ELLENTON -- Looking up and down the shoes inside Rack Room Shoes, 6-year-old Emma Luff settled on a pair of $49.99 black Sketchers, with pink and white detailing at the bottom. Inside, the shoes were "squishy," which would make them comfortable for everyday wear at school.
"Can we buy these?" she yelled out to her mother, Sheryl Luff, who was looking at other shoes nearby inside the Ellenton Premium Outlets on Friday, the first day of the back-to-school tax-free holiday weekend. Her mother told her they'd look at all their options before deciding on the best back-to-school pair.
The holiday started at 12:01 a.m. Friday and continues through Sunday. State and local option taxes will not be collected on certain items -- mainly clothes, school supplies and computers. The holiday exempts families from paying sales taxes on numerous back-to-school items, including clothing and footwear of $100 or less, and on certain school supplies of $15 or less.
The holiday is expected to help save families mon
ey while offering a small boost to the economy as it drives more shoppers to retail centers. Back-to-school shopping is second only to Christmas for retail sales.
For the Luff family, who lives in Parrish, the tax-free weekend is a "big savings," Luff said. Emma will enter first grade this month. She's on the waiting list at Palmetto Charter, which has a dress code, so Luff is focusing on buying shoes and other school supplies this weekend until she finds out whether Emma will be wearing a uniform.
For school supplies, Luff planned on going to Target or a similar store. On Friday, though, she was focused on that special buy-one, get-one 50 percent off sale at the shoe store.
Many families took advantage of the tax-free weekend on Friday, at the outlets and other stores throughout Manatee County.
At the Beall's Department Store on Manatee Avenue in Bradenton, a stream of customers kept associates busy throughout what would normally be a quiet Friday. It wasn't a constant stream of people, but it was definitely clear when it was lunch break, said Johanna Reilly, a manager at Beall's.
"We're going to be incredibly busy this weekend," Reilly predicted.
Peggy Harris went shopping with her 10-year-old grandson Marshall Harris. Harris will enter fifth grade at Oneco Elementary School in a few weeks, and the two looked for clothes at Beall's that would fit the school's uniform dress code.
"This is our first day out," Harris said. "We probably won't get everything we need. We'll be shopping up until school starts."
Marshall was most excited to look at shoes, which are not restricted by the school's dress code. He also wants to go to Dick's Sporting Goods to look at a specific pair of Nike shoes.
Harris estimated she'd spend about $150 getting Marshall ready to go back to school, and having a tax-free weekend definitely helps..
The average family with students in grades K-12 is expected to spend $669 on school supplies and clothes, a 5-percent increase from $635 in 2013, according to a National Retail Federation survey.
Jessica Santiago, a Tampa resident with three children, expects to spend $300 to $500 on back-to-school supplies. While only two of Santiago's children will go to school in the fall -- her daughter is too young -- she still buys clothes for all three.
"I'm a bargain shopper," Santiago said Friday at the VF Outlet in Ellenton. Santiago was looking for jeans, shorts and shirts for her sons.
The hype for weekend shopping at the outlets started on Thursday, said William Mann, the outlet mall's general manager. Mann expects the outlets to stay busy throughout the weekend.
His recommendation? Get there early -- parking spots fill up fast.
"We expect we'll be packed," he said.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.