For nearly 40 years, I’ve held the reins at Baker and Baker Jewelers in downtown Marietta, Ohio. Spanning nearly a century, Baker and Baker has grown and evolved along with our community. Over the years, I’ve had to contend with a lot, but the current disparity between how our nation’s tax laws treat brick-and-mortar businesses like mine compared with our online competitors is perhaps one of the most insurmountable obstacles we’ve ever had to face. For the sake of Main Street businesses and communities nationwide, it’s time for Congress to do something to fix this problem once and for all.

Currently, most if not all of my online competitors are exempt from collecting and remitting state sales taxes. Meanwhile, brick-and-mortar businesses like mine must collect and remit these taxes every day on every purchase, putting me at an immediate 7.25 percent disadvantage here in Marietta. As any small-business owner will tell you, this is enough to make or break a business. I can generally match or beat a price — I have no issue competing against a nearby retailer or an online competitor — but I can’t tell a customer that I won’t bother charging them sales tax. The government would probably throw me in jail if I did that, yet my online competitors are invited to do that every day.  How is this a free market?

The unlevel playing field puts local businesses like mine in a precarious position. We always strive to provide the highest level of customer service possible and will talk through options with our customers, let them try different pieces on, and work with them to select the perfect style and design to suit their needs. But I’ve noticed an increasing trend where customers will spend time with my employees talking through different options, only to leave the store apparently to buy online in order to avoid the sales tax. It’s disheartening to say the least, but more than that, it wastes time and resources we can’t afford to spare. Local businesses are sick and tired of being showrooms for online shopping, but more importantly, we simply can’t afford to do it any longer.

But this isn’t just about protecting my business; the unfair advantage given to online retailers is taking its toll on the entire business community in Marietta, and I suspect the same is true throughout the country. Local businesses create jobs, provide a tax base, and support our communities through active civic involvement. 

When retailers in our local downtowns and shopping districts close shop, foot traffic drops, tax receipts drop and local employment drops. That impacts more than just traditional retailers selling books, shoes, furniture, jewelry, etc. It impacts every business in the local eco-system; the local coffee shops, printers, dry cleaners, accountants, realtors, restaurants and all public services connected to the local tax base. As the sales tax loophole continues to corrode the local economy, all the things that we provide are slowly dwindling away. Unless Congress has the courage to finally do something, many local businesses simply won’t survive. And the jobs, taxes and community investments we make will be gone for good.

There’s an old trope that politicians like to spout whenever they need to drum up votes during an election season that says small businesses are the backbone of the American economy. Rather than just paying lip service, Congress should end the special treatment we’re currently giving online retailers and level the playing field so that all businesses have a fair shot to compete in the free market — and they should do it without any further delays. Small businesses simply cannot afford to wait any longer.