Will Collecting Online Sales Tax Really Make The Difference?

Okay, so it’s no Brown v. Board of Education, but for those in retail, the 1992 U.S. Supreme Court case of Quill v. North Dakota could be considered just as landmark.  For the uninitiated, it spelled out the regulations surrounding collecting sales tax for states in which they have no physical presence – in short, that they weren’t allowed to do it.

With elections around the corner, many politicians and associations are stumping on this very issue.  They believe that many retailers are exempting themselves from paying the sales tax that the state ultimately deserves.  After all, 45 states in total collect sales tax from brick and mortar stores, which end up accounting for roughly 25 percent of their total income.  Sensationalism abounds in the discussion of this lost revenue: "Some of the things that have gone on in this recession would not have happened if sales taxes had not gone uncollected," said Scott Peterson, executive director of Streamlined Sales Tax Governing Board.

Since 2003, a majority of the remaining retailers have followed suit in collecting tax, leaving pureplays, many of whom are mom and pops who in this economy are at least earning income. Assessing taxes on these businesses won’t really help anyone except Walmart. And let’s be realistic here: Even studies like the one by the University of Tennessee say only 25% of eCommerce sales taxes that are “due” go uncollected. And we know from our surveys that 65% of people say that Web sales taxes (if increased) would cause them to decrease their online spend. With these facts that chip away at the supposed billions that supposedly go uncollected, this appears to be a much less pervasive issue than once put forth. 

When the wheat is separated from the chaff, this issue can be clearly seen for what it is – politicians and associations attempting to turn a settled issue into a new problem, all for the benefit of publicity with almost no element of necessary change.