Benjamin Franklin may not have predicted the internet, but he got it right (inspired by Christopher Bullock’s 1716 insights) when he wrote that, “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. On that note and in related news: buying that inflatable yellow submarine just got more costly! Slowly but surely, shopping from the hopefully convenient home sofa is becoming more expensive: what used to be a ‘tax-free experience’ is now a joyful web-shopping outing until the very end when you see a surprise invoice that includes taxes you’ve never heard of. That surprise now extends to Consumer to Consumer (C2C) sales that historically never used to incur taxes.
Probably not invited and (therefore?) a little late to the internet party, tax authorities found the long and winding road on how to subject e-commerce sales to sales and/or other taxes. With more than 50% of government income depending on taxes in most countries (up to 80% in some, according to ourworldindata.org) and booming internet sales (39% growth in Q1 2021 in the U.S., according to statista.com) nibbling away at that revenue, it’s a surprise that it took this long for the taxman to issue comprehensive legislation to get back to what once belonged. Over the last few years, as more tax authorities found the right tune for enforcing taxes on e-commerce (Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. were recently followed by the EU and other countries), more and more taxes have appeared in that cute little checkout cart. It progressed from customs duties on international sales over a certain threshold to sales tax (or its local equivalent like consumption tax or value-added tax (VAT)) on B2C sales and, recently, many countries (including the EU) went all-in and now tax practically all internet transactions.
From a compliance perspective, multiple e-commerce platforms have been quick to implement tools for sellers to apply taxes. In many instances, taxes are automatically collected and submitted, with the seller only responsible for filing monthly or quarterly reports/returns on sales and taxes charged. And, as a considerable percentage of transactions are routed through a small number of major platforms (e.g., Amazon, eBay, Shopify, Magento), conducting audits is not reaching for Lucy in the sky. Compared to decentralized in-store retail sales, authorities have a relatively easy job with enforcement for online sales. Obligatory penalties and the threat of shutting down the seller—or even the site—when regulations are ‘forgotten’ make it easier to get taxes accounted for.
But what about those low-value exemptions? Glad you asked. The low-value exemption (Section 321 Type 86 shipments in the U.S.) may still apply on the customs duty portion of a purchase, or even on the local tax part, but e-commerce legislation in many countries requires the seller to charge taxes on every transaction, no matter how small—which is why a 5% tax on a $10 purchase is no longer impossible. Keep those pennies coming! For example, on that eBay purchase of some fine Portuguese stamps, the seller will either charge local Portuguese value added (e-commerce) tax or be required to register in the country of destination and charge that country’s sales/consumption/value-added tax—not good for the buyer’s wallet (especially as VAT can be as high as 25%), yet excellent for the tax authorities.
And the news for the Revenue Service is only getting better: e-commerce is projected to grow to $4.88 trillion in 2021, with McKinsey predicting growth of 8-9% annually in countries like Germany and France and 20% for countries in Asia. That adds up nicely, especially since taxes, as mentioned, are now collected on C2C transactions that were previously never taxed. Furthermore, with the e-commerce model having struck a serious chord with Gen Z, C2C growth is projected at 35% annually for the next four years (C2C e-commerce: Could a new business model sell more old goods?, McKinsey), which in total adds up to quite the lucrative revenue source. Quick note: this is different from the revenue related to the taxation of digital services, for example, digital marketing or reselling of user data.
While many traditional retailers, other than perhaps the barber showing photographs, have had to close due to the pandemic and the never-ending wave of e-commerce, the tax authorities are in a much better position than before to both collect and increase tax revenue on e-commerce and other sales—leaving them to safely count even more pennies from their own hopefully comfortable sofas.
Anne van de Heetkamp, is the VP of Product Management GTC at Descartes