MANATEE -- Retailers in Manatee County are preparing for their busiest time of the year this coming weekend, second only to the Christmas season.
Florida's annual sales tax holiday will begin Friday and continue through Sunday, giving consumers tax breaks on the purchase of most clothes and school supplies.
But retailers in Manatee and Sarasota say the event also provides a shot in the arm to stores that sell merchandise not covered under the program -- with shoppers generally more apt to reach for their wallets, dine out and even fill up the tank during the weekend.
Retailers now are busy finalizing special advertisements, placing in-store signage and crafting strategic sales to maximize the three-day bonanza.
"We expect a big pop from the event," said Bill Webster, director of public and government affairs for Bealls. "It boosts retail in Florida as a whole, but it's very strong for apparel."
During the three-day holiday, the state waves sales tax on clothing and shoes priced $75 and lower, and school supplies under $15 each.
The Florida Retail Federation has estimated parents will spend $30.3 billion to get their kids ready for the new school year -- an increase from 2011. A large portion of those sales will be registered this weekend.
Retailers are strategically marking down items so they fit with the special. Others are running coordinating promotions to combat lingering weakness in the economy. In all, most expect an uptick in patronage.
Webster said Florida consumers tend to respond more to the tax breaks than if Bealls itself were offering a 6.5 or 7 percent discount. But the family of department and outlet stores also will offer additional sales.
The retailer, headquartered in Bradenton, is now placing signs to inform shoppers of its promotions on top of the tax holiday this weekend, which in the past has drawn double-digit increases from even the height of Manatee's tourism season.
Others are rolling out similar deals.
To kick off the tax-free holiday, Staples will extend its hours until midnight on Friday, with bonus buys from 9 p.m. to close.
The retailer will offer in-store coupons for $10 off on any purchase of $50 or more and $20 off $75 or more. Staples has 145 stores in Florida, including four between Manatee and Sarasota.
"We have had an overwhelming response to last year's holiday so we're do
ing things a little different this year," Staples spokesman Owen Davis said. "We expect a big increase in foot traffic."
At Ellenton Premium Outlets, the timing of this year's tax holiday couldn't be better.
The three-day event comes early this year to accommodate some school districts in Florida that begin classes the second week of August. Manatee schools begin Aug. 20.
That helped parallel the tax holiday with mall owner Simon Property Group Inc.'s national back-to-school and fall preview sale from Aug. 2-6 at its outlet centers across the U.S.
About 100 of the 130 stores at Ellenton Premium Outlets sell items that qualify for the tax-free holiday.
"Florida shoppers will get a double benefit," said Sarah Ozgun, the mall's assistant general manager. "Our shoppers are excited for the sale and the tax-free holiday, and we are ready for the crowds."
After a two-year suspension, an abbreviated three-day sales tax holiday was reauthorized by the Florida Legislature in 2010 -- strengthening taxable sales by $115 million, according to research commissioned by the Florida Retail Federation.
But some experts believe the general economic benefits may be tamer, with consumers only adjusting when they buy, not necessarily what they buy.
The holiday will at worst provide a break for parents of school children to help offset the rising cost of commodities like gas, said Sean Snaith, an economist with the University of Central Florida.
"Some people will buy merchandise that's not for their kids, and if they wouldn't have spent in the absence of the holiday, then there's some stimulus effects," Snaith said. "But if my kid needs glue sticks, he's going to need them anyway."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman