Commentary

Sales Taxes Aren’t Killing Best Buy

A few weeks back, now-former Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn blamed the retailer’s $1.7 billion quarterly loss and its decision to close 50 stores nationwide on the fact that its online competitors, Amazon.com in particular, “aren’t encumbered by the costs of running physical locations and in many cases don’t have to collect sales tax.”

Dunn’s comments rehash the now-familiar meme that forcing e-retailers to collect sales tax is the silver bullet to saving brick-and-mortar retailers. It gives politicians on all sides cover–for some, it’s a way to keep revenues coming in for excessive spending. For others, it’s a handy way to wave the flag for local commerce.

But slapping consumers with more taxes isn’t going to save retailing. In a short piece this week, BusinessWeek explores the fundamental shifts online retailing has created in consumer behavior. Here’s a nugget from the article:

Best Buy’s decline reflects a cultural shift that’s reshaping the retail world. All big-box stores, and Best Buy in particular, thrived in an era when comparison shopping meant physically going from store to store. The effort required of consumers was a kind of transactional friction. With the advent of mobile technology, friction has all but disappeared. Rather than ruminate with a salesperson before making a selection, tech-savvy consumers are more likely to walk into stores, eyeball products, scan barcodes with their smartphones, note cheaper prices online, and head for the exit. Shoppers can purchase virtually any product under the sun on Amazon or eBay while sipping a latte at Starbucks. For traditional retailers, that spells trouble, if not death. “So far nothing Best Buy is doing is fast enough or significant enough to get in front of these waves,” says Scot Wingo, CEO of e-commerce consulting firm ChannelAdvisor.

Certainly e-commerce created competitive problems for Best Buy, but the sales tax advantage e-commerce has was likely the least of them. Brick-and-mortar retailing is facing an out-and-out crisis that’s going to require creativity and innovation to solve. Taxing consumers who buy online won’t do much toward that end.

Steven Titch served as a policy analyst at Reason Foundation from 2004 to 2013.

Titch's work primarily focused on telecommunications, the Internet and new media. He is a former managing editor of InfoTech & Telecom News (IT&T News) published by the Heartland Institute. His columns have appeared in Investor's Business Daily, Total Telecom, and America's Network, among others.

Prior to joining Reason in 2004, Titch covered the telecommunications industry as a journalist for more than two decades. Titch was director of editorial projects for Data Communications magazine where he directed content development for supplemental publications and special projects. He has also held the positions of editorial director of Telephony, editor of Global Telephony magazine, Midwest bureau chief of CommunicationsWeek, and associate editor-communications at Electronic News.

Outside of the telecom industry, Titch conducted rich media and content development for publishers and corporate marketing groups. He has also developed and launched his own web-based media, including SecuritySquared.com, an on-line resource for the security industry.

Titch graduated cum laude from Syracuse University with a dual degree in journalism and English.