In this 2019 staff file photo, Mark Johns, left, steadies a ladder for Electronic Express assistant manager Nathan Adams to re-secure the "tax free week" sign that blew loose from the original hooks at the Hixson retailer. "We've had this sign up all week," Adams said. / Staff file photo by Tim Barber

Q. Our family wants to take advantage of tax-free weekend. However, considering COVID-19, not sure what to purchase or money to spend. What advice may BBB provide?

A. Back-to-school season is coming up, and in some areas, it's unclear how it will play out. Dozens of states across the United States are grappling with an increase of COVID-19 cases as they make decisions about when and how to continue teaching in the 2020-2021 school years.

As families prepare for the upcoming school year and the possibility of homeschooling from the kitchen table or the announcement of their school district to switch to an online format, National Retail Federation studies indicate back-to-school spending may reach a new record with anticipated spending in more laptops and computer accessories driving the costs. Parents with elementary through high school children are expected to spend an average of $789.49, topping the previous record of $696.70 from last year. Overall spending is expected to total $33.9 billion, up from $26.2 billion last year and breaking the record of $30.3 billion set in 2012.

Before determining what students may need for the year, be prepared for a shift from one teaching format to another, and set a budget. Planning ahead, as much as you can, will help keep expenses to a minimum and help everyone involved stay on task. BBB recommends the following tips when looking for school related items, either in person or online:

In Person Shopping. Retailers are taking extra precautions as they reopen to customers. As they try to recover from the financial hit of the lockdown earlier this year while following local health department guidelines. Mask mandates, social distancing, availability of hand sanitizer and other precautions are in place for many retailers. When it comes to trying on the latest fall fashions or the right fit for school uniforms, parents may want to contact the retailer ahead of time to check on the dressing room procedures or if the dressing rooms are open. You may want to follow CDC guidelines for cleaning and disinfecting, , your items when you get home.

Research big ticket items. Check with your child's school to find out their technology requirements, and determine if you need to purchase high-speed internet. Before purchasing an expensive laptop, tablet or other computer accessory, research the brands, warranty, customer reviews and the prices at various stores to make certain the best deal can be had. Also, look up the retailer's reputation on

Shop smart with sales and tax-free weekends. Compare prices between different retail stores, save coupons, sign up for email alerts and redeem any cash-back or rebate offers. This will help get the best deals and stay within budget. Tennessee and Georgia have a tax free weekend, enabling you to buy clothes, school supplies and other items without paying sales tax. Tennessee dates are July 31- August 2 and August 7-9. Georgia dates are August 28-30.

Ask for discounts. Many stores and software companies offer discounts. Some of them are available to students that have either an .edu email address or a student ID. Others may have a discount for signing up for marketing materials, or surf the internet for online coupons and discounts. Make certain they are affiliated with the retailer they are advertising for. Even if you don't see a discount advertised at the store, it doesn't hurt to ask.

Consider buying in bulk. If meeting in person, some teachers may ask parents to buy bulk items (think paper towels, tissues, wipes, hand sanitizer) for the entire classroom to use throughout the year. Compare lists with other parents and see if costs can be shared.

Shop wisely, safely online. When shopping online, be wary of click bait ads that feature items that imply that you may want or need it based on the search history. The intended purpose is to drive you to a different website to potentially steal personal information. Take note of the ad and go to the store's website by directly typing into the search bar. Make note of the website's privacy policy, contact information, and always use a credit card when making a purchase.

Look for more information and tips to use on Visit for additional consumer tips.

Jim Winsett is president of the Better Business Bureau in Chattanooga.

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file photo / Jim Winsett of the Better Business Bureau in Chattanooga