The Price of Loyalty: Paper Receipts and Their Implications
“Do you have a rewards card?” asked Luz, a stout cashier wearing a t-shirt that read “Attention Kmart Shoppers,” as she rang up a single pack of Orbit Sweet Mint gum. “No,” I replied. “Would you like to sign up for one? It only takes a minute,” she pressed. “No, thanks,” I said as the cash register groaned and stuttered, rambling off a multipart receipt that spanned a whopping 26.5 inches. Luz hurriedly gathered each section using both hands, folded them into a thick, wallet-shaped wad, and handed it over to me. “Become a member and you can use these coupons for future purchases,” she said, completing her sales pitch.
The process of buying everyday items has become easier, yet more complex. The gum I purchased at Kmart can be found in stores all over the city, and online. How do people choose who to support?
Businesses are going to great lengths to hold onto customers and give them a reason to come back. Starbucks gives customers “treat receipts” to encourage multiple visits in one day, Target’s REDcard gives users five percent off every purchase, and many other retailers print targeted coupons directly from their registers.
The receipt, which first appeared in 1884 to reduce fraud, has expanded into a multi-dimensional platform to disburse a multitude of marketing tactics and opportunities for shoppers to connect with brands.
With so much digital technology at our fingertips, why do retailers continue to deplete valuable natural resources by pumping out sometimes excessively long paper receipts? What’s in it for retailers? And isn’t there a better way to reach customers?
Rob Price, the former Chief Marketing Officer at CVS, said the retailer’s loyalty program is to blame for the long receipts. Targeted coupons and a tally of rewards points, which customers can apply to future purchases, are added to receipts as part of the company’s loyalty program. “Our championship shoppers are going to get championship receipts,” said Price. For one championship shopper, Julie Cotter from Danbury, Connecticut, the anticipation of seeing a receipt endlessly swirl from the register is a moment of great excitement. “I know I’m getting something,” said Cotter, who actively participates in CVS’s ExtraCare program.
CVS is not the only company with active participants. Home Depot extends the length of each of their receipts by four inches to encourage customers (in both English and Spanish) to take an online survey, which gives them a chance to win a gift card worth $5,000. Each month, Home Depot receives 500,000 responses.
A hefty gift card may be effective in getting customers to take a survey, but most retailers don’t offer such generous payoffs. Home Depot’s success engaging customers is an anomaly. In fact, surveys presented to customers through receipts, even with extra prompting from cashiers, only yield a 1% response rate. Moreover, the responses retailers get from surveys isn’t representative of their full audience. It only includes people who have made a purchase, and people who have time to take surveys. What about the potential customer who came into the store but didn’t make a purchase? The segment that includes dissatisfied shoppers might have more critical and useful feedback about why their experience fell short.
Surveys and coupons aside, most people don’t need or use any part of a paper receipt, unless it’s for tax purposes, the occasional big ticket item, or to show the security guard on the way out of Best Buy. Even Jimmy Kimmel, the host of Jimmy Kimmel Live! on ABC, made a plea to President Barack Obama to take action against companies who produce long receipts.
I dedicated an afternoon carrying out ﬁeld research to see how the receipts of different companies stacked up against each other. To keep things fair, I purchased a single pack of Orbit Sweet Mint gum, and I didn’t use any rewards cards. Kmart was the biggest offender. Their receipt measured 26.5 inches. Rite Aid came in at 17 inches, but they gave me an extra coupon for $3.00 off One Always Discreet Incontinence Underwear. Best Buy, Duane Reade, Staples, and CVS landed in the middle. Last, and certainly least, Olympia Star Deli issued a modest three inch receipt, which, if you do need proof of a purchase, has all the essentials: business name, address, telephone number, date, and the cost of the item. Looking at Kmart’s receipt, over 13 inches are used for coupons—that’s half the length of the receipt.
Those who don’t need to keep receipts may take solace in recycling them, but they can’t. Most receipts now use thermal paper, which contains the chemical bisphenol-A (BPA). It’s easy to tell the difference between normal paper and thermal paper: Thermal paper is glossy.
But the fact that thermal paper is not recyclable is uncommon knowledge. 30 percent of thermal paper enters the recycling stream, adding BPA to products like toilet paper, napkins and food packaging. “If we see BPA every day, and it accumulates in our bodies, it might pose a risk,” according to Chunyang Liao, an environmental scientist with the New York State Department of Health.
Printed receipts use copious amounts of natural resources, they aren’t recyclable, and they may pose a risk to our health. Apple stores began offering email receipts in 2005. Castor & Pollux, a clothing boutique in Manhattan, followed suit in 2008. Kerrilynn Pamer, the store’s owner, said it saves about $100 a year on paper costs. “I sincerely believe that it makes peoples’ lives easier without all the paper clutter,” said Pamer.
 The receipt offered a way to make sure cashiers charged customers the correct amount and ensured store owners received the full revenue. Ilan Brat and Ann Zimmerman, “Tale of the Tape: Retailers Take Receipts to Great Lengths,” The Wall Street Journal, accessed April 4, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB125175363135673825
 Ashley Lutz, “Why CVS Receipts are so Long,” Business Insider (November 3, 2014), accessed March 22, 2015, http://www.businessinsider.com/why-cvs-receipts-are-so-long-2014-11.
 Brat and Zimmerman, “Tale of the Tape,” The Wall Street Journal
 “Home Depot Opinion Survey,” Online Guidances, accessed April 5, 2016, http://www.onlineguidances.com/HomeDepot-comOpinion-Home-Depot-Opinion-Survey/
 Helen Roberts, “Till Receipt Surveys Get a Reality Check,” Research Live (January 16, 2013), accessed April 5, 2016, https://www.research-live.com/article/features/till-receipt-surveys-get-a-reality-check/id/4009015
 Rachel Nuwer, “BPA is Found in Paper Receipts,” The New York Times (November 1, 2011), accessed March 22, 2015, http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/01/check-your-receipt-it-may-be-tainted/?_r=0.
 “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, generating 1.5 billion pounds of waste.” Will Hines, “Going Paperless: The Hidden Cost of a Receipt,” Huffington Post (June 4, 2013), accessed April 5, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/will-hines/going-paperless-the-hidde_b_3008587.html
 Brat and Zimmerman, “Tale of the Tape,” The Wall Street Journal