SHOPPING

New Math This School Year: Subtract The Sales Tax

Reyna Mendoza of Centreville, at JCPenney in Fairfax, was one of many parents to take advantage of Virginia's first tax-free holiday. The event gave shoppers a break on school supplies and clothes.
Reyna Mendoza of Centreville, at JCPenney in Fairfax, was one of many parents to take advantage of Virginia's first tax-free holiday. The event gave shoppers a break on school supplies and clothes. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 6, 2006

Virginia's first "no tax" holiday had area retailers hearing jingle bells on their cash registers this weekend, even though it was just a 5 percent discount.

"It's like Christmas in August," said Leah Belcher, Wal-Mart manager for Northern Virginia. "The back-to-school aisles are packed."

From Friday through today, Virginia waived sales tax on school supplies costing less than $20 and clothing or shoes priced below $100. It's the state's first experiment with the tactic, aimed at offering a break to families who face big back-to-school bills. It's also been a huge windfall to large retailers.

A similar program in Maryland will be held Aug. 23 to 27, and in the District, the tax-free period began yesterday and ends Aug. 13. Yesterday, the real shopping bonanza was in Virginia.

"It feels good not to pay taxes, because I'm always paying them, every day," said Jennie Fabrega, a Fairfax resident who was shopping at Fair Oaks mall with her 13-year-old daughter, Brittany. They'd already spent $100 on jeans and a sweater for the seventh-grader, and Fabrega was planning to spend more than $500 on back-to-school clothing this month.

"There's something about no taxes that makes you feel like 'okay, I can spend more,' " Fabrega said. "It's a mind game."

The tax holiday spurred shoppers, regardless of the actual savings. "We probably bought more than we would have when we found out it was tax-free," said Gayle Fuller, a Fairfax City resident who was loading her cart with notebooks, markers and binders at a Wal-Mart on Fairlakes Parkway.

Fuller and her 13-year-old daughter, Hannah, said they were trying to cram all their back-to-school buying into this weekend. "It's probably not a lot of savings," Fuller admitted, "but it gave us the motivation to get it over with."

Overall sales Friday were 29 percent higher than sales on the first Friday in August last year at 10 Wal-Mart stores in Northern Virginia, Belcher said. The retail giant added a twist to the tax break by extending it to computers, printers and computer supplies, with the company absorbing the cost of the tax on those items.

But Wal-Mart's biggest rush has been on basic school supplies, Belcher said, sales of which were up 217 percent, and kids' clothing and shoes, up more than 110 percent.

The scene was more subdued in the District, which lacks big-box outlets. At Filene's Basement in downtown Washington, about a half-dozen customers said they would have shopped anyway, tax holiday or not. After a doctor's appointment, Dorothy Cook, 63, decided to see if there were sale items she could buy for an upcoming vacation.

"I was out in the street, and I just decided to step in here," said Cook as she headed toward the cash register with a white jacket and blouse.


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