Seventeen states will hold sales tax holidays this year, with each state offering its own criteria for qualifying purchases. In Louisiana, for example, there are few exclusions on purchases up to $2,500. In Oklahoma, on the other hand, the exclusions mean the tax break applies only to clothing and footwear that cost less than $100 per item.
Despite these complexities, Charles Maniace, director of tax research at Taxware, a software provider that works with a number of top U.S. retailers to ensure their point-of-sales systems are compliant, said consumers are well-versed in the deals offered by their state.
Read MoreRetail crosses a line with back-to-school deals
"If they're going shopping, they absolutely know what the rules are and they will hold retailers [accountable]," he said.
But while sale tax holidays are popular with consumers, critics argue that they do nothing to stir economic growth, and they simply shift spending on already planned purchases. One of these organizations is the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a nonpartisan group that said sales tax holidays will cost states at least $300 million in 2014.
"Revenue lost through sales tax holidays will ultimately have to be made up somewhere else, either through painful spending cuts or increasing other taxes," the institute said in a recent report.
North Carolina, the only state that participated in a sales tax holiday in 2013 but will not do so this year, decided to repeal the legislation, opting instead for an income tax cut.
The move "more than offsets the one-time savings obtained during promotional sales tax holidays," state Rep. David R. Lewis said in an email.
Shearman, on the other hand, said the events typically end up being a wash for states because they come with restrictions. Governments, he said, make up lost revenue from consumers purchasing items that are not included in the exemptions, and from shoppers who use their savings to make additional or higher-cost purchases.
Matthew S. Walsh, vice president of tax research at Taxware, said there's also a belief that people who are out shopping spend more by dining out, and that states receive higher income taxes from people working extra hours to accommodate the increase in traffic.