MANATEE -- Parents and students looking to save a few bucks will be in luck this weekend when Florida's sales tax holiday returns with expanded benefits.
The state-created holiday starts at 12:01 a.m. Friday and lasts through midnight Sunday where state and local option taxes will not be collected on certain items, mainly clothes, school supplies and computers.
Thresholds have changed since the last holiday, so here's what shoppers can get tax-free:
Clothing, shoes and some accessories that cost $100 or less. That's a bump from the $75 limit for each item last year
School supplies costing $15 or less
Computers and computer-related accessories are tax-free up to the first $750 of the sales price. Tax is paid on the remaining balance. That's also an added benefit from last year where computers could only cost $750 or less.
Big-box stores and chain retailers are expected to see most of the back-to-school business, according to a National Retail Federation survey by Prosper Insights & Analytics. The survey asked for the first time how many shoppers would buy local for back-to-school items and only 17.4 percent said they would.
Bradenton-based Bealls Department Stores and Bealls Outlets are gearing up for a big weekend as shoppers seek deals beyond tax savings.
"Because of the increase on the threshold and the limit on what's tax free, we're expecting to pick up more so in the department store division because they've been bringing in higher-end brands and improved the brand mix, which is going to push into those higher price points," said Bill Webster, director of public and government affairs for Bealls.
The company sees this weekend as a mini-Black Friday and will offer longer store hours. Bealls Department Stores will be open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Bealls Outlets will be open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
The National Retail Foundation survey also projects increased back-to-school spending on electronics and school supplies this year, The average family with students in grades K-12 is expected to spend $669 on school supplies and clothes, a 5-percent increase from the $635 in 2013.
"Slow improvements in the economy may have contributed to the growth in confidence among back-to-school shoppers, and while we are encouraged by the overall tone of the results and expect to see continued improvement in consumer spending through the year, we know Americans are still grappling with their purchase decisions every day," said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. Results tend to fluctuate each year, he said.
Items pushing trends include printing leggings, screened T-shirts and maxi skirts in the juniors department, surf brands, bright-color activewear and of course, shorts, Webster said.
Spending is even higher for college students, which includes dorm furniture. College students and families are expected to spend $916.48 this year, up 10 percent from $836.83 last year.
"The 'varsity' class often gets overlooked each summer as back-to-school shoppers drive the news, but the truth is that today, college students and their parents contribute a significant amount to the economy," Shay said. "Not immune to economic challenges, college students themselves and their parents will take great care when checking items off their lists. Retailers, hoping to get a head start on this extremely competitive shopping season, will attract these millennials with promotions through Instagram and other social channels, as well as through content that speaks to these tech-savvy, fashion-forward students."
At Bealls, the college crowd and other shoppers help boost sales of non-exempt items during the sales tax holiday as they load up for dorm rooms, Webster said.
"I think the consumer gets going, and we see big increases in home goods and so forth," Webster said.
However, total spending will drop nationwide to $26.5 billion because fewer students are going to school this year, according to the survey.
There are some catches to the sales tax holiday, and the Florida Department of Revenue spells out the exceptions. For example, gloves used for the garden or as an accessory sold for $100 or less are exempt but batting gloves, golf gloves and the like are taxed because they are athletic equipment.
Computer batteries are exempt but household batteries are not.
Handbags? Yes. Briefcases? No.
A full list of examples, exceptions and nuances can be found on the Department of Revenue website at dor.myflorida.com.
Some stores are working in special promotions in time for back to school, too. OfficeDepot and OfficeMax, which merged earlier this year, started a new price-match policy, which also matches online prices, including those found on Amazon.com and Reliable.com. The stores are now also offering 90-day return policies in time for back-to-school.
"Office Depot and OfficeMax stores are excited about the upcoming tax-free shopping weekend. Our stores are fully stocked for the entire back-to-school shopping season along with the upcoming weekend tax-free special," said Julianne Embry, spokeswoman for Office Depot. "We look forward to the opportunity to pass along the saving on to our customers, whether they are shopping for back to school or their business."
To help woo customers in for computers, both stores are offering $60 off Toshiba Satellite C55 laptops, according to the company. For school supplies, the office stores are offering 50 percent off Reebok backpacks and an eight-pack of Elmer's washable disappearing purple glue sticks for $2.
Bealls department stores are also offering coupons that can be printed from online for $10 off any $25 or more purchase, Webster said.
While back-to-school shopping, parents can also take advantage of another new sales tax exemption. On July 1, the state waived sales tax for child restraint systems, booster seats and childrens' bike helmets.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.