Texans have 79 million reasons to hit the malls this weekend.
That's how much cash the state comptroller's office says shoppers are expected to save during the annual tax-free weekend, which kicks off Friday and runs through Sunday.
For those three days, many clothes, shoes and school supplies priced at $100 or less will be exempt from state and local sales taxes, saving consumers in most Texas cities, including Austin, 8.25 cents for each dollar they spend.
Those savings, combined with sales -- and coupons, too -- being offered by many retailers are expected to attract big crowds at shops across Central Texas.
"People love to find exciting deals, and we'll see many shoppers with a lot of shopping bags," said Robyne Kintz, vice president of marketing for Premium Outlets, which operates outlet centers in Round Rock and San Marcos. "The back-to-school season is a busy time, and savvy shoppers love getting their favorite designer and name-brand items tax-free."
Nationwide, parents of school-age children are expected to spend $634.78 on back-to-school items, according to the National Retail Foundation, down from $688.62 last year. But that hasn't stopped retailers from stocking up on merchandise. Scott Perry, manager of the JCPenney at Barton Creek Square mall, says the store has more items -- especially jeans and shoes -- available this year compared to 2012.
"We're not skimping on anything," he said Thursday. "We've pushed out all our back-to-school merchandise, and we're already doing pretty well. We've had a busy week. Uniforms have been huge, and we're on fire in shoes."
The store will have every cash register open all weekend, Perry said, and about 20 extra staffers will be on hand to assist customers.
JCPenney and many of its competitors, including Kohl's and Macy's, will have extended hours this weekend. Some Austin-area Sears stores are set to unlock their doors at 6 a.m. Saturday and stay open for 17 hours straight, closing at 11 p.m.
The best times to shop, retailers say, are early in the morning or late at night. Parking lots tend to be most jammed middays.
This year's sales tax holiday comes a week earlier than in previous years, thanks to recently passed legislation. Parents have been doing their homework this week, with several eyeing merchandise at Barton Creek Square stores Thursday, putting together their weekend tax-free game plans.
"I'm really tempted, and my husband loves a deal," said Tammy Wittig. "We'll be back."
Margie Webber was searching through racks of clothes, trying to find items for her 7-year-old granddaughter, Ava Saldivar.
"Tax-free weekend makes me want to buy more," she said. "Even though we cleaned out her closet and found six backpacks, with all the cool colors of backpacks we're seeing, she still wants another one."
Kay Bell, an Austin-based tax expert for Bankrate.com, encourages shoppers such Wittig Webber to exercise some restraint this weekend.
"Be wary of impulse buys," she said. "Stores are hoping people will come in and see a product at the end of the aisle and say, 'I need that.'"
Bell encourages consumers to do some comparison shopping before venturing out, scouring newspaper circulars and retailers' Web sites to find the very best deals.
"Just be a little savvy out there," she said.
Even though clothes and school supplies are the main focus this weekend, other retailers stand to benefit. Like JCPenney, electronics retailer Best Buy is staffing up Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Best Buy sells calculators and backpacks, which are tax-exempt, but Steve Smith, manager of the location at 9607 Research Blvd. in North Austin, says that, based upon past years, other items will be flying off shelves, too.
"The foot traffic definitely increases," he said. "They'll hit the clothing stores first -- we have an Old Navy next door -- then they'll visit us. Most people just want to get it all done this weekend."
Small TVs for dorm rooms, computers and tablets are expected to be especially popular, Smith said.
Not every purchase will be for school-bound children, merchants say. With adult clothing and shoes under $100 tax-free, as well, JCPenney says those departments will be equally busy.
"Their first goal is taking care of the kids, but they'll splurge on themselves, too," said Temi Adeola, an employee at the Barton Creek Square JCPenney.
Adeola, who has worked at the store for a little over two years, says tax-free weekend is always intense, but the store's employees are energized by the crowds.
"It's non-stop," Adeola said, "but helping these parents and seeing the joy on the kids' faces makes me feel like I've done something really great."
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