Apple's new 11-inch MacBook Air has a list price of $999 —that's what you'll pay at Apple.com and the Apple store, as well as at Best Buy and other large retailers. At Amazon.com, though, the same model sells at a slightly lower price— $979. That difference seems relatively insignificant until you go through the checkout process. At Apple's Web site, the final tally for a $999 MacBook is $1,101. That's the price at Best Buy, too. But at Amazon, the final price is the same as what's listed on the product page: $979. In other words, the MacBook is more than $100 cheaper at Amazon. Why? Sales tax, of course.
Unless you live in Kansas, Kentucky, New York, North Dakota, or Washington state, you'll pay no sales tax on many purchases from Amazon. (There are exceptions for goods that other merchants, like Target and Dow Jones, sell through Amazon.) This gives Amazon a huge—and largely hidden—price advantage over most other national retailers. You'll get an especially good deal at Amazon if you're making big purchases and you live in an area with high taxes. In Chicago and Los Angeles, for instance, state and local taxes add up to 9.75 percent, the highest in the nation. Sales tax is 9.5 percent in San Francisco, 9 percent in New Orleans, and it's above 8 percent in Houston, Dallas, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, and Atlanta. In those areas, a 55-inch Sony Bravia TV that sells for $1,394 at both Wal-Mart and Amazon will cost you at least $111 less at Amazon. The 64-gigabyte iPod Touch, which sells for $399 at Apple, $395 at Target, $387.99 at Best Buy, and $382.54 at Wal-Mart is cheapest of all at Amazon—$382.54, without the $30 you'd pay in taxes at other stores. The same advantage applies to a range of products. The general rule: If you're choosing between Amazon and any other large national retailer, you'll almost always get a better deal at Amazon because of tax savings.
(Disclosure: Slate participates in Amazon Associates, an "affiliate" advertising plan that rewards Web sites for sending customers to the online store. This means that if you click on an Amazon link from Slate—including a link in this story—and you end up buying something, Amazon will send Slate a percentage of your final purchase price.)
Why doesn't Amazon charge you sales tax? It has to do with the regulations states use to determine which companies must collect taxes. According to Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, a 1992 Supreme Court ruling, companies are only required to collect sales taxes from their customers when they have a presence in the state in which they reside. If you buy something from the Web site of a company that has physical stores nearby, you'll most likely have to pay taxes. When you shop at online-only stores, you pay tax only if the store has substantial operations in your state. Since Amazon's headquarters are in Seattle, you have to pay taxes if you live in Washington State, and because it has warehouses or other facilities in Kentucky, Kansas, and North Dakota, you've got to pay taxes there, too.
Sales tax is a touchy subject for Amazon. Local retailers have long protested that online stores' tax-free status gives them an unfair price advantage. Amazon, wary of provoking state or federal authorities, has played down this advantage. It doesn't tout tax savings anywhere on its site or in other marketing efforts. In a brilliant report on Amazon's tax strategy, Michael Mazerov of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that company representatives have long argued that Amazon's tax advantage is not a big deal. "People shop online for convenience, for huge selection and great prices, and not because of any sales tax issue," a spokesman said in 1999. And an executive once told a group of state tax administrators that "we don't consider tax as a competitive advantage." (The company didn't respond to my inquiries about its tax policies.)
But Mazerov argues that Amazon's actions suggest that taxes have always been a primary consideration. Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder, moved from New York to Seattle to start the company. "We could have started Amazon.com anywhere," he toldFast Company in 1996. "We chose Seattle because it met a rigorous set of criteria." Among other things, Seattle had lots of talented tech people, it was a nice enough place to attract many more smart people, and it was close to a big book warehouse.
This was true of the San Francisco area, too, which Bezos had also considered for Amazon's headquarters. But Bezos saw one major problem with San Francisco—it's in a big state with high taxes, meaning lots of customers would be subject to sales tax if they bought stuff from Amazon. "I even investigated whether we could set up Amazon.com on an Indian reservation near San Francisco," Bezos told Fast Company. "This way we could have access to talent without all the tax consequences. Unfortunately, the government thought of that first."
Amazon has aggressively fought state efforts to impose sales tax on its operations. In 2008, New York passed a law that required online companies to collect taxes if they had deals with marketing affiliates based in the state. The law was designed specifically to target Amazon and other large online retailers—many called it the "Amazon tax." In response, Amazon sued New York over the law's constitutionality—marketing affiliates, Amazon argued, did not constitute a significant presence in the state. (Overstock.com, another company that has carefully avoided collecting taxes, took a harder line. In response to the New York law, Overstock canceled its relationships with all New York affiliates, freeing it from collecting any taxes in the state.)