The Herald Bulletin

September 9, 2013

Emmett Dulaney: Databases that automate the errors


The Herald Bulletin

---- — I recently conducted a bit of an experiment to determine the accuracy of databases we interact with every day. Before discussing it in more detail, however, it is important to explain the logic behind it.

Today, every packaged product sold in a store has a bar code and the cashier is really just a cog in the conveyor belt making sure each item goes across the scanner the right way before bagging. The database does all the work – identifying the product, the category, whether it is taxable or not, and so on – and this is a great thing on many levels. It helps with inventory control, it helps with pricing, and it is especially helpful with navigating through the convoluted sales tax status of items. I haven’t heard anyone complain about sales tax being incorrectly calculated for quite a while even though the laws regarding it are so complex.

For example, the Indiana Department of Revenue published Information Bulletin #29 and made it effective Feb. 1, 2012. This document specifically spells out what is taxable and nontaxable as it relates to food and even goes so far as to name a number of individual products in one category or another. The category “Candy and confections,” for example, are listed as taxable items but “Nestle Crunch bars” are explicitly listed as “Non-taxable Food Items” (I guess that they can pass for a tasty breakfast just like mother would make). By having a database for a point-of-sale (POS) register, the merchant need only have identified Crunch bars as non-taxable within the last 18 months, but left Hershey bars and Bit-O-Honeys as taxable, and let the cashiers take the money identified as the total at the end of the transaction without question.

From the standpoint of a consumer, an awful lot of blind faith is put in those databases and this brings me to my experiment. Over a seven-day period, I bought a fair number of Nestle Crunch bars and checked to see if I was charged sales tax. The result is that I was not charged sales tax at four Anderson stores. I was, however, incorrectly charged sales tax at three others. An accuracy rate below 60 percent certainly delivered a blow to my trust in the system.

Every receipt identified the specific item purchased – it is not as if the merchant rang up the sale as just “candy” or had the bar code entered as the wrong item. While the merchant gets to keep a minimal handling fee, there is zero reason to overcharge the consumer 7 percent and to be doing so this long after the latest bulletin has been released. According to the Department of Revenue representative I checked with, this constitutes tax fraud and can be reported on their website. If it is all the same, however, I’d rather avoid yet one more database if I can and just take my business to those who have managed to update their systems appropriately.

Emmett Dulaney is an Anderson resident and the author of several books on technology. His column appears Tuesdays.