Currently, of course, sales tax law favors online merchants. Since e-commerce businesses charge sales tax only on purchases made by in-state customers -- usually a small percentage of shoppers -- online retailers have an advantage over offline competitors. But that still means that e-tailers shoulder the accounting and logistical chore of separating in-state customers from out-of-state buyers.
And looming much larger for e-commerce is a greater Net sales tax worry: Legislation is pending in Congress that would authorize states to require sales tax collection on Internet purchases, provided those states adopt simplified sales tax regulations. (But merchants with less than $5 million in remote sales would be exempt.) In other words, if the legislation passes many e-tailers will need to collect sales tax from most of their customers, even if they are out of state.
Built-In Tax Collection
PoolandSpa.com is an Internet-only seller of pool supplies based on Long Island, New York. Online since the mid-90s, the site carries some 130,000 SKUs and handles 150 to 300 orders a day in warm weather. Its 2002 revenues were $7 million, says founder Dan Harrison.
The site collects sales tax only from New York residents, which comprise less than 10 percent of its customers, Harrison says. PoolandSpa has built its own proprietary e-commerce engine, which is programmed to charge New York state sales tax to purchasers with in-state zip codes.
"If you're in a location we have to collect from, it shows up on your receipt automatically," Harrison says. "Then it goes into our costing system, and we run a taxable and untaxable sales report. Say we had a million dollars of transactions, and our taxable transactions were a hundred thousand dollars; we owe the state $8,750 dollars."
Adding a headache to the process, he says, is that New York now requires PoolandSpa.com to file sales taxes on a monthly rather than quarterly basis, because the site's revenue has surpassed a set limit. "It stinks even worse," Harrison says.
"Now that we've opened up a Nevada business, we're going to have to do another report that shows all of the Nevada [in-state] sales," he says.
Harrison says that sales taxes have not been a major factor in his customers' buying decisions. The site's average selling price is between $86 and $123 dollars not enough to generate substantial sales tax. "Now if you're buying a whole hot tub equipment pack and it's going to be $1,600 dollars ... I'm sure there are people it would make a difference to, even if it's only $80 or $90 dollars [in taxes]."
Harrison, like many e-commerce owners, is vehemently against additional sales tax.
"If all of a sudden you made us collect sales tax in the 50 states, we would have to hire a full-time employee to do that," he says. "Even if we could automate all of the numbers, we'd have to sit there and fill out 50 forms once a month that's unbelievable. So I think they're never going to get [the legislation] passed because it would just affect too many companies and be too cumbersome."
Stand Alone Solution
MyFamily.com is one of the Internet's leading genealogy research sites. The site's database contains a wealth of family records culled from census reports and historical archives, which it sells on a subscription basis. Based in Provo, Utah, MyFamily.com also has nexus (physical location) in California, so it collects sales tax on the hard goods it sells in these two states.
Before the company had California nexus, its Net sales tax collection was relatively simple, says Todd Johnson, MyFamily.com's executive director of finances. A customer purchase generated a locational query, and an in-house program calculated sales tax for Utah residents.
When MyFamily.com opened its California location, collecting sales grew considerably more complex: the nation's most populous state has a bewildering array of tax codes among its many counties and municipalities.
To handle the complexity, MyFamily.com installed the Taxware software. "We hooked that up to our front end capture system and set up rules that attach a flag to each product saying this is taxable or non-taxable. Then we set up a flag based on the address of the purchaser to determine whether it's taxable or not taxable," Johnson says. "And if it is, then the system automatically applies the rates that are in Taxware and authorizes the full amount of the order while the customer places it."
The advantage of Taxware is that it keeps track of the blizzard of different sales tax regulations. "We don't need to have a specialist that is reading all of the sales tax codes and watching any new ordinances that are passed," Johnson says. The software is updated on a regular basis with current tax code information.
Sales taxes don't significantly impact customer-buying decisions at MyFamily.com, says spokesperson Mary-Kay Evans. The items that are taxed are add-ons to subscriptions, says Evans. "If you love genealogy, you're going to order this stuff anyway."
The Mom and Pop Shop
Nelda Cardenas and her husband Richard own and operate Cardenas Vintage Clothing, based in San Antonio, Texas. Online since 2001, the business has a simple and low cost method of handling Net sales taxes.
Whenever a customer with a Texas address places an order, Richard runs the order through the business's cash register, which computes state sales tax. Customers are then sent a confirmation e-mail with the total (including sales tax) and estimated delivery time.
"They have the opportunity to say 'I don't want to pay the tax,' but it really hasn't come up," Richard says. "It's understood: our order form indicates that Texas residents are obligated to pay that."
The only in-state customers the site doesn't charge sales tax are resellers; these buyers are exempt. (Clothing shops in Austin, catering to that city's college crowd, sometimes buy from Cardenas.) Resellers must provide a tax ID number.
Richard also admits that sales tax has had little impact on the overall business. However, Nelda says, voicing an opinion common among small online entrepreneurs: "When legislation is passed and every state has to charge taxes, it could be a nightmare for small businesses because of all the paper work."
In Part 2, SmallBusinessComputing.com's sister site Ecommerce Guide takes a look at how state and local governments are handling online taxes as well as the current status of federal legislation.