Image: Paper receipt
Rick Bowmer  /  AP file
The paper receipt is a relic of another age, when record-stuffed filing cabinets lingered in musty basements.
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updated 8/28/2009 10:26:30 AM ET 2009-08-28T14:26:30

It's Apple's fault I hate receipts. A few years ago, I grabbed some computer accessory off an Apple Store shelf and brought it to the cashier. I pulled out my paper-stuffed Costanza wallet and gave the cashier my card. Then he asked an unexpected question: "Do you want us to e-mail you your receipt?"

I said yes and thus, unwittingly, began a crusade against the paper receipt — a slip too analog, too temporary, and too wasteful to be anything but superfluous. It is a relic of another age, when record-stuffed filing cabinets lingered in musty basements; when patriarchs sat down with a checkbook on Sunday afternoons while the football game was on; and when we expected to search for things for hours, not seconds. Apple had recognized and made explicit an anachronism of our times. We no longer need a piece of paper to tell us what we bought, just the information that's trapped inside it.

I should be clear that I am not against the idea of the receipt. I am against the piece of paper it comes on. I am against the sly way that it refuses to make its information searchable. I am against its demand that I be the one who files it away — it should be responsible and find a way to file itself. I understand that consumers and merchants alike need records of what we bought. I just want those to be digital.

I recently visited an Apple Store again and was reminded just how simple it is to e-mail myself a receipt. A scan, a swipe, and some questions — so easy that it's hard to understand why we aren't making any progress toward a receiptless utopia. And so the journalistic question was formed: What would it take to trash the receipt?

A costly, complicated, and unlikely chain reaction. For the vision to become a reality, it's going to have to start with the credit card companies. The key flaw in Apple's strategy is that you have to give the store your e-mail address in order to get the receipt e-mailed. That's fine when receipts by e-mail are a one-store novelty, but it will quickly grow annoying if we need to say our e-mail address every time we shop at a different store. If we want wholesale change, we're going to have to figure out a centralized way for stores to access our e-mail addresses.

This is where the credit card companies come in. First thought: Let's put our e-mail addresses on that magnetic strip on the back of the card. All sorts of other data lives back there, so there's no reason why our e-mail addresses can't as well. I put in a call to four big credit card companies — American Express, Discover, Mastercard, and Visa — and all of them either declined comment or did not respond. But I spoke with other experts in the industry, and they say it's possible to pop some more data onto that magnetic strip.

There are, of course, privacy concerns about putting even more personal information onto a piece of plastic that already holds far too much. (Note that the issue isn't giving the card companies our e-mail addresses in the first place, as they probably already have them. It's just embedding them in the cards.) Plus, we may not want each merchant we visit getting our e-mail addresses, especially without the sellers explicitly asking for them. Their knowing our addresses would need to happen if the store were the one e-mailing us the receipts, as Apple does now.

We'd need to figure out a way to stop them from keeping our information, which would entail getting the credit card industry's standards council involved, which would only slow things down. So, a compromise: Let's not have our receipts e-mailed to us. Let's just have them digitized.

In that scenario, the credit card companies (or the banks that offer the cards) would be the ones indexing our receipts online. We'd log into, say, visa.com/receipts and see a list of all of our purchases, just as we do now when we do online banking. But then you could click on the purchase and see the receipt therein. Now you have a digital copy that eliminates the need for a paper one.

This is a gold mine for whoever runs the site, should they be brazen enough to profit off of your personal data. A digest of all your purchases is made for advertising. Now the bank or credit card company will know not just that you shop at Whole Foods but that the two-bite brownies are a regular buy. Cue the coupon for brownie mix from Trader Joe's. Plus, in an industry that lacks innovation, the digitized receipt feature is one that can actually attract new customers. American Express, if you can figure out how to digitize receipts faster than Visa, I swear I'll switch to your service. The convenience would be worth the inconvenience.

So let's suppose that a credit card company would be willing to host (or even e-mail) the digital receipts. That's only a piece of the systemic change necessary to kill the paper receipt. The credit card companies aren't magically going to get a copy of the receipt. Somebody's got to send it to them.

Which brings us to the merchant side of the transaction. The way it works now: You swipe your card, the swipe-box reads the data, it confirms some details with the credit card company, and then some software gets involved if you stylused your signature on one of those touchscreens.

That's going to have to change in our paperless Xanadu. Software will have to be tweaked so that after the box contacts the credit company to confirm your card's legitimacy, it then turns around and sends a scan of the receipt. A relatively easy change for the coders, according to an industry executive I talked to, but an expensive one for the stores. The owner of a company that implements these kinds of things told me replacing software could run $60,000 to $100,000 for a large chain — in each store. Making your entire network of stores receiptless a la Apple would be a major financial investment — and one without much payback. The only thing that would justify it would be savings on materials — negligible at 46 bucks for 50 rolls of receipt paper and the PR benefit. Not exactly a haul. So this may be something that only new businesses attempt. It's cheaper to start fresh than retrofit or replace.

That's just the process for major chains. The transition would be even more difficult for small retailers who really wouldn't be able to afford a retrofit. And many wouldn't be able to upload the digitized receipts, either. That kind of transmission is going to take far longer to exchange back and forth, and many small retailers use dial-up, not broadbrand, to verify data with the credit card companies.

Lines at the narrowband retailers would get out of hand if everybody waited for their receipts to be pushed online. Plus, for the small retailers, a paperless receipt system wouldn't be truly paperless. They would still need to keep a copy of all the receipts with their signatures in case somebody wanted to make a return. The consumer may still have a digital copy, but it's not a pure break from the papered tyranny.

All of this doesn't even mention all of the cash-based purchases in the country, which are on the rise, according to some researchers. Systemically digitizing cash receipts is an intractable problem, one that will require us to become a cashless society. But that's a personal crusade for another article.

So I begrudgingly and all-too-appropriately wave my white flag. You win, receipts. You're too entrenched for us to force out in a grassroots campaign. It's up to big business to get rid of you — the credit card companies are our only hope. And for obvious reasons, that means there isn't much hope at all. Unless — and this is the optimist in me — they refused comment because they are planning to move us to a receiptless future themselves. If that's true, then consider me a supporter of their lack of transparency. Whatever it takes to make the world a less cluttered, more searchable place.

In the meantime we'll have to settle for halfway solutions like Neat Receipt. It's a scanner that digitizes receipts and makes them searchable ... but only after they've been printed out on paper. I spoke with Neat Company's vice president of marketing, and he told me their business is growing 80 percent annually. It's evidence that there's a market for digital, sortable receipts. And proof that we have a long way to go before we can slip free of their papery grasp.

Chadwick Matlin is the staff reporter for The Big Money .

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