The web is all a-flutter about the likelihood that Congress will start requiring ecommerce sites (and catalog retailers) to begin to collect sales tax in all states. The bill has passed the Senate and now moves to the House, where its passage is less certain.
If it passes, it will clearly be a boon for the states, who now miss out on an estimated $20 billion per year in sales taxes. But it's unlikely to do much for brick & mortar retailers, in their efforts to curb showrooming.
In the early days of online commerce, the avoidance of sales tax was definitely a key factor in helping ecommerce sites generate revenues. In those days, most sites charged for shipping, so avoiding sales tax was a way to offset shipping costs. And, of course, on large purchases, saving 7-8% could be significant.
But today, saving sales tax is one of the smallest value propositions that the good ecommerce sites offer. I'm an active Amazon shopper. My first Amazon purchase was in 1996 - it was for the book Creating Killer Websites and two others. In the years that followed, I rarely went a week without an Amazon box being delivered to my house. I was among the first group of users of Amazon Prime, and remain a member today.
While the shift of books and CDs to digital form has reduced the number of packages shipped, it hasn't reduced my purchases. We stream Amazon movies via a Roku box, buy our MP3 music from Amazon, use the Kindle app on the iPad for reading and more. And for all but the very largest purchases, I don't bother price-checking. Amazon provides a great user experience, fantastic customer service (on the few times I've needed it) and delivers exactly what I need. So,for me, it's not worth looking around in order to save a few dollars on a typical purchase. I'd rather buy from Amazon.
I've never been a "mall person" and prefer to shop on my own time, typically around midnight when I've finished everything else I need to do for the day. Amazon customer reviews are typically much more informative than the sales reps at a brick and mortar store, while their product selection and inventory are much more complete.
Living in New York, I've been paying sales tax on my Amazon purchases for the past four years. It's had zero impact on my purchase behavior.
While Best Buy is now price-matching ecommerce sites in an effort to stop showrooming, the user experience on Amazon is typically superior. And for those users who don't ask for the price match, Best Buy prices are still 25-40% higher than Amazon on most items.
At the margins, requiring online retailers to charge sales tax may give a slight boost to brick and mortar stores. But for most of us, the benefits of online shopping far outweigh the experience that brick-and-mortar stores provide.