Kathleen Reardon likes to hold off until South Carolina's tax-free weekend or just before bells ring to shop for back-to-school supplies for her four children.

"I usually wait until then to keep summer as long as possible," the West Ashley resident said as she darted out of Target to catch a flight.

Christie Rainwater of Hanahan usually shops for tax-free items, too.

"I like a bargain," she said, as she kept an eye on three young children while shopping for school supplies in Walmart. "I like to shop here because it's cheaper for back-to-school products."

Rainwater won't be able to shop Friday through Monday, when hundreds of items will be available tax-free across the Palmetto State for the 19th year, but she doesn't want to wait until later.

"There might not be much left," she said.

School bus-yellow displays of everything from binders to book bags summon shoppers in retail outlets across Charleston and South Carolina.

Starting Friday, clothing, computers, pencils, pens and numerous other items can be purchased without paying the 6 percent state sales tax and applicable local sales taxes. In all, shoppers will save between $2 million and $3 million, according to the state Department of Revenue.

Spending projections

The National Retail Federation predicts shoppers will spend $82.8 billion on items for college students and those from elementary to high school during the back-to-school shopping period in August. That's almost as much as last year's $83.6 billion.

“With the economy thriving thanks to tax reform and growing consumer confidence, we expect to see a very strong season,” retail group president and CEO Matthew Shay said.

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Walmart sign

Walmart's back-to-school section is all decked out and ready for tax-free weekend. Warren L. Wise/Staff

“College spending is expected to be at its highest level ever, and back-to-school will be one of the three highest years on record," he said.

The average spending layout for families with children in grades K-12 is expected to be about $685 on apparel and accessories, electronics, shoes and school supplies, roughly the same amount as last year's $688 average.

"I will easily spend more than that," Reardon said. "I have to buy uniforms and supplies for four children."

Rainwater expects to spend far less, roughly $200 on back-to-school supplies for her four kids.

Spending for college-age students will average about $942. Families will spend the most on electronics, followed by clothing and dorm-room furnishings.

“The biggest change we are seeing in back-to-school spending this year is coming from electronics,” said Mark Mathews, the retail group's vice president of research. “Items like laptops, tablets and smartphones are now an everyday part of household life and aren’t necessarily a purchase parents save for the start of the school year, resulting in the slight decrease in spending for this category.”

College students may also be putting off buying some items until later in the school year when they are needed. The retail survey suggested a dip in spending during the back-to-school season for products such as personal care items, gift cards and food.

Shopping early

Some shoppers don't wait until the week before school starts or for tax-free weekend.

The retail group found about three-quarters of those surveyed will start three weeks before school begins. That's up from 64 percent a decade ago. Of course, many people will wait until the last minute to take advantage of special deals.

“One trend that we continue to see during the back-to-school season is the strong influence children have on their parents’ spending decisions,” said Phil Rist, executive vice president of strategy for Prosper Insights.

"This shouldn’t come as a surprise when social media tools such as Pinterest and Instagram have allowed GenZers to be more selective in the items they want," he said. "However, the payback for being picky is that parents now expect their kids to contribute toward their back-to-school lists.”

The survey found teenagers will spend about $36 of their own money on average for back-to-school while pre-teens will spend about $25.

Rosier forecast

In a departure from the past, the National Retail Federation's back-to-school shopping forecast is a lot less rosy than that of Britt Beemer, chairman and CEO of Summerville-based America's Research Group.

Beemer, who for the past several years has predicted sales to be lower than the retail federation's annual forecast, expects sales to be up 6 percent or better.

"It probably will be the best back-to-school shopping season in a decade," he said.

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Target School Lists

Stores such as Target offer school lists displays, reflecting what certain schools require for students headed back to class in August. Warren L. Wise/Staff

Beemer based his sunny sales prediction on more people working and having more money than they have in recent years.

"I haven't seen as many consumers happy about their situation since Reagan (was president in the 1980s)," the researcher said.

Beemer believes his forecast is so much brighter than that of the National Retail Federation because the trade group conducted its survey the week surrounding the Fourth of July holiday, when he believes parents' mindset was not yet on sending children back to school.

"I hate to be on the wrong side of that equation," he said. "I'm usually more conservative."

Beemer believes a more accurate prediction of spending would come from surveys in early August, when people start thinking about sending children back to school.

The director of the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business urged shoppers not to forget small shops during the tax-free holiday.

“The sales-tax holiday helps people get a bigger bang for their buck," director Ben Homeyer said. “The more we can do to encourage people to shop at small businesses means more jobs are created and the faster our economy will flourish.”

Shoppers also should note not all items will be tax-free this weekend. Jewelry, cosmetics, eyewear, furniture and items placed on layaway are not exempt from sales taxes.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 843-937-5524. Follow him on Twitter @warrenlancewise.