Why Are We Still Using Paper Receipts?

There are few things more wasteful. They are responsible for the destruction of 10 million trees a year and are a menace to the public, clogging up old pants pockets and clinging to passenger-seat floor mats in cars. Since so many purchases are done via credit or debit card these days, they’re also superfluous.

Yet we’re stuck with paper receipts, which appear to be stubbornly future proof.

Why? First a reality check: Smartphone penetration in the U.S. is 64% among people who own cell phones. Since 91% of U.S. adults have cell phones, that means that there are about 108 million adults in this country who don’t have smartphones. Consider also that 15% of U.S. adults don’t use the Internet or email.

Meanwhile, if you live in certain areas of San Francisco or New York, you may think that mobile payments are catching on, but according to Jack Gold of researcher J. Gold Associates, the number of people using such a payment scheme is actually in the single digits.

That explains why retailers aren’t rushing to herd customers into a paperless system, which could confuse and anger some. “Retailers have to tailor to the lowest-common denominator approach,” says Gold. “They don’t want anyone to walk out or leave.”

Robert DiMattina, president and founder of PlanetReceipt, says when asked some 50% of consumers say they’d prefer to “go green” rather than get a paper receipt, but they can’t find the option at most stores.

“Any time you have a consumer interaction, the retailers have to be on board,” he says. Yet retailers have strongly resisted going paperless because they’d have to retrofit their technology, which would cost millions of dollars. All to offer a “nice to have” feature rather than one that is top of mind with consumers.

The shame about this situation is that at the same time many consumers have a vague hankering to forgo receipts, retailers are eager to get their email addresses, which are priceless for customer relations management and social media-based ad targeting. How many of us have purchased an item only to have a cashier ask for our email address? My reaction is to say no. After all, if I’m going to participate in their market research, shouldn’t I get something for it? Giving the option of an email receipt is a nice compromise. Not only will I have fewer paper receipts to worry about, but I’ll have a searchable record of every transaction. The introduction of Gmail’s tabs makes this an even brighter prospect since I no longer have to even sort these emails.

It sounds like a no-brainer and forward-thinking retailers like the Apple Store and Nordstroms already offer this choice. It will take years — maybe even decades — for other retailers to catch up.

In the meantime, there’s a nice opportunity for new retailers to short-circuit the process of building up an email list. They can also save a few trees while they’re at it.