I wish that for just one time you could stand behind my desk and just for that one moment I could be you. Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand behind my desk and you'd know what a drag the tax option is to me.
If that wish became reality, I can guarantee that the 1 percent local sales tax option would be dead. In fact, it would never have been a consideration in the first place. But that's a pipe dream and I'm faced with pleading my case against it for a third time. The public as well as the Town Meeting Representatives have been presented (ad nauseam) with all the facts documenting the flight of revenue from Brattleboro due to past sales tax increases. Yet somehow those statistics are ignored or supplanted with the notion that our customers are mostly tourists who don't care about paying sales tax.
The fact is the 05301 zip code represents the majority of Brattleboro's customers and guess what? A 1 percent sales tax increase matters. No one likes paying taxes, including tourists.
Ponder this: Brown & Roberts' best weekend of sales ever was Vermont's last sales tax holiday. It was better than any Christmas or storewide sale in their 40-plus year history. Customers flocked to the store to purchase items just to avoid paying sales tax. Those same items could have been purchased during one of their regular sale events and the savings would have been greater than avoiding the sales tax. Paul Putnam and I often chuckle over the fact that customers vigorously respond to a 6 percent sales tax holiday, yet barely shop during a storewide 10-percent off sale. How, when and why consumers make their purchases is not predictable and often irrational.
We all know the challenges of our proximity to Keene and Hinsdale, N.H. The New Hampshire Retail Association's new marketing logo says it all: "Tax-Free Shopping 365 Days A Year." Obviously it reinforces their competitive edge on the sales tax issue, but the real reason for the new logo and marketing campaign is competition from Internet sales. Nationally, "brick and mortar" stores are losing tremendous amounts of business to virtual stores and states are losing a lot of sales tax revenue. Our shops have become showrooms where consumers use our investment in merchandise plus our staff's time and knowledge to research items they intend to purchase online, where store hours, inclement weather and parking tickets aren't issues and they pay no sales tax. Plus products are delivered to their doors, often without shipping charges.
Interestingly, consumers can be fooled into believing their online or box store purchases are great deals. They don't know that manufacturers make products for large retailers and Internet companies that look the same as the ones in our stores, but have been altered to meet the price demands of these companies. This is usually accomplished by cutting corners and substituting lower quality materials. It looks the same, but it's not.
Just because the Vermont Legislature gave towns an easy tool to use doesn't mean it is right for Brattleboro. Every business in town shares the property tax burden with homeowners through rent increases or in my case, an increase in property taxes on my commercial building. It's just plain unfair to place an additional burden on those who earn (or try to earn) a living in Brattleboro selling non-sales-tax-exempt products. Everything has its "tipping point" and I fear increasing the sales tax could become one for our retail community. One percent should not make a difference, but it could easily become the nail in the coffin for stores fighting to survive in this post-recession economy. With the Brooks House still vacant, and the reality that Entergy is closing Vermont Yankee, now is not the time to institute the local option tax.
Donna Simons is the co-owner, with her husband, Larry, of A Candle in the Night on Main Street in Brattleboro.