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SH12B054DIGITALRECEIPTS-RS Feb. 7, 2012 -- An illustration of paper receipts and electronic receipts seen on smart phones. (SHNS illustration by Shane McDermott / The Commercial Appeal) (RS)
Thursday, March 15, 2012

Security blanket

As more retailers embrace the use of digital, or electronic, receipts in the name of green efficiency – and possibly even safety – they also have to strike a balance with consumers.

“In the last few years, we’ve trained consumers that if they want to make a return, they need a receipt,” said C. Britt Beemer, a retail analyst and founder of America’s Research Group, a consumer behavior research and strategic consulting firm. “Generally (digital receipts) are pretty positive. But the reason there’s resistance is a piece of paper is security.”

Or as Bobby Hudson, 53, of Eads, Tenn., puts it: “I just want a paper receipt.”

Apple started using the electronic receipts at its stores in October 2005, a spokeswoman confirmed.

While other companies have followed Apple into the digital receipt age, including Williams-Sonoma, Nordstrom, Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters, Sears and Kmart, Gap Inc., Whole Foods Market and Patagonia, the paper receipt is not close to becoming an endangered species.

Which is one reason Josh Rubin, editor in chief at, a creative consumer-focused digital publication, says big companies like Apple are careful about what they say.

“It might be that they still consider it experimental,” said Rubin, who founded the New York-based website in 2003. “And there are so many compliance regulations on credit card processing that big companies are always cautious.”

That said, Rubin sees multiple advantages to the digital receipt.

“Digital receipts are clearly more sustainable than paper receipts and more environmentally friendly,” he said.

“The transaction is faster, and you don’t have the paper rolls, so the stores don’t have to change the tapes. The marketing side (gaining a consumer’s email address) is a value add. The ability to go green and the efficiency of the transaction take priority. It’s not just a clever way to get email addresses and ask consumers if they want to be on their email list. That’s already been happening for years.”

Still, retailers using digital receipts have seen some pushback from consumers who are wary of the marketing efforts.

Kay McCarthy of Germantown, Tenn., says she has chosen digital receipts at Apple and Pottery Barn without fear of the marketing that might follow.

“You can get off an email list very easily,” she said. “Plus, I don’t have to keep receipts in a drawer.”

In many regional markets, digital receipts are still relatively new. In New York, Rubin said, “It’s common enough that people aren’t freaked out about it. It’s not just big companies. My favorite coffee shop around the corner offers it.”

Beemer said his group has researched consumer response and so far, “The biggest complaint was people were afraid their spouse would see what they had bought them for Christmas and how much they had spent. I’m sure (use of electronic receipts) will increase. There may come a time when over half of America wants them.”

And there may come a point where it is widely considered the best choice for human health and the environment. Recent research has shown that bisphenol-A (BPA) – a chemical compound used in making plastic products – can be absorbed into human skin through the handling of paper receipts.

Darrah Horgan, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods Market’s South Region, said the company’s stores in the United States and Canada “use register tapes that are free of bisphenol-A, and all of our stores are working to identify non-BPA thermal papers that are compatible with our store systems.”

Additionally, Horgan said Whole Foods Market is working with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Alternatives in Thermal Paper Partnership. In 2010, the EPA dubbed BPA a chemical of concern.

Beemer says if companies are smart about incentives, the digital receipt is bound to grow.

Personal example: He bought an air-conditioning system, and the company knocked $5 off his bill for receiving its warranty information by e-mail. “That was a reward for me,” he said.

David White, of Collierville, Tenn., likes the e-receipt for big-ticket items such as appliances because he often buys “added protection” and he likes having the electronic record. But he can’t imagine not having the paper receipt at the grocery store. The digital receipt, then, is viewed as a work in progress even for someone as tech-savvy and environmentally conscious as Rubin.

“I see plenty of young people who are resistant to change and a lot of old people who are open to change,” Rubin said. “Regardless how it might segment consumers, I think it is experimental because we need to see how consumers are responding to it and what adjustments need to be made before it becomes the standard.”