Heading into tax-free weekend in a holiday frame of mind

Preparation is key for Walmart manager Don Alston each time the first weekend of August rolls around.

He’ll receive a full batch of new supplies at his Tega Cay store three to four weeks beforehand, then start the precise task of placing each set of backpacks, lunchboxes or binders in easy eye-range for the incoming wave of shoppers.

Location is everything for the annual tax-free weekend.

“I like to call it our first big holiday weekend,” said Alston, who’s managed Walmart stores in South Carolina and Florida over the past four years. “We’ll see as much foot traffic for the weekend in that three-day window as many of them during the holiday season. It intensifies quite a bit.”

For one weekend each summer, South Carolina shoppers will be able to buy specific items without having to pay the 6 percent sales tax and any applicable local sales taxes.

According to the South Carolina Board of Economic Advisors, shoppers are expected to save an estimated $2.25 million during the 17th annual sales tax holiday from 12:01 a.m. Friday to midnight Sunday.

Many consumers are expected to pick up tax-exempt back-to-school items like book bags, computers, clothing and shoes. The S.C. Department of Revenue recently released a comprehensive list of exempt items (bed linens, jackets and socks are included) and a list of those that are non-exempt (including digital cameras, jewelry and toilet paper).

Retailers throughout the state are prepping for one of the busiest times of the shopping calendar, according to Lindsey Kueffner, executive director of the South Carolina Retailers Association. She said the annual event is only out-done by Black Friday after Thanksgiving, when stores try to slash prices just ahead of the holiday season.

Kueffner said the sales tax holiday is the one time each year that brick-and-mortar stores are on a level playing field with many online retailers, who don’t charge state sales tax.

“It creates inherent competition,” said Kueffner. “It’s something the retailers have to contend with every day.”

The popularity of internet shopping has put strong pressure on stores to provide their own brand of personal-touch customer service and interaction, according to Robert Martin, an economist with the Board of Economic Advisors. Back in 2001, when the holiday was first created, the board estimated consumer savings as high as $3.6 million. Current estimates have frozen at $2.25 million for the past six years.

Martin said it’s likely that consumers use the weekend to buy a base of low-price items such as pens, notebooks and paper, which generally have stagnant prices.

“What’s been happening is that over time, people can go and buy things online, generally earlier in the year,” said Martin. “Now you don’t have to wait for back-to-school weekend, you could have gotten them last year, if you wanted to. It’s not all just happening during that weekend anymore.”

Martin said the state earns 8.4 percent of its annual sales tax during the month of August, just slightly higher than the annual monthly average income of 8.3 percent. The figure suggests, according to Martin, that August is not an atypical month in the economic calendar, and that the loss in sales tax is “nothing special.”

Alston said he’s looking forward to catering to customers from North and South Carolina who are looking to take advantage of the deals.

North Carolina nixed its own state sales tax holiday three years ago, but local malls such as SouthPark, Charlotte Premium Outlets and Concord Mills will all offer extra discounts from stores such as J. Crew and Steve Madden on several back-to-school items.

South Carolina is one of 17 states, primarily in the Southeast, that are holding sales tax holidays. Others include Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana, Iowa, Alabama, Florida, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Maryland and Connecticut.

The Rock Hill Galleria on Dave Lyle Boulevard has traditionally held extended hours in order to work with the increased demand. Alston said his peak hours will usually be from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. before the crowds begin to die down. He advised that consumers who shop before or after these hours are less likely to fight the crowds.

While he expects shoppers to splurge on plenty of class items like glue and pens, Alston also believes there will be an uptick in technology purchases like laptops and electronics for those about to leave for college.

“It’s hard to predict,” he said. “It’s all about keeping up with the demand of the customer flow. We’re just excited to be in a position to help the customers save.”

David Thackham: 803-329-4066, @DThackham