Paper sales receipts slowly fading away

By Stephanie Clifford
New York Times / August 8, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

NEW YORK - At an Old Navy store, Fabienne Michel made a routine purchase of khaki shorts. But she left without something equally routine: her receipt.

The clerk had sent it to Michel by e-mail. “It’s easier,’’ said Michel, 30, a nurse. “You can reprint it, save it, make folders in your e-mail.’’

To the rubbish pile that the Internet is creating, alongside the maps, newspapers, and music CDs, add one more artifact of American consumer life, the paper receipt.

Major retailers including Whole Foods Market, Gap Inc. (which owns Old Navy and Banana Republic), Patagonia, Sears, and Kmart have begun offering electronic versions of receipts, either e-mailed or uploaded to password-protected websites. And more and more customers, the retailers report, are opting for paperless.

“As consumers, we’re changing the way we shop,’’ said Jennifer Miles, who oversees retail systems at VeriFone, which makes checkout technology.

Many people like keeping searchable records on a computer - e-receipts come in handy during tax season, for example. Others see the paper versions as an anachronism, wasteful of resources.

Retailers first bandied about the idea of electronic receipts in the late 1990s, but the dot-com crash stopped most of the efforts, said Birame N. Sock, who runs an electronic-receipt company.

In 2005, Apple introduced electronic receipts at its retail stores. More mainstream retailers found the checkout system difficult to replicate and, Miles said, worried that most shoppers were not ready for such a leap. Now, though, the rush is to imitate Apple’s success.

Sock said that once mobile phones are widely used to make payments, e-receipts will become standard.

Beyond the cost savings and the environmental benefits, e-receipts present marketing opportunities. Gap, Nordstrom, and many other stores, for example, add the customer’s e-mail address to a mailing list for follow-up offers.

That is a drawback to some customers, said Robert Cohen, vice president of retail at Patagonia. “People are very protective of their e-mail in-box,’’ he said, so only about one-third of Patagonia’s customers choose an electronic receipt.

Sock’s service, MyReceipts, tries to sidestep objections by offering other electronic delivery options. The company is working with retailers like Whole Foods to upload purchase information to a password-protected site. Customers can search their receipts and soon, Sock said, review tallies of how much they spend on ice cream or shampoo.

All that data help retailers, too, who can send customers coupons based on purchase histories. Sock said retailers would see only a customer ID number, not personal information, unless the shopper elected to share personal information.

Yet as paper receipts disintegrate, some people are wistful.

Chris Otto runs a website called Papergreat, which analyzes abandoned bits of paper, like a 1907 receipt from L.B. Hantz, a repairman in York, Pa., that included detailed drawings of a furnace and a stove.

“It’s going to make it interesting for future historians,’’ said Otto, who has kept the receipt for the first meal he bought the woman who is now his wife - a hot dog with mustard and ketchup. “They’re going to have to be more into the computer forensics things if they want to find out what people spent money on, and how they lived.’’

But Jesse Billin, an entrepreneur in Chocorua, N.H., is eager for the day when all receipts are digital: “I don’t think I’ve ever held on to a receipt thinking, ‘That was a really great pair of chinos.’ ’’