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Back-to-school shopping not taxing

Nine-year-old Ethan Bennett isn’t a fan of shopping with mom.

That is, “unless it’s for games or for toys,” he said.

But Ethan’s mom, Christal Cherry of Spotsylvania County, wasn’t interested in buying video games on Friday—the first day of Virginia’s sales tax holiday on school supplies, clothing and shoes.

She was loading her shopping cart at Office Depot in Fredericksburg with back-to-school items like folders, paper and pencils.

“Because I’m a big couponer, too, I always save a lot of money” on sales tax holidays, Cherry said. “I have three kids I’ve got to buy supplies for.”

The sales tax holiday runs statewide through Sunday. The tax exemption is for school supplies priced at $20 or less, and for clothing and shoes priced at $100 or less.

The average family with children in grades K–12 this summer will spend $669 on clothing, shoes, supplies and electronics, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual back-to-school survey. That’s up from $634.78 last year.

“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 we know Americans are still grappling with their purchase decisions every day,” NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement.

Some stores, like Chalk N More in the Central Park shopping center, had deals in addition to the tax holiday. On Friday, shoppers there got 15 percent off all items, not counting the sales tax savings.

The store always has back-to-school specials, owner Frank Hughes said. “It just happened to line up real well with the tax weekend,” he said.

Lori Inslee, a first-grade teacher at Parkside Elementary School in Spotsylvania, was shopping for teaching materials at Chalk N More. She said she did a lot of back-to-school shopping at Walmart on Thursday, which was the last day of the store’s 10 percent discount for teachers.

Shoppers save about 5 percent during the sales tax holiday.

“I’ve already got all my décor stuff, and I already got all my supplies at Walmart,” Inslee said.

While sales tax holidays are popular with businesses and consumers, some argue that they are bad policy. Joseph Henchman of the nonpartisan Tax Foundation called the tax holidays a “political gimmick” in a 2013 report.

“While sales taxes are somewhat regressive, this is often exaggerated to sell the idea that sales tax holidays are an effective way of providing relief to the poor,” Henchman wrote. “To give a small amount of tax savings to low-income individuals, holidays give a large amount to others.”

Some states, including Maryland and Florida, either eliminated or took a break from sales tax holidays in response to the recession, according to a Washington Post blog.

Dawn Rauch, who was doing some back-to-school shopping in Fredericksburg with her 12-year-old son, Connor, said she didn’t expect to save a whole lot of money over the tax-free weekend but added, “Every little bit helps, I guess.”

Jeff Branscome: 540/374-5402