Thursday, June 21, 2018
Business

Tax-free holiday's new electronics category brings out shoppers seeking laptops, tablets

The doors parted, and a small but purposeful crowd of shoppers darted past employees in blue polos.

It was 7:59 a.m. at Best Buy near the Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg, and they knew their mission: to kick off Florida's tax-free weekend.

Ashley Horner wanted an iPad. The 29-year-old Jehovah's Witness waited a month to take advantage of the tax break. She said the tablet will help her teach Albanians to read the Bible in their mother tongue.

"We're actually learning another language and this will be a good tool," she said.

This year's tax-free weekend is the first to exempt many high-dollar electronics, a perk that drew bay area shoppers to stores where they'd been staking out products. The Florida Retail Federation estimates that sales will reach about $400 million, up $20 million from 2012 because of the electronics exemption.

A midafternoon downpour tamed crowds at Target and Office Depot on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, but managers at both stores said overall sales were robust, especially for electronics.

"Laptops and tablets are going like hotcakes," said Office Depot store manager Kelly Morin. "We've sold so many we can't even count."

She said sales were double the usual rate for a Friday, anticipating even higher rates Saturday and Sunday. From young students to grandparents, shoppers came prepared, she said.

"They came in yesterday, browsed, and said they'd be back," she said. "I've actually seen some of the same people. They really did come back."

One St. Petersburg Walmart was so crowded, 25-year-old Scott Bach didn't even try to maneuver his cart down some aisles. Helping his 12-year-old brother pick out school supplies in that crowd, he said, "was a nightmare."

But it wasn't so packed everywhere.

In Tampa, a handful of people lined up to await the early opening at Best Buy. Among them was Brigid Vargas, 67, of Tampa, who grabbed the first spot in the parking lot, expecting to compete against legions of laptop buyers.

"I'm surprised it's so empty," she said. "Maybe tomorrow when people aren't working there will be more."

As the store's doors rolled open, Vargas knew exactly where to go. Earlier this week, she surveyed Best Buy's offerings for a new HP laptop, which she found for $349. With an expensive item like a computer, the lack of tax makes a difference, she said. Her savings: about $25.

The state sales tax holiday will continue through Sunday night. The sales tax rate in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties is 7 percent. In Hernando, it's 6.5 percent.

The tax break has traditionally covered specific school supplies and clothing, but a number of electronic devices were added to the list this year, according to the Department of Revenue.

Shoppers will get a break on school supplies that cost less than $15 individually, clothing and accessories that are less than $75 per item, and personal computers and related accessories costing less than $750 each.

The holiday began in 1998, though some years it didn't occur. Retail groups say it spurs overall spending, not just on exempted items.

Browsing for a computer at Office Depot, 65-year-old Grace Lahey said she is grateful for the break but wishes it covered all items.

"With the way the economy is and how everyone's hurting, that would make everybody happy," she said. "Right now we need anything to get people out to stores and spending money."

   
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