(Editor’s note: Kevin Sproles is the CEO of Volusion. He submitted this story to VentureBeat.)
Heads up, entrepreneurs! There’s increasing political interest for an Internet sales tax.
Although we’ve seen calls for this in the past, the topic has seen a resounding resurgence amidst budget deficits in almost all 50 states. This deficit crisis has presented many lawmakers with a golden opportunity to recoup some revenue by collecting tax on online purchases.
As a brief recap, online businesses are only required to charge sales tax in a state where they have nexus, such as a physical location. For example, if you’re running an e-commerce site from a home office in New Jersey, you only have to charge sales tax to customers that reside in New Jersey. Although your customers are required to pay use taxes on sales made in other states, this is a complicated process that’s nearly impossible to enforce.
While this lack of enforcement is enticing to online shoppers, state governments claim that they’re losing over $23 billion in revenue because of the current tax code. In Texas alone, the state comptroller notes that almost $600 million in local and state sales taxes were lost from online purchases in 2009.
On the federal level, the push for new tax legislation came with the introduction of The Main Street Fairness Act. This proposal calls for an online sales tax under the reasoning that online stores should face the same tax regulations as their retail counterparts. To complicate things even further, several states are independently working to broaden the definition of nexus so that they may be entitled to online sales tax. The most vocal cases come from states like Nevada, Florida and Washington, all of which rely on sales taxes in the absence of a state income tax.
Debates and opinions don’t impact bottom lines, though. Here are five major implications you would face if you do business online. (Some are more obvious than others and I should note that this list is by no means comprehensive.)
Need for additional software: Since there are over 7,500 independent tax jurisdictions with varying regulations, you’ll need to invest in software that can automate tax calculations, collections and filings for you. Managing differences across these jurisdictions would be impossible without drowning in maps and numbers.
To further complicate matters, each state has varying tax exemptions. For example, some states require no sales tax on digital products like software. Other states have reduced rates for food items or children’s clothing.
Thus, be ready to shell out some extra cash or wait for an integrated system to automatically process sales tax for you.
A big push in paperwork: An Internet sales tax will require you to place an extra emphasis on record keeping and form filing. To begin your new path to tax compliance, you must register in every state in which your business sells. Thus, if you’re selling nationwide, you’ll have to submit business registration forms in all 50 states, and various cities, counties, boroughs, etc. , each of which have different requirements.
Next, you’ll need to submit tax forms at the end of each tax season to each jurisdiction in which you’ve sold something. And in the event of an audit from any of these states, you’ll be required to keep detailed documentation of each transaction to protect yourself.
So whether you decide to hire an extra hand, invest in a giant filing cabinet, or create a new database, be prepared for an unprecedented increase in record keeping.
Inability to position on price: In this current heyday of ecommerce, many marketing strategies are based on price. This is particularly true if you’re active in comparison shopping engines like Google Product Search. Online shopping trends, particularly during the economic downturn, demonstrate that customers are more price conscious than ever.
With the passage of this proposed sales tax, you’ll now have to convince customers to shell out money for an additional 7-9 percent sales tax, on top of convincing them to pay those dreaded shipping fees.
In a world with an online sales tax, your business will have to shift its marketing promise away from price to focus on product benefits and customer service. These two selling points will become more and more important to help justify higher prices to customers.
Smaller margins: Unfortunately, price will always remain an issue, and smaller online businesses must remain competitive with their larger counterparts. So even though your customers will be the ones paying the tax, you’ll likely have to lower prices to compensate for this new surcharge and prevent prices from becoming astonishingly high. This will be particularly true for luxury items.
With an Internet sales tax, customers will become even more price-conscious than before, leading to an increased dependence on discounts. And once you start slashing prices and running more promotions, your profit margins will begin to diminish. This revenue hit will then require cost-cutting measures in other aspects of your operations.
A shift toward local marketing: An Internet sales tax will also require your business to take a more local approach in its marketing strategy. This includes an increased push toward local SEM, such as targeted PPC and local listings like Yellow Pages. While interstate e-commerce will continue to play an important role in any revenue stream, it will be much easier and convenient to sell within your own state.
This impact should actually be beneficial. It’s typically easier to manage local marketing campaigns, particularly in regards to budget allocation. There will also be a shift of marketing dollars to more traditional advertising, such as local newspapers.