Back-to-school

Tax-free means heavy store traffic

rburris@thestate.comAugust 5, 2013 

If you noticed you were not alone on the roads or in stores around Columbia over the weekend – well, you’re not alone.

Midlands’ merchants say they were much busier than normal during South Carolina’s tax-free holiday weekend this year, many of them capitalizing on the sales tax break by extending store hours and putting on added promotions.

The popular S.C. sales tax holiday, where businesses suspend collection of the 6 percent state sales tax and any local sales taxes on applicable items for three days – like their online competitors can do year round – ended at midnight Sunday.

Some states, like North Carolina, are nixing their tax-free holidays next year as they change tax policies. And Georgia – which has its tax holiday this weekend – has limited the amount shoppers can claim for exemption from sales taxes.

“South Carolina is still going incredibly strong in tax-free,” said Mechelle Carey, Best Buy general manager at the Sunset Boulevard store in Lexington. “Our customers love it.”

The store extended its business hours over the weekend by four hours, formally, Carey said, but stayed open even later as enthusiastic customers continued shopping.

“We were so busy at night,” said Carey. “We opened at 8 a.m. both Friday and Saturday. … Then on Friday night we were still pretty busy, so we just left the doors open to make sure we could serve our shoppers.”

South Carolina’s weekend sales tax suspension, now in its 14th year, is applicable to a laundry list of items geared largely to back to school, including clothing, footwear, accessories, school supplies, computers and computer equipment.

Some experts had predicted shoppers might tread lightly for bargains going into this school year after posting record spending totals in 2012 – the heel of a five-year recession.

That wasn’t the case though in South Carolina, merchants said, where shoppers were expected to save a total of about $3 million, according to the S.C. Department of Revenue.

Higher-end notebook computers, such as MacBooks, which retail on average for about $1,500, were heavy sellers, Carey said, saving consumers more than $100 in state and local taxes.

Even for the $1,000 MacBook model, however, elimination of the sales taxes at the Lexington store meant a $70 reduction, Carey pointed out, which is enough to purchase most people a tank of gasoline.

In addition to electronics, shoppers were looking to save big on clothing.

Shoppers in the Harbison Boulevard area, for example, also found promotions, earlier opening hours and later closing times. At Columbiana Centre, 75 percent of the 85 stores located there carry some form of merchandise covered under the statewide sales tax exemption, said Tom Dornfeld, the mall’s senior general manager.

Preparations by businesses for the weekend were worthwhile, he said.

“We have noticed the last three to four years that the traffic on tax-free weekend has gotten a little lighter each year – that the enthusiasm for the concept seemed to have waned,” Dornfeld said. “That all changed this past weekend. It went back to being the way it had been four or five years ago.”

On Friday and Saturday especially, “we saw people carrying multiple bags, which is good. It wasn’t quite like Christmas time, but good,” Dornfeld said.

All the anchor stores in the mall extended their hours for the tax-free weekend, and the mall stayed open until 10 p.m. Stores in the mall that did not carry items covered by the tax-free status, instead put on sales of their own to lure customers generated by added foot traffic, he said.

At local businesses, such as Brittons in the downtown area on Devine Street, shoppers also mopped up savings by tuning up their fall wardrobes and adding new Game Day selections, said Perry Lancaster, store manager.

“I think traffic was up and it was a very good weekend,” Lancaster said Monday. “Well-received.”

The Devine Street Association puts its annual Sidewalk Sale each year in conjunction with the state and local tax-free weekend, in a bid to draw customers and benefit from the additional traffic.

Many of the businesses in the association feature local art and artists as part of the weekend fare, along with sales and various promotions for their merchandise.

“People were shopping for fall, back-to-school, people were shopping for business wear – it was very good,” Lancaster said.

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