Marty Nochera and her 10-year-old daughter, Victoria, were just the type of shoppers the state of Maryland had in mind for its first tax-free shopping week.
When Nochera took her annual vacation in Ocean City last month, she didn't buy back-to-school clothes at outlet malls just over the state line in Delaware as she usually does.
Instead, she waited until yesterday - when the state suspended sales tax on clothing and footwear costing less than $100 per item - and headed to Wal-Mart in Catonsville. There, Victoria faced the tough choice of the sneakers with the pink stripes or the ones with the springs.
"Back-to-school shopping can cost a lot of money," Nochera said. "We've waited for this."
A break on Maryland's 5 percent sales tax lured shoppers in droves to malls and shopping centers yesterday - the first day of a one-time program timed to coincide with back-to-school shopping. At a time of sluggish sales for most retailers, the state is experimenting with the tax-free week as a way to boost retail sales and help merchants compete with neighboring states.
Through Thursday, shoppers will pay no tax on most clothing or footwear costing $99.99 or less. The state comptroller's office picked the tax-exempt items based on guidelines from the 2000 state law authorizing the program. Consumers pay no tax, for instance, on pants, dresses, shirts, jeans, hats and sneakers, but they do on neckties, backpacks, baseball mitts, bike helmets and cleats.
"This is a pretty important time in the retail calendar," said Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retailers Association, which lobbied state lawmakers to adopt the program after losing sales to merchants in Delaware, which charges no state sales tax, and Pennsylvania, which charges no tax on apparel. "The idea was to help the retailers by keeping Maryland families shopping in Maryland."
Tax-free items are expected to generate gross sales of up to $150 million for the week, a 100 percent jump from the comparable week last year, said Michael Golden, a spokesman for the state comptroller's office. That would mean savings of up to $6 million for shoppers. Comptroller William Donald Schaefer has said the lost tax revenue will be partially offset by gains in sales of taxable items and by increases in retail employers' withholding taxes.
"All indications are that consumers are embracing this, and we hope they do so through the end of the week," Golden said yesterday.
When he opened the Catonsville Wal-Mart at 7 a.m., Russell Woodrum, co-manager, saw an unusual sight for a weekday morning: a dozen shoppers waiting to get in, all of whom grabbed shopping carts and rushed to the apparel departments.
"Everyone's been kind of waiting and saving money for this," said Tim Wucher, store manager, who said apparel sales have lagged behind sales overall, which have been up. "They're holding back. I figure we're going to have an increase over last year for sure."
Later in the morning, at the Catonsville mass merchant, shoppers crowded into the apparel and shoe departments.
Sylvia Marsh, a PTA president for Lyndhurst Elementary School, loaded up on khaki pants and shirts for school uniforms, as well as jeans, casual shirts and socks for her five sons, aged 10 to 14 (she has twin 12-year-olds).
"If I spend $500 on school clothes, $25 to me, that's a savings," Marsh said. "I think they should extend it to September."
Mindy Ittenbach was pleasantly surprised to learn that tax-free week started yesterday.
"I think it's a great idea," she said, as her daughter, Ashley Hanavin, 11, danced around snapping up flared-leg jeans and tops in the girls department. "They need to do something to give us a break. We can't afford to shop and not watch the prices."
By midafternoon yesterday, Golden, at the state comptroller's office, said only a few questions had trickled in from merchants, including whether participating in tax free is mandatory. (It is.) Some shoppers said they were under the impression school supplies were tax exempt. (They're not.)
Stores plastered their windows and apparel departments with "tax-free" signs. Some shopping centers came up with promotions and advertising gimmicks.
Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg declared itself a "tax-free republic" in its advertising. "Most tax havens are offshore," its ads said. "This one's off I-270."
At Marley Station mall in Glen Burnie, shoppers got rebates, in the form of mall gift certificates, that equaled 10 percent of their total tax-free purchases. By midday, shoppers lined up at the mall's center court to collect their rebates, a one-day promotion.
"This is not a typical Friday. This is more like a Saturday - and it's still early," said Charmaine Crismond, the mall's general manager.
Joanne Herget, 17, lined up with her mother, Cindy Herget, to collect a gift certificate worth $29.96 after buying clothes at J.C. Penney, Macy's, Hecht's, Weathervane and Rave for herself and her twin sister. The two girls had spent the previous day at the mall - just looking.
"They went casing the place," Cindy Herget said.
At Sears, the children's department bustled, as children skipped around parents waiting in line with armloads of clothes for back to school.
"You have to do it, why not now?" said Leah Powers, shopping with her 4-year-old daughter, Caitlyn.
Deborah Bedell, the store general manager, said sales already were up 30 percent over the comparable day last year.
"The tax free is doing it," she said. "We had people in yesterday pre-shopping for today. It's amazing - for 5 percent."
Even merchants who don't sell clothes stood to benefit from increased traffic, some said. Paula Janiski, manager of Cartoon Cuts hair salon, said morning business had doubled.
But the tax incentive wasn't enough to convince all shoppers to spend.
"It's not an issue with me," said Juanita Millican of Catonsville, as she sorted through ladies short-sleeved sweaters in Wal-Mart. "I'm just doing errands."