The South Bay Center in Dorchester buzzed with activity Saturday afternoon as shoppers streamed in and out of department stores by the dozens, pushing carts laden with widescreen TVs and loading heavy home appliances into their cars.
“I can’t believe it’s tax-free weekend,” one woman exclaimed to her friend on their way into Target. “I just want to buy stuff!”
This Saturday and Sunday are sales-tax holidays in Massachusetts, with a host of retail items under $2,500 exempt from the normal 6.25 percent state sales tax. The holiday excludes meals; cars, boats, and other vehicles; gas; utilities; cigarettes and other tobacco products; marijuana; and alcohol.
Shoppers flocked to stores Saturday to take advantage of the annual tradition, enacted by state lawmakers most summers since 2004 in hopes of boosting sales and stimulating the economy.
“I was thinking about [this day] since the beginning of this year — I don’t want to pay any tax,” said Jackson Sammah, 63, who planned to buy four bulky TVs from Best Buy and fit them into his car.
Across the parking lot, Claudia walked down a Home Depot aisle with her shopping cart while ticking items off her list. The 51-year-old Roxbury resident, who declined to provide her last name, was thinking of buying a bicycle and a TV later this weekend to avoid the sales tax.
“On big purchases like windows for the house, it makes a huge difference,” she said.
But Claudia and other shoppers Saturday afternoon said they weren’t looking for excuses to acquire new things. Many said they were acting on prior plans to purchase big-ticket items and had been biding their time until this weekend to save some money.
And critics of the weekend, which could cost the state around $27 million in lost tax revenue — the amount lost last year, according to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue — argue the discount doesn’t encourage consumers to buy more. They say it just encourages shoppers to shift their timeline, buying items on tax-free weekend that they had already planned to purchase at retail price.
Some shoppers, though, were spurred to buy new things simply because they couldn’t resist the deals.
Michele Gagnon, 54, was just looking for a soundbar system for her TV, but after learning it was tax-free weekend, she started thinking of other purchases she could make.
“I think I want to go to Jordan’s Furniture and look for a chair for you,” the Quincy resident told her partner, Rick Sanchez.
Lenny Sims, a Dyson employee, was in Best Buy selling visitors on his company’s pricey household appliances. He said some people have been lured into spending more by the holiday.
“It all depends on them,” said Sims, a Dorchester resident. “You might come for one thing and find something that’s totally different.”
The prospect of tax-free weekend entices them into the store, he said, and employees and the items themselves do the rest.
“It’s always [about trying] to get them to buy more,” Sims said.
Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said the sales-tax holiday provides a huge boost to businesses and sends a message to shoppers that “it’s important that they invest their consumer dollars in the local economy.”
Though he acknowledged some people might be simply shifting the time they purchase items, Hurst said the phenomenon of “impulse buying” is alive and well.
“It gets people into the stores when they otherwise wouldn’t [go],” he said. “You don’t get impulse buys if you don’t get people into the stores in the first place.”
Angelique Ford thinks it would be just fine if businesses don’t benefit financially from the weekend.
“Stores like these major corporations . . . we’re constantly funneling money into these organizations,” said Ford, 48. The holiday is “a good way of them giving back — they generate a lot of business from us.”
Many shoppers were unaware that they didn’t have to pay the tax this weekend, and Ford, a South End resident, thinks improved communication and better promotion of the weekend would get people into shopping mode.
“If they were advertising enough, people would get into that mindset, like Black Friday,” Ford said.