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Back-to-School: Tips on deals, getting the most of tax holiday

The large display of patio furniture and barbecue grills at the Target in West Palm Beach has been replaced by bins of crayons, markers, and notebooks — signaling that summer is nearly over and the back-to-school shopping season is in full swing.

Florida’s back-to-school tax-free shopping weekend starts on Friday, offering shoppers a break from the 6 percent sales tax normally collected on school-related items.

Palm Beach County students return to school on Aug. 15, and retailers say they are bracing for large crowds over the popular three-day tax holiday, which runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Sam Nader, a store team leader at the Target on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard, said employees will be working throughout the tax holiday to keep the shelves stocked with school supplies. Newly installed self-checkout registers will also keep lines moving quickly, he added.

Back-to-school spending, including for college students, is expected to reach $75.8 billion this year, up from $68 billion in 2015, according to the National Retail Federation.

Families of elementary, middle and high school-age children plan to spend an average of $673.57 on apparel and accessories, electronics, shoes and school supplies, up 6.8 percent from last year’s $630.36, the federation said.

College students and their families plan to spend an average of $888.71. That’s down slightly from $899.18 last year, the federation said.

Jupiter resident Danny Mullis tried to beat the back-to-school crowds by shopping for school supplies last week in advance of the sales-tax holiday. Mullis was at the West Palm Beach Target store shopping with his 12-year-old daughter, Kylie, who will be starting seventh grade.

“We are starting to get it done to beat the crowds,” Mullis said.

The tax savings wasn’t worth the wait, he said.

“What is a couple cents in tax?” Mullis said. “Beat the crowds and get it done.”

Mullis isn’t alone.

Roughly, 7 out of 10 shoppers plan to begin purchasing back-to-school items at least three weeks before the start of classes, according to a survey released by the National Retail Federation this month.

For those hitting the stores, shopping and deal experts have the following suggestions:

Expect big crowds

Back-to-school season is the second-busiest shopping period of the year. Winter holiday shopping takes the top spot.

Although last year’s back-t0-school sales-tax holiday was 10 days, this year’s runs just three days.

As a result, James Miller, a spokesman for the Florida Retail Federation, said shoppers can expect larger crowds and longer lines.

“Last year, the 10 days gave people a lot of time to spread out their shopping,” Miller said. “This year is going to be much more compacted.”

Local malls are also bracing for larger crowds and will be holding special events and promotions.

“We are definitely expecting the mall to be busier than usual,” said Rachelle J. Crain, a spokeswoman for the Mall at Wellington Green. “Our stores are well-stocked with great back-to-school essentials.”

At Palm Beach Outlets, general manager Greg Farrington said many stores are working on promotions that coincide with the three-day sales-tax break. Customers looking for additional savings can stop by the customer service desk in the food pavilion for a coupon book, he added.

At the Boynton Beach Mall, a special back-to-school event will be held from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, officials said. The event will include a fashion show, school supply giveaways, health screenings and entertainment.

During the tax-free weekend, shoppers who spend more than $150 at selected stores at The Gardens Mall in Palm Beach Gardens, will receive a $10 gift card. To receive the free gift card, shoppers must present their same-day receipts at the mall’s information desk.

Plan ahead

Miller recommends shoppers plan ahead before hitting the stores. Have a list of what you need and decide where you plan to shop in advance of your trip, Miller said.

The bargain-hunting website says parents should make their shopping lists as detailed as possible to help prevent overspending. For example, the site’s experts say avoid including basic terms like “pencils” or “clothing.” Instead, be specific about the quantity, size and styles that you need.

“Having a very clear budget and shopping list will keep you from overspending,” said Benjamin Glaser, an editor with DealNews.

To make sure you are getting the best deal, research prices before heading to the stores, Glaser said.

The DealNews app allows shoppers to find the best prices on a number of items, including school supplies.

Look to the big-box stores and online retailers for the best bargains

Brent Shelton, a spokesman for, an online deal and coupon website, said larger retailers and websites like Office Depot, Kohl’s and Amazon have traditionally offered the best savings on back-to-school supplies and clothing.

“August is prime time for back-to-school shopping,” Shelton said. “This is when retailers are ‘all in’ and competing for your business.”

Shelton recommends shoppers keep a close eye on sales advertisements, but he says if you miss a deal, “don’t fret.” Stores will be offering back-to-school discounts through mid-August, he said.

To help shoppers keep track of deals, has created an online back-to-school roundup with an up-to-date list of the most current sales.

Stack your savings online

More than 45 percent of shoppers will purchase back-to-school items online this year, up nearly 30 percent over last year, according to the National Retail Federation. Parents who do their shopping online can save as much as 10 percent at select stores by using cash-back websites, such as Splender or Ebates, deal experts say. Look for online coupon codes and discounts to sweeten the savings.

The back-to-school tax-free weekend applies to items purchased online or through the mail. Erin Warren, Splender’s senior vice president of marketing, said the tax break, combined with the site’s cash-back savings and other online coupons can add up quickly. She also recommends paying with a credit card that offers rewards and other cash-back incentives.

“It really allows parents to stack up their savings,” Warren said.

Online shopping sites, particularly those that sell apparel, often offer a variety of sizes and color options that may not be available in stores, Warren said.

“I find not only is the savings great but it allows you to have access to more inventory than is otherwise available,” Warren said. “You can get the sizes and colors that you really need.”

Look for stores that offer free shipping

More than 80 percent of back-to-school this year will take advantage of free shipping from online retailers, and roughly half will buy online and pick up items in the stores, the National Retail Federation said.

“Back-to-school families are leveraging the web more than they ever have been,” Ellen Davis, the National Retail Federation’s senior vice president of research and strategic initiatives. “People are using the internet to browse, to buy and to get inspiration.”

Free shipping for online purchases is becoming harder to come by, Glaser said. But some national retailers may run promotions over the back-to-school shopping period to win customers.

Stock up, but only on items that you REALLY need

After the Great Recession, many families cut the amount they spent on school supplies by trying to squeeze another year out of backpacks, lunchboxes and clothing. The National Retail Federation said the belt-tightening is expected to come to an end this year, as parents and college students look to stock up on essentials.

“Families are still looking for bargains, but there are signs that they are less worried about the economy than in the past,” National Retail Federation President and CEO Matthew Shay said.

Deal-hunting experts say shoppers can expect to find big savings on school supplies this year, as retailers try to attract customers.

Glaser said back-to-school sales are a great time to stock up on items that you really need.

However, clearance sales on school-related items also offer significant savings for those who have enough to get by for the first few weeks of school. There will also be deals during Black Friday and other holiday sales.

“Have some patience to find the things that you need right as school starts, and everything you don’t need you be even more patient,” Glaser said.

Remember, the back-to-school tax break isn’t just for kids

Miller also stresses that the holiday isn’t just for those with school-aged children. The tax break applies to a number of items for adults too, including purses, employee uniforms, suits, ties and safety shoes.

Diapers, diaper bags and baby clothes are also tax-free during the holiday.

“This is a weekend for everyone, not just people going to school,” Miller said. “I think people will be surprised at the range of items that are available.”

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