Online Sales Tax Loophole Presents Unique Challenges for Longtime Family Businesses

Mark WilliamsMy family first opened the doors to Williams Ski & Patio in 1875. We were a pioneer in specialty retail and one of the first ski shops in Chicagoland. Over the past 140 years, six generations of Williams’ have owned and operated the business. Throughout the evolution of our store, we have continually adapted to new products, trends and technologies to maintain relevance and a strong customer base.

T. Williams founded our family business in downtown Chicago in 1875 selling awnings, buggy tops, tents and canvas furniture. Just as the company was celebrating its platinum jubilee (1949) with our 4th generation of Williams’, the business moved to Oak Park, IL and expanded to include outdoor patio furniture. This expansion was the turning point for Williams Ski & Patio, allowing us to become an early pioneer in specialty retail. Nearly 14 years later we expanded again to include a specialty ski shop – one of the first ski shops in Chicagoland.

Over the years we have moved locations, remodeled, added show rooms, opened a warehouse, and re-designed our business model to keep demand high and risk low. From spring to summer we sell outdoor patio furniture and accessories, and from fall to winter we cater to ski equipment and accessories. Because of this adaption of our business to meet the needs of customers seasonally, today we are Chicagoland’s largest ski and outdoor patio furniture store and employee 20-25 people.

Unfortunately, the online tax loophole has created significant challenges for my business.  Although we give customers plenty of reasons why they should buy from us – from our knowledgeable staff to customer service to the vast selection of quality products – potential customers often explain that they would rather buy products online in order to beat the government out of taxes. While most people do understand that they are responsible for paying sales tax for online purchases, they know that there will likely be no consequences if they do not follow through and pay the tax.

I take pride in the fact that Williams Ski & Patio is still family owned and operated, especially considering the devastating impact of the online tax loophole on many family businesses.  Competition in our business is natural and expected, but unfair competition is not. The online sales tax loophole encourages people to cheat on their taxes, making it very difficult for brick-and-mortar shops like mine to stay competitive in the market. While we always strive to offer our customers the best products at the best possible prices, we are required to collect state sales tax. As a result, I have seen many other longtime family businesses forced to shut their doors in recent years as customers increasingly opt to buy products online where they can avoid paying sales tax.

I believe that we should all have to play by the same set of rules. Businesses that are community fixtures –providing services and jobs – shouldn’t lose out on a sale simply because the government makes us collect sales tax but does not enforce this policy with our online-only competition. I support e-fairness as a way to level the playing field that will allow my family business to keep doing what we do best – providing the best possible products for customers’ outdoor needs. My business has a rich family history, and a fair sales tax policy will help to ensure we have a fair chance to thrive for future Williams’ generations.

Mark Williams is the owner of Williams Ski & Patio in Highland Park, IL.


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