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Shoppers pull out their wallets for Florida's sales-tax holiday

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Published:   |   Updated: August 3, 2013 at 10:24 AM

Rodney Smith walked through a BestBuy in Tampa on Friday with a $199 external hard drive under each arm.

"I'm on my way to look at a new Samsung tablet, all tax free," Smith said. "I've got a print-out list of what's tax-free, just in case someone questions me."

Smith, and hordes of other shoppers, packed the stores on Friday, the first of a three-day sprint when the state of Florida is waiving sales taxes on school supplies, clothes and many electronics. Saving 7 percent on a pair of shorts may be one thing, but this year the state added personal computers, tablets and accessories of $750 or less apiece to the list of tax-exempt items.

That immediately boosted foot traffic at BestBuy by a factor of three or four, said store manager Ricardo Raposo. "This weekend," he said, "that's when it will get really busy."

Originally envisioned by politicians as a family-friendly perk, Florida's tax-free weekend has come and gone over the years, depending on the state's budget and the political winds at the moment. This year, there was enough political horsepower to open the tax-free floodgates.

Retailers pounced at the chance, and piled on the marketing.

Tyrone Square Mall in Pinellas extended hours during the weekend, to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday night and 8 p.m. Sunday to help shoppers, said mall director of marketing and business development Pam Kluge.

"We're seeing huge traffic," she said. "Any store with kids or teen clothing especially, H&M, Forever 21, American Eagle, Aeropostale and Justice."

WestShore Plaza mall is giving out $25 gift cards to anyone who spends $250 or more in one day - on anything, including clothes, dinners at the restaurants, movies at the theater or appliances at Sears. Gymboree launched extra sales on casual clothes and uniforms. BestBuy is giving an escalating series of gift cards - $10 for a $100 purchase, $50 for a $500 purchase and $100 for a $1,000 purchase. Walmart, Target, Office Depot and loads of other merchants have extra sales going this weekend.

Old Navy scheduled a half-dozen extra employees to work the weekend, said Assistant Store Manager Boni Madera. "People were already waiting when we opened the doors today," she said. "By far, uniforms are the most popular."

Some independent merchants are also getting in on the tax-free action.

The Growing Up children's store in downtown St. Petersburg found that one of their biggest products would be tax-free: Cloth diapers.

"Somehow, they ended up being covered as apparel," said store owner Melane Nelson. "A lot of parents just starting up with a cloth diaper setup will spend between $300 and $500, so that tax savings is a big deal for them."

Nelson started marketing heavily through last week, and said she's already seeing bigger foot traffic on Friday for their hand-made clothing and "bento" lunchboxes with divided sections inside so parents can avoid plastic baggies. "Saturday will be our bigger day because we have a Cloth Diaper 101 class for parents."

For those who avoid the mall, there's good news. Online merchants should also have their systems set up to waive sales taxes. Some online retailers are already tax-free anyway, including Amazon, because they have no physical presence in Florida and don't collect state sales taxes. But at least for Apple and other big online sellers, there shouldn't be tax on qualifying items. (With Apple, sales tax will appear in your digital shopping cart and during the checkout process. The correct no-tax amount will appear when you receive your E-mail order confirmation.)

Hoping to avoid at least some of the crowds, Michelle Bremer came to WestShore Plaza mall as soon as she could on Friday morning, and hit both Old Navy and Gymboree before her two kids needed a break at the playground area.

"I'm so lucky that I'm a stay-at-home Mom with this," she said. "I could get here Friday, before everyone - all the madness - Saturday."

A few things to keep in mind:

* The tax-free holiday goes from Friday 12:01 a.m. to midnight Sunday.

* New items on the tax-free list this year: Personal computers, tablets and accessories such as keyboards and monitors with a price tag of $750 or less.

* Bonus: The tax holiday also applies to e-readers.

* Sorry: That doesn't include cellphones, video game consoles, digital media receivers or devices not primarily designed to process data.

* No kids? No problem: The holiday applies to any approved purchases, whether you have a kid or not.

* Apparel: Everything from shirts and shoes with a price tag of $75 or less to backpacks and hats. Even diaper bags are tax-free during the holiday.

* Supplies: Any school supply item priced at $15 or less.

* Online: You also can order online during that period, tax-free, as long as the retailer is set up to process the transactions. Even if the item won't arrive for days, as long as you bought it during the holiday period, it should still be tax free.

* Not tax-free: "Clothing" does not include accessories or equipment such as watches, jewelry, umbrellas, handkerchiefs or sporting gear.

* Details: A full list of eligible items is online at dor.myflorida.com/dor/pdf/sales_tax_holiday_list_of_items.pdf

rmullins@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7919

Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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