Amazon has long enjoyed an unbeatable price advantage over its physical rivals. When I buy a $1,000 laptop from Wal-Mart, the company is required to collect local sales tax from me, so I pay almost $1,100 at checkout. In most states, Amazon is exempt from that rule. According to a 1992 Supreme Court ruling, only firms with a physical presence in a state are required to collect taxes from residents. Technically, when I buy a $1,000 laptop from Amazon, I’m supposed to pay a $100 “use tax” when I file my annual return with my home state of California. But nobody does that. For most people, then, most items at Amazon are significantly cheaper than the same, identically priced items at other stores.
In response to pressure from local businesses, many states have passed laws that aim to force Amazon to collect sales taxes (the laws do so by broadening what it means for a company to have a physical presence in the state). Amazon hasn’t taken kindly to these efforts. It has filed numerous legal challenges, and fired all of its marketing affiliates in Colorado, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and California. It also launched a $5 million political campaign to get voters to turn back the California law. And when Texas’ comptroller presented Amazon with a $269 million sales tax bill last year, the company shut down its distribution center in Dallas.
But suddenly, Amazon has stopped fighting the sales-tax war. Last fall it dropped its repeal campaign in California and instead signed a deal with lawmakers to begin collecting sales taxes later this year. That was followed by several more tax deals—over the course of the next couple years, Amazon will begin collecting sales tax from residents of Nevada, New Jersey, Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia, and on July 1, it began collecting taxes from Texans. It also currently collects taxes from residents of Kansas, Kentucky, New York, North Dakota, and its home state of Washington. After all the tax deals go into effect, the company will be collecting taxes from the majority of its American customers.
Why would Amazon give up its precious tax advantage? This week, as part of an excellent investigative series on the firm, the Financial Times’ Barney Jopson reports that Amazon’s tax capitulation is part of a major shift in the company’s operations. Amazon’s grand strategy has been to set up distribution centers in faraway, low-cost states and then ship stuff to people in more populous, high-cost states. When I order stuff from Amazon, for instance, it gets shipped to California from one of the company’s massive warehouses in Kentucky or Nevada....MORE