What’s Great (and What’s Annoying) About the Demise of Paper Receipts

  • Share
  • Read Later
Brand New Images / Getty Images

“Would you like the receipt in the bag, or in your email in-box?” Increasingly, this is the question shoppers are being asked at checkout at stores like Sears, Anthropologie, Whole Foods, and Gap.

When it comes to receipts, there are many arguments in favor of going paperless. The e-receipt, sent to a shopper’s email address or uploaded to a website, is better for the environment and easier for the consumer to save, file away, and retrieve if and when necessary. While e-receipts can be deleted, they won’t be absentmindedly misplaced or thrown into the trash like the typical paper receipt. Any clutter created by digital receipts is nothing compared to the reams of paper receipts, some of them two and three feet long, that inevitably wind up crammed in purses and crumbled in heaps atop nightstands.

Expanding on earlier stories about the rise of e-receipts at stores like Gap and Nordstrom, the New York Times on Monday offers further proof that digital receipts continue on the path to becoming a standard part of the consumer experience. Retailers ranging from Kmart to Anthropologie and Whole Foods to Patagonia have begun offering shoppers the option to not waste paper, with an e-receipt in lieu of the typical paper variety.

What’s especially interesting is that retailers aren’t adopting the new technology strictly to help the environment, cut costs (less paper, less ink, less need for printers), or to make shoppers happy with more customer-friendly receipts. Stores also like e-receipts because they open up all-new marketing possibilities. The e-mail addresses of customers who receive e-receipts from Gap, Nordstrom, and others are automatically added to the store’s e-mailing list, and promotions and follow-up offers are sure to arrive.

Nordstrom is even trying to figure out a way in which customers might use their e-receipts to give the store some free advertising. How would that happen? The store may add photos of the items purchased to e-receipts, and these photos could quickly and easily be posted on Facebook.

(MORE: How the Internet Is To Blame for Your Overspending)

Nonetheless, most consumers will probably get used to the idea of e-receipts, especially as paying by cell phone and other mobile payments become more commonplace.

Not all retailers are adopting the use of digital receipts, though. A recent LA Times column by David Lazarus focused on how CVS continues to print out its paper receipts—which are annoying not only because they’re often more than a yard long, but because they contain reward points that become useless if lost, thrown away, or not redeemed within a certain time period.

Last summer, Lazarus took the CVS rewards program to task because of the strong likelihood that customers thought they were saving much more than they actually did. After the initial column, CVS told Lazarus that the store would change its ways. But then it didn’t change anything.

Why? After careful consideration, CVS concluded that making the program’s discounts and money back rewards automatic by getting rid of the requirement for paper receipts just wouldn’t be as exciting for the customer. A CVS marketing exec named Helena Foulkes explained:

“When you give rewards, you want people to feel excited,” she said. “You want them to know that they’ve earned the reward.”

This sense of excitement, Foulkes said, is achieved by handing customers something tangible — in this case, a receipt with their “Extra Bucks” printed on it — and requiring them to hand the receipt back the next time they purchase something.

“This makes people ‘feel the reward,’ ” she said.

Ah. So the theory is that people can’t “feel” rewards or get excited about discounts unless they can physically touch them.

Conveniently enough, only about half of the customers enrolled in CVS’s Extra Bucks rewards program wind up “feeling the reward.” The rest apparently toss their receipts into the trash.

If, on the other hand, CVS simply went digital and stored customers’ points on their reward program cards, then all members would instantly get their discounts whenever a card was scanned. The customers currently missing out on their rewards would automatically start saving more and spending less thanks to their rewards they’ve earned. CVS would feel that.

[UPDATE: CVS recently announced a new “Send to Card” feature which allows customers to send some coupons that otherwise would wind up on those XXL receipts directly to their CVS loyalty cards, and the discounts would automatically be applied when the card is swipe. This means customer receipts could be getting a bit shorter. The feature is only available to customers who agree to receive promotional emails from CVS, and it doesn’t change how ExtraBucks reward dollars are redeemed (or not) by customers.]

(MORE: 3 Changes To Look For At the Checkout Line)

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest