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Sales tax holiday seen as crucial in bringing customers back into stores

Shoppers checked in before entering Best Buy, during the Tax free shopping weekend at CambridgeSide mall.
Shoppers checked in before entering Best Buy, during the Tax free shopping weekend at CambridgeSide mall.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — Buffeted by a pandemic and subsequent economic downturn, the state’s local businesses hope this weekend’s sales tax holiday will entice coronavirus-weary consumers back through their doors to spend money there rather than online.

“It’s the beginning of a process of trying to bring the consumer back,” said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts after the “twin crises” that have wracked the nation for the past six months.

Massachusetts retailers have been slowly reopening over the summer, while implementing measures meant to slow the spread of COVID-19, under a phased restart of the state’s economy.

The state’s annual sales tax holiday allows customers to buy products, such as televisions, grills, and kitchen appliances, that cost under $2,500 without paying the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax. Some items, including meals, alcoholic beverages, and marijuana products, are still subject to taxes, according to the state.

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Local brick-and-mortar businesses are trying to emphasize what can’t be duplicated by online shopping, Hurst said.

“That shopping experience, that impulse-buying type of browsing experience that you don’t really duplicate well online or on your smartphone, is what keeps a lot of hope alive for these small businesses, and for our main streets,” Hurst said.

Rebecca Thompson (cq) left waited on line  to shop at the Apple store during Tax free weekend.
Rebecca Thompson (cq) left waited on line to shop at the Apple store during Tax free weekend.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

An experience like that attracted Rebecca Thompson, who visited the CambridgeSide Saturday to pick up a new phone she had purchased a day earlier.

The 27-year-old from Mattapan hadn’t planned on doing any shopping — but then, a pair of pink shoes caught her eye. Maybe she could check out one store after all.

“Just because I saw them,” she said.

On Tuesday, Governor Charlie Baker promoted the weekend’s sales tax holiday and importance of shopping at local businesses during a press conference at Wheelworks bicycle shop in Belmont.

Small businesses employ about half of the state’s workforce, and many of their employees live in the communities they work in, Baker said.

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Hurst said retailers association would survey members to review how much business they had this weekend. The sales tax holiday comes as retailers prepare for back-to-school shopping and fall fashions. On the heels of that will be the holiday shopping season and November’s small business Saturday, Hurst said.

Hurst said consumers are still very wary of going into businesses because of the coronavirus and over the past several months, many have increasingly turned to doing business with online retailers.

As businesses reopened, much of their messaging and advertising has focused on promoting options like curbside service and visiting stores by appointment only, he said. That outreach has included an emphasis on safety, like requirements for wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.

Expectations on sales are lower this year compared to previous sales tax holidays, Hurst said. But he anticipates this will be the best weekend for retailers since February, he said.

Consumers’ shopping at local businesses has a significant impact on the state’s economy and workers’ livelihoods, he said.

“They need to shop like jobs depend on it, because they do,” Hurst said.

At CambridgeSide Saturday, crowds were light as shoppers made their way into the mall. Among them was a 77-year-old Everett man who said he hadn’t been to the mall since February.

But the opportunity to buy an iPad during the state’s sales tax holiday was too enticing for him to pass up.

“There’s too much to be saved,” said John, who declined to give his last name, as he used a magnifying glass to read a smartphone.

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Melissa LaVita, a CambridgeSide spokeswoman, said social distancing rules imposed during the pandemic capped the mall at 40 percent of its capacity — about 6,000 people, she said.

Mask wearing at the mall was universal, save for a few people who sneaked sips from a drink here and there. Crowds were thin enough to make social distancing mostly easy.

Even with the reduced numbers, some managers had taken precautions and were prepared in case of large crowds.

Sarah Hesbacker, general manager of the Best Buy store at CambridgeSide, said she had scheduled all of her employees to come in that day, with managers working at least 10 hours.

“This is our Black Friday dry run,” she said.

The store has three entrances, and Hesbacker said she had been planning how to manage potential crowds all week. One change was to not allow mallgoers to cut through the store, tying up capacity that would leave would-be shoppers waiting in a line, and to let in customers a few at a time, she said.

That threw off John Tuttle, 58, of Stoneham, who usually visits the Best Buy first on his trips to the mall.

When he arrived at the mall Saturday he feared would not be allowed in if he did not plan to buy anything, according to his sister Jane Tuttle, 59, who looks out for her brother, who has autism.

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CambridgeSide is where Tuttle goes “to have time for himself, Jane Tuttle said.

Michael Yeates checked out of Best Buy, with his 43 inch TV.
Michael Yeates checked out of Best Buy, with his 43 inch TV.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Michael Yeates, 66, of Cambridge said he had the tax holiday marked on his calendar for a couple weeks, after he read about it.

Recently retired and an avid TV watcher, it seemed like a good time to replace a 15-year-old television, he said, something he has been planning for a couple years.

“When I realized it was a tax holiday, I said ‘what can I get?’” Yeates said, after picking up a new television at Best Buy.

“At least I’ll get some discount,” he said, and a distraction from his home improvement projects.

Marie Darline had a lunch break with her children Stevenson and  Stevenda at CambridgeSide.
Marie Darline had a lunch break with her children Stevenson and Stevenda at CambridgeSide.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Lucas Phillips can be reached at lucas.phillips@globe.com. John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.