Could an Online Sales Tax Save Main Street? Belfast bookstore has its say

A REPORT on how the UK government can support business ventures after the recent release of Covid-19, with many suggestions put forward by the committee involved in its creation.

Posted on December 1, the ‘Support our high streets after COVID-19The Upgrading, Housing and Communities Committee report recommended that a full ‘lessons learned’ review on main streets be carried out immediately, ahead of the main independent investigation into Covid-19.

The committee also supported the principle of an online sales tax, which would aim to level the playing field between physical businesses and exclusively online operators.

Currently, commercial tariffs disproportionately affect retail businesses, with industry accounting for 5% of the UK economy but 25% of commercial tariffs.

“This disparity is exacerbated by the fact that online retailing results in a lower commercial bill: brands that are only online do not have big box stores to charge commercial rates, and warehouses to stock. online products tend to have lower taxable values ​​and therefore pay less in business rates than an equivalent mainstreet property, ”the report says.

He also stressed that the tax should not penalize retailers who have both an online and physical presence.

One company operating in this area was Books Paper Scissors, located in South Belfast.

Opened in 2017 by Linda Murray and her husband, it is a small independent bookstore that has witnessed the impact of the pandemic and the restrictions on attendance in the region.

“We’re in a place that’s not in the city center – we’re next to a park, a museum, and a few cafes, and it’s a very student neighborhood,” Linda told the ‘Irish Post.

“We had a huge difference in our attendance when the students weren’t around. They really made a huge difference.

“We are right across the street from the Ulster Museum and even when the retail business was allowed to open it took a few months for museums to be allowed. We had very varied attendance patterns depending on what was allowed to open. “

Inside of paper scissors books in Belfast.

However, Linda believes the business has benefited in some way from being just outside of the hustle and bustle of downtown.

“For months and months, people avoided city centers because they didn’t want to go through this heavy traffic,” she said. “In particular, older customers would be at risk of taking a little trip or shopping, but they wouldn’t have set foot in Waterstones.

“We had those times when we were closed but our loyal customers were very aware that we were closed so they did their best to support us.”

The pandemic has also seen the company reinvigorate its online presence, with Linda’s daughter acting as a local delivery driver for online orders.

The idea of ​​an online sales tax as suggested in the report is not something that Linda believes would greatly benefit independent stores.

“There will always be people who want the convenience of ordering online and they won’t physically put their boots on the floor,” she said.

“A penalty at Amazon, for example, wouldn’t really work because there are so many people out there to offset that penalty.

“I think it would work if people who were buying online for a certain product were told that they can get that product, through Amazon if necessary, from an Irish supplier. I think people have no idea what to do with it. ‘they buy a product from France or China – they don’t think, they click and it’s on their doorstep. “

A High Street Voucher Scheme was recently launched in Northern Ireland to improve the situation for shops in the region.

Those who signed up were each given a £ 100 voucher with an expiration date of December 19, 2021, forcing the voucher to be redeemed quickly, and the voucher can only be used in physical stores.

Linda said the program was fantastic and consumers used the vouchers responsibly.

“We’ve had people come and spend all of it here, and I don’t think it would have been spent if it was their own money.”

The committee’s report delves into the future of Main Street, reflecting the continued increase in online retailing and the increase in hybrid work. It highlights the need for local planners to consider a mix of uses and experiences for main streets and city centers that best meet the needs of the local area.

He also stresses the need for main streets to be well planned and with plans updated regularly to keep pace with changing trends, stating that “a plan more than five years old won’t do much. thing to support a main street for the future “.

Clive Betts, Chairman of the Leveling Up, Housing and Communities (LUHC) committee, said:

“The Covid-19 pandemic has radically changed our shopping streets almost overnight, with the pandemic accelerating existing consumer trends and introducing new ones. To help build the resilient and prosperous shopping streets of the future, it is essential that the government facilitate the approach to both planning and funding the regeneration of our city centers.

“The government should consider how it can support strategies that bring together local councils, business partners and the local community to develop shopping streets that capitalize on local heritage and experiences and that combine a combination of uses, including retail, hospitality, eco-responsibility. spaces, arts and culture.

In Ireland, government support comes in the form of online vouchers to help small businesses with up to ten employees with € 2,500 to redeem online, among other initiatives.

Business loans of up to € 25,000 and credit guarantee schemes have also been put in place, but a voucher scheme similar to that in Northern Ireland, or a widespread report on the future of shopping streets n ‘have not yet been reviewed.

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David A. Albanese