Ripley: Online retailers put heavy tax on local businesses - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

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Ripley: Online retailers put heavy tax on local businesses

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Posted: Saturday, June 21, 2008 7:20 pm

I'm reminded of a line in the movie "Ladyhawke" that a gentle breeze can portend the greatest of storms. My gentle breeze is the Wild Birds Unlimited store at Guadalupe Road and McClintock Drive.

Read Jim Ripley's blog

Over the years, I've been a regular customer at this small and gentle store where I buy seed for the bird feeders in my yard.

Several months ago, I dropped in to buy a quail block. I knew they were more expensive there, but I enjoyed dropping in and talking about birds.

The proprietor told me the store no longer carried quail blocks. They just couldn't compete with supermarket prices.

So I bought some raw peanuts for the woodpeckers and some nyjer for the goldfinches and headed home.

More recently, I returned to buy a 50-pound bag of finch food. The price had shot up so much that I settled for a 10-pound bag of peanuts and headed to Wal-Mart for my finch food.

A few days ago, I made my last trip to Wild Birds Unlimited in Tempe. The store was all but empty. No bags of seed. Only a few feeders. It was clear the store was going out of business. Fuel and seed prices had made inventory too expensive and customers needed their money to buy gas, a clerk said. The birds were on their own.

What to do? Where would I find bulk raw peanuts. I actually stopped at Sprouts and scoured their nuts section. Then I remembered we are in the 21st century. I sat down at my computer, Googled bird seed and found a wholesaler in Wisconsin who would ship me 50-pound bags of raw peanuts for $83.

Problem solved. Or was it?

Something had changed. A store that was in my community of favorite places was closing. The high cost of fuel, and technology that enables us to shop without ever getting off of our behinds, was reshaping our world.

We're not going to stop change, nor should we want to. In the long term, free markets are in consumers' best interest.

But we can and should level the playing field. I should not be able to buy products tax-free from wealthy Internet companies and then expect a full complement of city services, such as police and fire and public parks - all supported by local sales taxes.

Over the years, Congress has shown little interest in creating equity. One argument I've heard from Washington politicians that this thing called the Internet needed to be a given chance to take flight.

Take flight it has to the point that Web retailers are amassing fortunes while putting local companies out of business, drying up local tax revenue and diminishing our ability to create good communities in the desert. When's the last time Amazon contributed a single dime to a worthy cause in any of our communities?

Subsidies are rarely in anybody's long-term interest. Congress has to halt this subsidy of online merchants. There is no fairness in it. And there is no longer a reason for it.

Jim Ripley is executive editor of the Tribune. Contact him at or (480) 898-6546.

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