The paper receipt has served us well. It's simple and practical, but in this digital world, that little scrap of paper is headed toward extinction.
E-receipts are often promoted as a way to save paper, and that's certainly true. They're also convenient—easy to file and to find if you want to return an item, make a warranty claim or need a receipt for tax or business purposes.
But let's be honest, something else is going on here.
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Merchants see digital receipts as a way to "engage" with customers. Translation: They see them as an efficient way to sell you more stuff.
"Collecting customer data is always a challenge, even at the register," said Ian Goldman, CEO of Celerant Technology. "There are all kinds of issues about getting an effective customer list, and emailing receipts is a fairly effective and simple way to get accurate contact points for your customer base."
The marketing play
Armed with your email address, a retailer can try to up- or cross-sell you with personalized sales incentives.
According to a 2012 report from Epsilon International, 83 percent of retailers offering electronic receipts did so to get customers' email addresses. The report says e-receipts have proved "an innovative communications vehicle for retailers that offer limitless marketing possibilities."
Digital receipts also provide retailers with "deeper insight into consumer shopping habits, which can lead to more targeted advertising mailers, promotions, and emails," the report said.
Jason Shapiro, CEO of TransactionTree, a company specializing in digital receipts, warns retailers that using email addresses for intrusive marketing efforts could backfire.
The TransactionTree system does not automatically add to a company's marketing database the email addresses that customers provide to get e-receipts. A customer must opt in for that to happen.
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"We are extremely against the assumption that the customer who wants an e-receipt also wants additional marketing," Shapiro said. "You already have the opportunity to deliver personal marketing messages to them on that digital receipt, but that does not give you permission to start blanket marketing to them."
That no-spam policy makes customers more likely to answer "yes" when asked if they'd like a digital receipt, he said.
Old habits die hard
Apple was the first to provide e-receipts, back in 2005. Today, stores all over the country offer the option. Rental car companies and hotels also offer e-receipts to help speed clients on their way.
But are customers actually choosing the nonpaper option?