Shoppers go on a (sales tax) holiday

Savvy shoppers sought sales to boost their savings Saturday, the midpoint of the Carolinas three-day, tax-free holiday that ends today.

“S-A-L-E!” said Crystall Gabriel, 16, while shopping at Carolina Place Mall with her triplet sisters, Erica and Kneisha. “Look for the red dots at Belk, and the sales.”

The rising juniors at Harding High scored extra savings at Belk and Abercrombie & Fitch, adding to the sales tax break. That helped stretch money they've earned working this summer at Carowinds. Dad, Sanford Gabriel, kicked in “a little,” he and the girls said.

“Gas prices aren't getting any lower,” Crystall Gabriel said with a shrug. Sister Erica added “If we didn't work, gas prices would have taken a big chunk out of our money.”

The tax-free event kicks off the back-to-school shopping season. Combined with back-to-college, the month or so of school spending is the second biggest shopping season after the winter holidays. This year, parents and students nationwide are projected to shell out more than $51 billion for computers, clothing, dorm furnishings, notebooks and other school supplies, according to the National Retail Federation. Many of those are tax-free this weekend.

Spending is projected to rise 5.5 percent for the students from kindergarten through 12th grade, despite higher gas and food prices, job uncertainty and a weakened economy. The average family will spend nearly $600, the retail group said. On that average bill, this weekend's tax break for eligible items would be more than $40, based on Mecklenburg's 7.25 percent tax rate. Rates are slightly less in nearby counties.

The tax break isn't nearly as big as the double-digit percentage markdowns on a good sale, but there's a psychological appeal in not paying taxes. Retailers say it is a draw.

“This weekend brings them in,” said Alice Gallagher, manager of the Belk store at Carolina Place Mall, where parking spots were scarce Saturday.

Tracey Railey, who lives in Chester, S.C., went window-shopping the previous weekend. She waited for the tax break to return to Carolina Place in Pineville and shop with daughters Reagan, 16, and Ryane, 10. They toted bags from several stores, loaded with khakis, polos and other outfits allowed by their school's uniform policy.

Tracey Railey, manager of an insurance agency, expects to spend about the same as last year, but she's watching the sales more closely.

“We have a budget for everything, the way gas is,” she said.