Why It Took Five Years—and Much Internet Mockery—for CVS to Shorten Its Receipts

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After being relentlessly bashed on social media for reams of ridiculously long receipts, CVS has vowed to make its receipts less ridiculously long. What took them so, um, long?

Consumers have been puzzled and peeved about the length of store receipts for quite some time now. As far back as 2009, the Wall Street Journal was writing about how anyone making a few purchases at Duane Reade, Kmart, or CVS—CVS especially—could wind up with a receipt “as long as my arm,” as one customer put it.

In the years since, many national stores have begun shifting to paperless “e-receipts,” and large chains like Albertsons and Shaw’s have even gotten rid of the loyalty programs that round up the customer purchase data used as a basis for the promotions and discounts streaming down those three-foot-long receipts. Throughout, CVS has remained committed to its ExtraCare Rewards Program, and the XXXL receipts have kept on coming, even after the Los Angeles Times consumer advocate took the company to task in 2011 for not following through on a promise to shorten its receipts.

It was in 2011 that CVS introduced a new option for loyalty members to have coupons and promotions sent directly to their card, rather than be printed on a receipt that’d probably end up in the trash. Not all that many CVS customers bothered to sign up, however, perhaps because only “Customers who have opted in to receive ExtraCare emails can choose to send select coupons directly to their ExtraCare cards for automatic, digital in-store redemption, eliminating the need to print those coupons at home and submit paper copies at the register.” In other words, to avoid the huge receipts, you had to let CVS clog your e-mail in-box.

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Things pretty much stayed this way until just a few weeks ago, when CVS receipts became a meme on social media, with loads of folks on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr showing off the extraordinarily long, extraordinarily unnecessary receipts given to them after shopping at the drugstore.

“Lost the string to my kite, so instead, I attached it to a CVS receipt,” one Twitter user joked. “6-foot long CVS receipt filled with coupons you have one week to use,” another complained.

Apparently, CVS tired of being the butt of jokes over the summer, and on the company Facebook page a message promised that the shrink ray would soon be pointed at its receipts:

Hi everyone: We know that you love ExtraCare Savings and Rewards. As part of our commitment to find ways to provide you with even more value, we’ve gone LONG on savings. And, as you’ve noticed, our receipts have gotten lengthier too. Over the past few days we’ve been listening to you (and we’ve also seen the very creative uses for your receipts)! You asked for ALL the savings and LESS paper. So, we’ve found a way to reduce the size of the ExtraCare portion of your receipts by 25% while still providing you all the coupons and rewards. The smaller, value-packed receipts will start printing in the coming weeks. Many of you are already using our Send to Card feature which enables paperless redemption for select ExtraCare offers. We’re excited to let you know that early next year, you’ll be able to send all of your offers directly to your card. We hope you will continue to redeem each of your personalized offers but for the ones you don’t use, please don’t forget to recycle! Thanks for the feedback. And thank you for making ExtraCare the #1 Retail Loyalty Program in the world. – Rob Price, Chief Marketing Officer, CVS/pharmacy

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How exactly will CVS keep providing offers while shrinking the size of its receipts next year? Smaller fonts or something? The company isn’t saying yet. It released a statement to TIME that largely reiterated its Facebook message, while also noting that it’s possible to get loyalty program benefits without divulging some personal information:

If a customer does not want to share their name or contact information, they can join ExtraCare as an anonymous cardholder by applying for program in-store without providing a name or address. All the same card benefits apply, but the cardholder won’t receive any personalized mailings.

However, those anonymous loyalty members will, presumably, be subjected to three-foot-long receipts from time to time. Also, even after CVS receipt coupons are trimmed by 25%, they could still easily wind up being half as tall as the average customer.

In any event, why does CVS feel compelled to flood customers with discounts and promotions—printed on receipts or otherwise—that only a small portion of people seem to actually take advantage of? Well, that small percentage of customers tends to get quite excited when that ginormous receipt prints out. They love scrolling through the special “personalized” offers listed on them, even if they weren’t particularly interested in the products before they saw them discounted. For “extreme couponing”-type consumers, a gigantic receipt loaded with coupons appears to be a ticket to cheap and sometimes free stuff. A while back, for instance, one blogger managed to feed himself on a budget of $1 per day with the help of drugstore loyalty programs, although some absurd purchasing decisions were required: One day, the blogger—a guy—bought tampons and pantiliners in order to reach a purchasing threshold that granted him some “free” peanut butter.

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The reaction from shoppers who enjoy employing such strategies is probably: Hey, whatever works. For CVS, the system works because customers get in the habit of hitting the local CVS one or two times a week, maybe even more, and being tempted by offers everywhere they look — in store aisles, e-mail in-boxes, on receipts, and beyond.