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In trying to live a relatively paperless lifestyle, I notice what options stores and restaurants offer for providing electronic receipts instead of paper ones.

My favorite kind is where you use a credit card or mobile payment method that some lower level of infrastructure already knows about and you automatically get an email receipt without further prompting. Square has a great implementation of this.

Slightly less awesome but still great is the version where you use a digital payment method and then have to enter your email address manually, even if you've used the same payment and receipt delivery method at the same location before (I'm looking at you, most American chain restaurants that have the little mini-computer waiting at the booth when people sit down). A bit annoying, but still paperless.

Then there's everywhere else where printing a receipt is probably the only option. Especially at the grocery store, where the receipt and personalized coupons are several miles long, requiring their own bag to carry out. And look, there I am a few days later, awkwardly holding a crumpled piece of paper up next to the networked super-computer on my desk, manually typing in some details that some other networked computer somewhere else already knows about.

If we add up the the global costs for buying, stocking and maintaining receipt printers and paper worldwide, it's significant. According to one source,

Over 250 million gallons of oil, 10 million trees and 1 billion gallons of water are consumed each year in the creation of receipts for the United States alone

Disabling paper receipts as a default option for retail purchases may not fix climate change, but it would make a big difference in the amount of paper our society deals with in a given year.

With appropriate privacy and security controls in place, it would also make other kinds of conveniences and improvements to personal finance management possible. Returns and exchanges could be faster, tracking spending trends and possible areas of concern for your personal budget would be easier (maybe even before the transaction goes through?), and accessing historical records for tax preparation would be smoother.

I think most of the tools to make this possible are already in place. If you use a credit card somewhere, the vendor and credit card processor collectively know all the details of your purchase and how to reach you electronically (email, SMS or otherwise), so it shouldn't be necessary to enter any other information. They could even collaborate with other service providers to, for example, have your receipts end up in a Dropbox folder or searchable Quickbooks database instead of in your email inbox.

It would be good to have the option to flag the purchase as sensitive or confidential, so that extra candy bar you picked up is marked as "misc" in the email receipt and doesn't appear in the finance app report you share with your personal trainer. People paying with cash may understandably not want to associate their purchase with any online identity or system at all, and we should continue to support that option. For the remaining cases, we could develop some universally accepted way to provide limited contact information or just disposable email addresses with a quick barcode scan or near-field communication interaction.

Maybe this transition hasn't happened because of resistance on the part of retailers and restaurants to revamp their point of sale systems? Maybe Big Thermal Paper is more powerful than we think? Or maybe I'm the only one who cares?

I know, it's not THAT big of a deal to manage paper receipts. But it's one of those areas where I want the future to be here faster.

I'm sure this post will be the tipping point for a global shift in consciousness on the matter.

You're welcome.

2 thoughts on “Digital receipts for paperless living

  1. I agree. In the UK we don't have the same need to keep receipts as you do in the US - we pretty much only need them if we intend to return something. If you've 'popped' to a corner store for a drink, say, you really don't need a receipt but, chances are, you'll get one anyway. I keep the majority of my receipts but unless it's electrical and/or high value I shred and recycle them soon after.

    Some retailers give an option for printing a receipt but if you say 'no', it's printed anyway and they just stick it in a bin . Another larger retailer used to ask and only if you said 'yes' would press a button to print it. However, it slowed down average transaction times too much and they abandoned it.

    The easiest solution for receipts to be paperless, rather than simply not being printed, is to link in with the electronic methods of payment - Apple Pay, Android Pay, etc. If you use those, then there could be an option for digital purchase receipts to be held by them.

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