If the Marketplace Fairness Act passes in the House, running a
small Internet store could get a lot more complicated. Online
retailers could even
tually be required to collect sales tax for every state they ship
products to -- a process opponents call daunting, despite measures
intended to ease the burden for businesses.
The bill, which passed the Senate May 6, would give states the
authority to require out-of-state online retailers to collect and
remit sales taxes to a customer's local and state
Under the current system, an Internet company has to collect
taxes only in states where it has a physical location. For most
companies that means the state in which it has its headquarters.
The burden is on consumers to pay sales tax and "use tax" when they
file their income taxes, but few do.
Not all retail sales will be affected if the act becomes law.
Companies that make annual out-of-state sales of $1 million or less
would be exempt, and only states that have simplified their sales
tax laws would be able to make a retailer collect the taxes.
Leveling the playing field
Supporters of the bill say it would take away an unfair price
advantage that many Internet retailers have enjoyed over
brick-and-mortar competitors, and that it would get billions of
dollars in revenue to the states. Jeff Stibel, CEO of D&B
Credibility, says he believes the law will make it easier for local
businesses to compete with big online retailers. "I'm actually
encouraged and excited about it," he says. "I think it will get
people to act and think a lot more 'local' again."
But many small businesses are not so excited about leveling the
field. They say the vast majority of online sales come from large
businesses such as Amazon, but smaller etailers that are less
threatening to traditional merchants will suffer most from the
costs of compliance with the act.
Shabbir Nooruddin runs FishFinder Source, a fledgling Internet
store based in Chicago that sells digital devices to help fishermen
locate their catch. Along with announcing it offers free shipping,
his site says, "We don't collect any sales tax, either." Nooruddin
says it's one of the few ways he can get an edge when competing
against big retailers such as Bass Pro Shops and Cabela's. "I'd
lose a lot of my sales if I had to charge sales tax," he says --
though his one-person business is too small to be affected by the
9,600 sales-tax jurisdictions
Businesses that will be affected have a lot more to think about.
The Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan research organization, estimates
there are more than 9,600 sales-tax jurisdictions in the country.
Each one has different compliance rules, not just on rates but on
what's even taxable. "I think it's going to be a big burden on
small businesses," says Peter Stathopoulos, a state and local tax
lawyer at Bennett Thrasher, an Atlanta CPA firm.
For an idea of the complexity that small Internet retailers
face, consider a hypothetical clothing store in Michigan that sells
$200 business suits online. If the shop sells a suit to a customer
in Massachusetts, the owner will have to charge taxes on $25 of the
price, but the balance will be sales-tax-free, thanks to a
Massachusetts exemption that applies to clothing purchases up to
$175. If the consumer decides to add a briefcase to the purchase,
its full purchase price will be taxable. However, if he throws in a
pair of socks, that will be tax exempt.
Of course, it's unlikely that the retailer will only market to
customers in Massachusetts. If, say, the retailer also sells a suit
to someone in Delaware, he'll have to know the rules of that state
-- which also happens to exempt clothing from taxes.
Merchants will face added paperwork too, according to
Stathopoulos. Under the law, they will need to keep track of tax
exemption certificates for customers such as out-of-state hospitals
and schools. What's more, merchants could be subject to audits by
50 states. "An audit is a long, time-consuming process," he
Some companies are worried about remittance as well. Bob
Shirilla and his wife JoAnn run two Canfield, Ohio-based Internet
stores: Simply Custom Bags, which sells tote bags; and Keepsakes
Inc., a seller of items such as sympathy gifts. According to
Shirilla, the businesses' revenues are close to the level where he
could be subject to the law. Shirilla's big worry is not about the
actual collection process -- he believes that will be relatively
easy to manage through the Yahoo platform he uses for the stores.
"It's paying and dealing with the states to give them the money,"
he says. "How do I get that money to the state?"
States must simplify
Concerns could partly be alleviated by provisions in the act to
ease the burden on businesses, including requirements on states
that participate to simplify their sales tax rules. States could
either do that on their own, or by becoming a full member of the
Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (SSUTA).
SSUTA is a voluntary multistate agreement to simplify sales tax
rules and collection practices through measures such as uniform tax
definitions, simplified tax rates and state funding of the
administrative costs of sales tax collection. SSUTA member states
pay the costs of sales tax software from
six providers certified by the SSUTA Governing
Currently there are
22 full members of SSUTA
, meaning they have enacted laws in compliance with the agreement.
If the Marketplace Fairness Act passes, online retailers could have
to collect taxes on all sales shipped to those 22 states, starting
as early as Jan. 1, 2014. Collections will be delayed for two other
states that are considered "associate members" of SSUTA, because
the laws required to implement it haven't yet taken
States outside SSUTA could still require sales tax collection
under the act, but they would need to simplify tax laws and provide
free software for managing sales tax compliance. Like SSUTA member
states, they would also have to relieve the retailer of liability
for errors resulting from state-provided information or
Free, not necessarily easy
According to the bill, the free software is supposed to calculate
the taxes due, file the returns and update to reflect tax rate
changes. SSUTA-certified software firm FedTax, for instance, offers
software called TaxCloud that calculates sales tax for all 50
states and automatically files returns for the 24 Streamlined
States. It is available on 17 e-commerce platforms, including
Salesforce and PayPal Express Checkout.
FedTax is negotiating to provide TaxCloud through more
platforms, which will make compliance easier for many merchants,
says Daniela Saunders, senior vice president of sales and
marketing. "As far as the concerns people are having, I think a lot
of this is getting solved, especially given that most people are
using these standard platforms," she says.
Stathopoulos warns that, free or not, the software may not be so
easy to get up and running. When working with big companies that
already use sales tax automation software in their Web stores, he's
found that implementation is often bumpy.
He anticipates there might be challenges in getting the software
to work with companies' accounting systems and predicts that a
small merchant with customers around the country could face "tens
of thousands" of different compliance costs, ranging from
accounting fees to technology expenses.
In for the long haul
Complying with the law, if it passes, won't be a one-shot process,
according to Paul Gevertzman, partner in accounting firm Anchin,
Block & Anchin. When tax laws change, small firms will need to
be prepared to adjust, he says.
"Big players have advisers," says Gevertzman. "They have a lot
of people they can pay to take care of things. Small players have
to do a lot of this leg work themselves."
1099-Ks: Small businesses face new tax paperwork,