Sales tax holiday returns after two-year hiatus

A couple looked at televisions at the CambridgeSide mall on Saturday.
A couple looked at televisions at the CambridgeSide mall on Saturday. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — The state sales tax holiday returned Saturday after a two-year hiatus, and this time, the annual, two-day shopping event is here to stay.

“It makes you feel like you’re living in New Hampshire for the day,” said Devon Ziminski who accompanied her boyfriend to Best Buy at CambridgeSide, a mall in Cambridge.

Governor Charlie Baker signed legislation on Friday that established the weekend break on the 6.25 percent sales tax for goods costing up to $2,500.

Beginning next year, the weekend tax holiday will be an annual event under a new law that also raised the hourly minimum wage to $15, mandated paid medical and family leave, and eliminated premium pay for Sunday workers.


“It’s back and it’s a proven winner,” said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.

The holiday, which continues Sunday, also applies to items purchased on the Internet as long as they are ordered and paid for during the tax-free weekend, according to the legislation.

Hurst said the event provides retailers with an opportunity to get business from consumers who prefer to shop online or make purchases in neighboring New Hampshire, which doesn’t charge sales tax.

Christopher Carlozzi, state director in Massachusetts for NFIB, an organization that advocates for small businesses, said the sales tax holiday is a welcome reprieve. Many small businesses are grappling with increased labor costs because of new state laws affecting wages, paid leave, and employee health care contributions, he said.

“They need some help to offset those labor increases and this helps them do that in a normally slow retail month like August,” Carlozzi said.

Groups like the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank, have been critical of sales tax holidays, writing in a report issued last month that the events don’t promote economic growth or significantly increase consumer purchases.


But Cambridge resident Xin Gao said the tax break could potentially save him lots of money on air-conditioning units he’d like to buy for apartments he owns in Cambridge and Boston.

“I could save hundreds,” he said while shopping at CambridgeSide.

The event typically means brisk sales at stores that sell big-ticket items like dishwashers, refrigerators, and other appliances, according to Hurst and Carlozzi.

Because Baker just signed the law creating the sales tax holiday Friday, some shoppers said they didn’t know about it.

Leslie Guity said CambridgeSide was “almost empty” when she arrived at 11 a.m. A Macy’s sales clerk told her about the sales tax holiday, she said.

“I guess I got lucky coming today,” Guity said.

Speaking at a campaign event in Shrewsbury, Baker said many retailers assumed the holiday would be signed into law and developed promotional campaigns before the ink dried on the legislation.

“They were pretty fired up about it,” he said.

Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito said she already had been shopping.

“I did my part,” she said.

Bill Round, who runs Round’s True Value Hardware, a family business in Stoneham, said he didn’t expect the sales tax holiday to generate extra foot traffic because he doesn’t specialize in expensive goods that consumers can put off buying.

Rather, his shoppers need supplies to fix or replace equipment that they can’t do without like toilets and sinks.

“If your toilet is leaking, you come down to Round’s Hardware, whether it’s a snowstorm, a tax freedom day, or a hurricane,” he said.


Round said that when the state introduced a sales tax in the 1960s, a chart was displayed next to the hand-crank cash register in the hardware store to help calculate the levy.

“Here we are several decades and a number of presidential candidates since, and we have a six-and-quarter percent sales tax,” he said. “The Commonwealth is addicted to sales tax revenue and they cannot give it up.”

Back at CambridgeSide, the crowds grew as the day went on.

“I think it was definitely busier than a normal weekend between the rainy weather and the tax-free holiday,” said Melissa LaVita, the mall’s senior marketing director.

Mette Gronli, a tourist from Oslo, Norway, said she learned about the sales tax holiday while buying shoes. The rainy weather had her considering some other purchases, she said.

“I think I’m going to buy an umbrella, too, before I leave,” Gronli said. “Tax free!”

Globe correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report. Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi. Emily Williams can be reached at emily.williams@globe.com