July 26, 2014

Brisk back-to-school spending predicted – and Midlands retailers are ready

South Carolina’s tax-free weekend has become a centerpiece of back-to-school shopping in the Palmetto State, and after cutbacks in spending a year ago, more robust activity should greet retailers this year.

With forecasts of increased spending for back-to-school shopping and the 2014 state sales tax holiday in effect for next weekend, retailers are ready for action.

Mall hours have been extended at the area’s busiest shopping mall, Columbiana Centre in Harbison, and free-standing retailers from Wal-Mart to Target and Best Buy have rolled out early specials in preparation for the crowds of shoppers they expect to see as the August countdown to school days begins.

South Carolina’s 15th annual sales tax holiday for school supplies starts Friday and runs through Sunday. It will allow shoppers to save up to 8 percent on a generous list of school supplies from laptops to new clothes to dorm decor. Shoppers typically save an estimated $3 million during the weekend, the S.C. Department of Revenue has reported.

“Usually the crowds are pretty good,” said Andrew Peach, Columbiana Centre’s new general manager. “We’re extending (mall) hours on Friday through Sunday. ... It gets pretty crowded.”

Anchored by Belk, J.C. Penney and Dillard’s, the mall also features dozens of smaller, specialty-type shops that will put out their own special pricing for back-to-school items including clothes and electronics — and restaurants where shoppers can take a break when they get weary.

After Christmas, back-to-school shopping is the biggest spending season of the year for retailers, who rake in $62 billion nationally.

“A lot of the families will do the majority of their back-to-school shopping (next) weekend,” said Peggy Nemeth, Wal-Mart store manager in West Columbia. “It’s going to be a perfect time for people to come in that are maybe on a limited budget, and save a little money on their back-to-school supplies being tax-free.

Shoppers who plan to spend the average $683 on high school students can save up to $54 if they spend the money over the tax-free weekend.


South Carolina’s sales tax holiday remains popular, despite criticisms. Businesses are allowed to suspend collection of the 6 percent state sales tax and any local sales taxes – which could increase the savings to 8 percent – on covered items for three days in the Palmetto State during the tax holiday.

Neighboring North Carolina nixed its sales tax holiday a couple of years ago. Georgia’s sales tax holiday is a two-day event, Friday and Saturday, this year.

Nationally, shoppers are expected to increase back-to-school spending by 5 percent this year. That would raise the average expenditure for a family with children in kindergarten to grade 12 to $670, up from $635 last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Spending for college students’ back-to-school needs this year is expected to rise by 10 percent to $916 from $837 last year, the federation predicts, an increase of $48.4 billion.

Shoppers are likely to favor specialty retailers this year, according to the retail federation survey, conducted on nearly 6,200 respondents earlier this month.

Retailers say the usual back-to-school basics – notebooks, pencils, paper, pens and backpacks – will all be in demand, along with clothing, including items such as socks and underwear. Additional sales could help shoppers save even more. Wal-Mart, for example, will feature filler paper packages next weekend for 17 cents, Nemeth said, well below the normal price of more than $1.

Spending likely will continue through mid-August. College move-in weekend in much of the state is Aug. 15-17, and retailers say they expect shopping crowds then, too.

As for electronics, college students are expected to drop about $244 this year on laptops, desktops, netbooks, tablets, smartphones and other devices, the retail group said. That’s up 20 percent from last year, and the highest amount expected to be spent since 2009.

Combined grade school, high school and college back-to-school spending this year is expected to reach $749 billion nationally, the group said.

Experts attribute some of the projected increase in back-to-school spending this year to a slowly strengthening economy, though caution is still the watchword, they said.

“Throughout the history of this survey, spending has fluctuated based on family needs each year, and this summer, we expect parents to continue to use caution, but also make smart decisions for their family budget that is a good balance between what their children ‘want’ and what they actually need,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay.

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