We need online sales tax, says Waterstones boss

Waterstones boss James Daunt says retailers ‘acting in their own self-interest’ by opposing online tax – warning it is last chance to save high streets

Waterstones chief executive James Daunt said big retailers are ‘acting in their own self-interest’ by opposing an online tax – warning it is the last chance to save high streets. 

In an impassioned plea for radical change, Daunt said an online sale tax would hit the likes of Amazon – but also cost his own company where online sales are rapidly growing. 

He said shifting the tax burden away from shops would be for the ‘greater good of society’ and boost communities. But an online levy was also vital to help Chancellor Rishi Sunak pay off national debts, he added. Big high street chains are lobbying against it through the British Retail Consortium. Daunt said: ‘An online sales tax would save tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of jobs. 

 ‘Self-interest’: James Daunt believes shifting the tax burden away from shops would be for the ‘greater good of society’ and boost communities

‘This just seems such a straightforward and immediately executable tax and I just don’t understand why they don’t just do it. 

‘The people who would gain are obviously physical retailers, but that is where the jobs are – really good jobs – flexible employment for the 16-year-old taking their first job, the part-time mum and the retired person keeping their hand in and doing four hours in the morning. 

‘It’s a real mix and I can tell you that’s not what you generally find in warehouses like ours, where the age range is much narrower, 21 to 35.’ 

Daunt dismissed suggestions that online prices would rise, saying internet retailing is highly competitive and prices easy to compare. 

But he said, if that argument was true, then it would also mean prices in shops would fall, which would more likely benefit poorer shoppers who used local stores more than online stores. 

Daunt added: ‘I understand why my peers are against an online tax. It’s pretty irritating to have built up an online operation, which is going so well, and then find it gets taxed. Particularly if you are closing shops and ever more concentrating on your online operation. 

‘Waterstones has invested a lot in online and it is going fantastically. If I argue from the narrow interests of Waterstones and its value as a business, I do not want an online sales tax. 

 ‘But, for goodness sake, we’ve already lost BHS and Debenhams and when you lose your Frasers or your M&S from places like Darlington or Altrincham, it leaves big physical holes in these places. In so many of the high streets where Waterstones operates we’re sitting there with empty shops on the left and the right, often in quite prosperous places. 

‘But if you encourage businesses like Waterstones and M&S to keep their shops open, that would help the shops around them to keep going because of the footfall we help drive. 

‘The majority of the winners would be small independent retailers around them and opening up the high street again would encourage entrepreneurs.’ 

Daunt, who runs more than 280 shops, is negotiating with landlords in an effort keep a number of unprofitable stores open. 

Few retailers have backed an online tax, but Daunt singled out Tesco as being ‘on the side of the angels on this one’ through its support. 

‘I think when Mr Sunak is contemplating all his new MPs across the Midlands, the North East and North West, I think he may actually tell Amazon and Waterstones: ‘Suck it up guys, we’re making these changes, keep employing people in these communities.’ 

‘An online tax seems like a small price to pay for the greater good.’

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