It's interesting to ponder how, in this age of cyber-shopping and online retailing, that getting in the car, going somewhere, wandering around through stores, seeing, touching and feeling merchandise and making a day of it, still seems to have a hold on the shopping psyche. May it ever be so. But the sequel to Black Friday is "Cyber Monday," when, according to the experts, dedicated shoppers flock online to order stuff they saw in stores over the weekend and are on sale at discounted prices online. Of course today, shoppers are already "showrooming" for online deals right through the weekend, using smartphones to compare prices in bricks-and-mortar stores to their virtual brethren. So there's no neat separation between the two, and those same bricks-and-mortar stores have long had their own Web sites in the digital playground. They do remain at some sort of disadvantage to their totally online competitors - Amazon.com seems to always come up as the paragon of e-commerce - because of the sales tax question.
Currently, as Congressman Peter Welch pointed out on Cyber Monday, while calling upon the lameduck session of Congress to pass legislation to level the playing field between online and physical retailers, taxes on sales made over the Internet need only be collected by e-retailers when they have a physical presence in the same state as where the sale is originating. A customer in New York buying an item online from a retailer in Vermont, doesn't pay New York's sales tax unless that Vermont retailer also has a "physical presence" - like a store - somewhere in New York. And vice versa.
A few years ago, when a similar bill was introduced in the Vermont legislature and sponsored by our local representative, Jeff Wilson, we raised some concerns over whether this well-intentioned idea could backfire and harm new, emerging online Vermont-based businesses. This is one of those issues that calls out for a national solution, and the time for such a solution is clearly at hand. The online world has long outgrown its infancy. If left unchecked and allowed to hold a competitive advantage by dangling a sales tax advantage to customers, it will make independent mom-and-pop style retailers even more of a vanishing species. Running a business is labor and time intensive. It's not for everyone. Being your own boss sounds great in theory, but there's a price tag - no pun intended - that goes along with that. You get to bring your work home with you, for one. Or stay late at the office or shop until what needs to be done is done. And that's before such businesses figure out how to pay for their and their employees' health insurance. So we think Rep. Welch is on the right track with his "Main Street Fairness" Act, and hope that his colleagues in Washington move quickly to pass it. At a time when so much discussion is being focussed around the looming "Fiscal Cliff" - the combination of tax increases and spending cuts that has some economic analysts fearful that continued congressional inaction could push the national economy back into recession - the prospect of some additional tax revenue that doesn't come from an income or payroll tax increase should seem enticing.
Of course, there's way more to what locally owned, independent stores bring to their communities than simply offering merchandise for sale. As has been often noted before, such businesses are part of the glue that holds communities together. People who own local businesses will be members of local service organizations and civc clubs, will serve in local government posts, will be more likely to be involved in community affairs in general. Not only are they working with their friends and neighbors while being involved in community work, but they are working with their customers. They have a vested interest in the community's success, not just its survival.
So as readers are out there over the next few weeks doing their holiday shopping, it is worth trying, at least, to shop local first. You may not be able to check off every item on the list locally, and that's OK. Part of the beauty of living in a global economic age is having a wider range of choice and prices. But before firing up the smartphone, tablet, laptop or - gasp - your creaky old desktop computer, maybe consider taking a walk down Main or Depot streets - or any other street or for that matter local businesses based in outlying towns a short drive away - and checking out what's available right here.
The view of the Roundabout, with all those nice new holiday decorations, isn't so bad either.