Can We Please Get Rid Of Paper Receipts?

Franchisee Columnist Todd Michaud has spent the last 16 years trying to fight IT issues, with the last six years focused on franchisee IT issues. He is currently responsible for IT at Focus Brands (Cinnabon, Carvel, Schlotzsky’s and Moe’s Southwestern Grill).

It seems like everywhere I look I find receipts. They are my number one "mess-maker." Receipts are in my pockets, my wallet and my car, in addition to being on my nightstand and my desk. Have you ever stopped to think how many receipts you get in a given week? How is it that in today's world of technology and "going green" we still manage to collect so many tiny pieces of paper? It's time to go electronic. We did it with postal mail. We did it with music. We are doing it with movies and books. I vote we tackle receipts next.

Some companies have dipped their toes in the water, trying both paper and electronic receipts. If I stay at a hotel, I can easily pull up a copy of my receipt online. But one is still pushed under my door the day of checkout. Same goes with renting a car. The nice person checking me into the lot provides me with a paper copy; I can easily retrieve it online, though. Frankly, if I can get a copy online, I really don't want a hard copy. It's just a waste of paper and one more thing to keep track of.

Then there are things I purchase and get receipts for that I just don't need. I'm pretty sure I'm not going to return the single donut I paid for in cash, so why did I get a receipt? Movie tickets? No receipt needed. Why not make receipts "available on request" for these types of purchases (assuming they were made with cash, of course).

Anyone who has purchased something from a brick-and-mortar Apple store knows that the technology exists. When you purchase something in the shop and the Genius rings up your order, you are asked if you would like the receipt e-mailed to you, printed out or both. If you are like me, you probably paused the first time this question was asked, unsure of what to do. E-mail seems like a good idea, but how can you just walk out of the store without anything physical to prove you paid for your item? Most people are skeptical about this option but still willing to try it, immediately checking their e-mail when they get home. Sure enough, there is the iPod receipt, just like Apple said it would be. Huh. Maybe there is something here.

An electronic receipt just makes sense for so many purchases. Fast food restaurants and grocery stores are a couple that come to mind. Both offer items that you are unlikely to return but still need a record of purchase. If people are worried that their computers are going to crash, they can just print out a copy at home and keep it in their files.I'll take an e-mailed receipt, it's a start. But there are so many more related opportunities out there. Think about all of the retailers with loyalty programs that track customer purchases. Why not design a system that allows a customer to go to the Web site, plug in their loyalty number and pull up their receipts? Think how amazing that online data would be for grocery chains. They could categorize purchases and help consumers track their spending. Sort of like your own Personal Business Intelligence. I can see it now, "Honey, I noticed that your produce spending is down but your junk-food spending is up." (Doh!)

If you really wanted to get fancy, you could offer customers the ability to integrate their receipts directly into a Mint.com account. It would allow them to track spending at a much more granular level of detail than had really been possible in the past. For example, "$200 at Publix" is much different than "$18 in produce at Publix, $13 in dairy at Publix, etc."

While I have primarily been reviewing the customer side of the paperless receipt equation, there are retailer implications that need to be considered as well:

  • Costs will go down, especially if transactions are posted online ($0). There's no need to buy rolls/reams of paper.
  • Employee theft is an issue faced by all retailers. Many retail organizations pass out a receipt simply to discourage employees from stealing (for example: A cashier rings up the customer's dinner, charges the customer the full amount, changes the order to a single fountain beverage and then pockets the difference). Without a receipt as a way to solicit direct customer feedback on whether the order is correct, other actions would need to be taken (possibly a screen that displays the order to customers as they pay).
  • Competitive advantage may be possible by offering customers the ability to analyze their data (or integrate it with other systems).
  • Speed of service may be impacted, depending on the implementation. If the customer's receipt is tied to an existing loyalty card, service times could be reduced (a positive). If the cashier has to ask the customer for an e-mail address for the receipt, service times may increase (a negative).
  • Retailers also need to consider POS integration: pushing receipts to an online system or e-mail relay. This approach would obviously have cost and support implications that would vary depending on the complexity of the system.

The necessary technology obviously isn't tremendously complicated. What do you think (or know) has slowed down adoption of what seems to me a fairly straightforward technology implementation? I'd love to hear your point of view. Leave comments below, E-mail me or reach out on Twitter (@todd_michaud).

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