Stick Vat up on online operators….that’ll sort the High Street….Not!

A report has just been published suggesting that the government should raise VAT to 22.5% for online sales and 15% for High Street retailers. The author of said report is a company called Collier International. For those who don’t know who they are , and I didn’t, they are a very large Canadian Real Estate company with property interests worldwide including the U.K. where they are especially prominent in shopping centres. Well no surprise there then. Another report suggests a 1% online tax would generate £5 billion which would enable a 17.5% decrease in business rates. All this and much more besides would even up the playing field. No it wouldn’t. They all miss the point and don’t seem to understand the basic mechanics of what is actually happening out there.

Let’s first of all put aside Amazon. It’s difficult because of their impact but we all know they are big enough and smart enough to tackle any reasonable obstacles that come their way. Incidentally, they are budgeting £26 billion for R&D in 2019 .Many multiple retailers don’t even have a budget for research.

There is a huge assumption that online operators succeed because they have the advantage of lower costs of operation. Well if they are operating from their bedroom they might. Every other operator tells a very different story. I speak to some  form of online operation most days. So I think I get a broad view of what the issues facing them are .

First of let’s look at what they don’t have…loads of costly leases. As they don’t have several trading locations, neither do they tend to have crippling business rates associated with multiple outlets. Because they, generally,don’t have a shop or shops, they don’t have a building shouting their name to their potential customers 24/7/365 . They constantly have to pay(in various ways) to ensure their brand is consistently uppermost in the mind of  their targeted consumer. This cost alone, to the small and medium size operator can be crippling on its own.

What they do have are large costly warehouses, huge stock holdings, constant pressure to keep their IT systems up to date, aggressive pricing pressures, sometimes this is quite literally minute by minute, shipping costs, much higher rates of returns , the continuous drive for even more rapid deliveries and free deliveries. Unless they are working from the bedroom , they have business rates just like anyone else. Few operators make little or no profit in their early years as they have re-invest  to survive .

Politicians, advisors and research bodies seem to rarely pay heed to the results from unintended consequences. If the Government were to heed the advice of Collier International and the policy did indeed re-invigorate the High Street, then more product would be purchased at 15% than at 22.5% or even 20% creating a vast revenue shortfall for the Treasury. Anyway it wouldn’t have the desired effect and it would only make matters worse for all forms of Retailer as well as the Treasury.

Furthermore it is  a discriminatory policy as there are now sectors of society who rely on online purchases. Those living in remote rural areas, the disabled , especially those with mobility issues. Just because a consumer wants to buy a product that shops don’t want to stock should they be penalised with a VAT rate increase? If a consumer buys a product through a High Street Retailers web site and collects it in the store, which rate of VAT would be charged?  The idea is completely bonkers but more importantly misses the point.

On  a micro level business rates need to be reformed and  local bureaucracy needs to be challenged . At the macro level Government(s) need to reassess major organisations ability to legally avoid fair and equitable taxation . Not just the Giants , such as Apple and Amazon, there are those a lot closer to home who seem to escape the Taxation limelight ( the likes of Phillip Green . the Barclay Brothers and the Richard Bransons of this world -my pet tax avoiding dislikes amongst many others within the UK).

The point they seem to be missing is that the Retail landscape is and will continue to change . You can’t nudge it backwards. That benefits no one. Imaginative policy and structures have to be created to accommodate change and not rail against it. The High Street will always  change . Unfortunately, there will be those who suffer but that has never been any different from the advent of the first Supermarket chain, the first shopping centre and shopping malls, the introduction of mail order shopping and even something more structurally basic as when the newspaper industry decided to supply Supermarkets and the consequent closure of many High Street newsagents. I did not see any Government intervention then. Yet I fail to see any overall strategy and understanding as to what has been going on for donkeys years, apart from knee jerk reactions that invariably make the problem worse.


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