Please Kill the Paper Receipt

I’m a Whole Foods regular. Not just any Whole Foods, but the flagship World headquarters in Austin, Texas. I live right across the street and every morning I stop in on my walk to work. I pick up two breakfast tacos and a coffee.

I also pick up a useless paper receipt.

I certainly don’t need a paper receipt – I have no desire to return a taco. Paper receipts represent a wasteful vestige of the last millennium. In fact, there is no reason – legal or otherwise – why consumers or retailers need paper receipts. Electronic receipts are completely valid and they are far more efficient.

Moreover, the production of paper receipts do some real damage to our environment. Here are some stunning factoids that I found at AllEtronic, an interesting business that is working to move receipts to digital format.

50% of forests have been cleared and 50% of that is for paper. 9 million trees a year, just for paper. It takes approximately 15 trees to produce a single ton of paper. Receipt paper demands in the US are 640,000 tons per year. This equates to 9,600,000 millions trees cut down each year just to produce paper receipts.

It takes approximately 390 gallons of oil to produce a single ton of paper. At 640,000 tons of thermal receipt paper demanded per year, that’s 249,600,000 gallons of oil used during production. That much oil could produce 115,885,714 gallons of gas that could fill 7,023,376 gas tanks (assuming an average tank size of 16.5 gallons).

The amount of CO2 emitted by producing one ton of receipt paper is equivalent to the amount of exhaust a car emits while driving for an entire year. That’s 640,000 cars driving 24/7 for an entire year.

It takes approximately 19,075 gallons of H2O to produce a single ton of paper. This equates to 1,220,800,000 gallons of H2O used during the production process of receipt paper. That’s a lot of showers and swimming pools without water.

Approximately 2,278 lbs of trash is produced while producing a single ton of receipt paper. This means 1,457,920,000 lbs of trash are being fed into our landfill. This produces enough CO2 emissions to significantly damage the earth’s ozone layer, leading to global warming.

Yesterday at Whole Foods, a thoughtful cashier asked me if I wanted a receipt printed. Surprised, I said, “No, thanks.” She punch a key on her point of sale system and didn’t print one. This was the first time I had ever been asked if I wanted a receipt, before printing. Usually they print it, ask me if I want it, and then throw it away (thermal receipt paper cannot be recycled). I assume Whole Foods has good reasons for printing by default, but I’d love it if they only printed the receipt upon request.

A more entertaining use of receipt paper.

All of this got me wondering why we as a society have not embraced electronic receipts more aggressively. Why would Whole Foods – a very progressive organization, when it comes to environmental responsibility – continue to produce this archaic little scrap of waste? I did some Google searches and came up with a couple great posts at the New York Times and Slate. Clearly, I’m not the only one thinking this way.

I was also motivated by the Apple Store, which offers electronic receipts (and their awesome mobile point of sale). Once again, Apple is pioneering good stuff (and gathering valuable customer contact data for their own benefit).

It seems clear that the main problem here is inertia. We are accustomed to paper receipts; some people really want them. It is, in large part, a generational thing. The desire for a tangible, paper receipt is probably more common amongst older consumers.

So, what we really need is a strong incentive to move to electronic receipts. We need incentives – primarily monetary – that motivate consumers and retailers to push toward the vision of paperless retail purchases. Here’s my list of motivations:

  • Retailers gain valuable customer data. Electronic receipts need to be delivered somewhere; more than likely, email is the delivery mechanism. If consumers buy into electronic receipts, they may well provide an email address. If retailers can market through these emails in a way that benefits the retailer and the consumer, there’s a win-win opportunity.
  • Consumers get special offers. Most of us don’t like irrelevant, aggressive marketing, but we all love good deals on things we truly want or need. When marketing is relevant, we love it. Of course, this requires some give and take. If we are willing to give up more of our personal shopping history and an email, the better marketers will make it worth our while.
  • Consumers can track their spending. I love Mint, the personal financial tracking web app. Its intuitive, interactive charts allow you to drill down into your spending detail. Unfortunately, you can only analyze the transaction level, not the item level. A structured data standard for electronic receipts would enable item-level data that would power more insightful personal finance tools. Overall, it’s not the most difficult engineering challenge.
  • Retailers and consumers gain efficiency. A paperless organization is a better organization. I know firsthand that our company operates far more effectively since we went paperless. We can produce any invoice, receipt, contract or other document all the way back to our inception. It’s all in PDF format, on a server, backed up and searchable for everyone that needs it – in seconds. This benefit would apply to retailers and consumers.

The challenge with realizing most of these benefits is that there are hundreds of millions of consumers and millions of retailers. Getting everyone to change their ways and embrace technology isn’t easy. In fact, it’s near impossible to enact quickly.

However, almost all consumer and retailers have a relationship with credit card companies – Visa, Mastercard, American Express and the banks that issue the cards. These intermediaries have a tremendous opportunity to drive the evolution to electronic receipts and make money facilitating the aforementioned benefits. The control these companies hold is incredible.

I don’t expect to see a switch to electronic receipts overnight. I don’t expect to see if in the next five years. However, with enough incentive, innovative companies will make this happen over the next twenty years.

Think about how you can help drive the change and profit in the process. Please share any ideas in our comments section below and participate in our poll.

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