Russe and Windsor, stores geared toward young, college-age shoppers.

At WestShore Plaza, a few hundred people took advantage of a promotion offering a $25 mall gift card for spending $250 at stores and restaurants. Store clerks said they were practicing for Thanksgiving's Black Friday, the biggest single shopping day of the year.

Next to Christmas, back-to-school is considered the second most important shopping season for retailers. Sales are expected to reach $75 billion. It's also a good indicator of how the industry will finish out the year. Generally, brisk back-to-school sales mean a brisk Christmas season, provided people don't stop shopping after the sales tax holiday.

"We've gotten off to a big start, and we still have another few weeks until school starts," Fleming said. "We'll need to see if the traffic continues."

There's power in a pillow, as anyone who wakes up with a neckache knows. There's also big money.

Joy Mangano, an inventor and a favorite guest on HSN, sold 216,000 sets of her Comfort & Joy MemoryCloud pillow in a single day, breaking an HSN record for the number of units of an item sold in one day. At $69.95 for the buy-one, get-one-free set, that amounted to $15.1 million. Even Mangano described it as "wow," calling it a "hallmark day" in her career. Before the pillows, her record was 174,000 Forever Fragrant Odor Eliminating sets sold in one day in 2010. Not even her famous Huggable Hangers have beaten that.

Interestingly, the patent-pending pillows didn't get great reviews on HSN.com. Of the 65 reviews posted as of Monday afternoon, the pillow set averaged 2.5 stars out of 5. Sixteen buyers gave it 5 stars and 33 people gave it 1 star, including some who said the pillows smelled bad and were heavy and lumpy.

"Sorry, these were very hard and I cannot use them. I would compare them to a wet sandbag," wrote one reviewer. Still, a record is a record, and $15.1 million in sales isn't chump change. Plenty of retailers would love to achieve that in a year, forget a single day.

Contact Susan Thurston at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston.

A Black Friday warmup? Tax holiday means big sales for retailers 08/04/14 [Last modified: Monday, August 4, 2014 8:37pm]

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