It's time to get rid of cash register receipts

Summary:Cash register receipts are environmentally irresponsible things, yet we could get rid of most of at a stroke using cheap technology that already exists.

Jack Dorsey, speaking at the National Retail Federation expo yesterday was opining on the topic of cash register receipts. 

Now, to be honest, I'm not clear what he was actually saying. I've read all the coverage of his talk, and it seems I'm not alone. Various outlets are covering him saying that we should "printing advertisements on the receipts" all the way through to "let's get rid of receipts and go electronic!"

Either way, whatever he was talking about ultimately he was there to push Square -- his product that allows SMEs to take credit cards using a smartphone. Square is now apparently worth about $5bn on top of Twitter's already ample $34 billion market cap. 

He's clearly doing something right.

But as a society, we're doing something wrong. Whatever Dorsey thinks about receipts, the bottom line is this: we need to be putting as much distance as possible between us and cash register receipts as possible.

Resolution

Like most human beings, I’m not good at keeping New Year Resolutions, but back in 2012 I made one which I have kept -- mostly. I made a resolution to get rid of paper.

I got rid of as many paper bank and utility company statements as possible, and I stopped buying books that weren’t on Kindle. A big change I made was getting rid of all the odd bits of paper, Post-It Notes and the like. I now put everything that I need to remember on Evernote.

(If you don’t use Evernote, you should. It’s a simply superb piece of software.)

The one thing that I can’t crack though is receipts. Seemingly every time I leave the house I collect some new piece of paper that I simply do not need.

Imagine a world where there were no receipts. Imagine how much carbon and other resources we would save if we only got receipts when we actually needed them.

Stupidity

What’s stupid about this is that it’s the companies that provide the point-of-sale (POS) systems that can change this. In the first instance, all they have to do is not print the receipt by default, which of course they're all rigged to do because these systems all work like it's the 1980s.

Last year a Tesco branch local to me was running a pilot scheme to this effect. Above the till they had a sign saying that if you liked a receipt, you needed to ask. But because the software couldn’t handle not printing a receipt, they actually printed them out and threw them in the trash. Which if you’re standing in a store thinking about such things creates something of an “uh, what?” moment. But I get it – at least they’re doing something, and I guess it’s a pragmatic way of collecting data without a boatload of IT hassle.

Tesco - Would you like a receipt
Well, would you?

A more sophisticated thing to do here is to tie loyalty card usage through to electronic delivery of receipts. Most of the UK supermarkets run loyalty cards, and as such customers are used to swiping their cards as part of the transaction. A bit on the customer record that can be set using the store's online portal to say “please don’t spew out wasted paper for this transaction, just email them” is all that’s needed.

And then, voila. The POS system processes the loyalty card, pings the server and finds out I don't want a receipt, stops the print process, finally zapping a request into a queue to email it to me instead.

Again, that’s down to the provider of the POS system. To me though there’s a fantastic business case there. “Hey, Tesco, Sainsbury's, Safeway, Walmart, Whoever, can we save you $$$$ a year by selling you this system upgrade for $$? And in doing so can we give you a good pro-environment story to tell?”

It amazes me that this hasn’t happened yet.

I must mention though that there is one store in the UK that does electronic delivery of receipts, and it’s the Apple Store. I bought some stuff from them over the Christmas period and my receipt was delivered to my (Android) smartphone before leaving.

Expensify and Doxie

I should make some honourable mentions on this topic whilst I’m here.

Expensify is a super little app for capturing expenses whilst you’re out and about. I’m writing this in a restaurant, and when I’m done I’ll take a photo of the receipt using the Expensify app. Ultimately, I’ll get Expensify to send the receipt to my accountant, saving more carbon than sending it to him in the mail.

Expensify has a smart little feature called SmartScan. This takes the receipt and works out what it is. It’s a mostly automated process, but if the system gets stuck it’ll fire the document over to a human to look at. You can upload as many receipts as you like to Expensify in a month, but you only get a limited number of free SmartScan hits. Go over that, and they’re 20 cents each.

Expensify screenshot
Capturing a receipt using Expensify.

Another honourable mention here is Doxie. Doxie make a number of scanners, the goal of which is to make scanning easy. I have a Doxie One, which scans to an SD card. (Although on their website it says the One doesn’t have SD card support – so caveat emptor as they may have changed things since I bought mien.)

Mind you, I also have a laser printer that can scan. The Doxie is easier, and so I use that. Any paper that comes into my office that I want to keep, I scan it straightaway and then now and again file the scanned PDFs onto Google Drive.

It works well.

Doxie One
The Doxie One.

Conclusion

Much as I admire Jack Dorsey for Twitter, and Square, whatever he's doing with receipts he needs to be working to get rid of them, not working to make more of them.

We can only hope that struggling for things to talk about he came up with this idea thirty seconds before walking on stage and blurted it out without thinking about it.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: Emerging Tech

About

Matt Baxter-Reynolds is a mobile software development consultant and technology sociologist based in the UK. His latest book -- "Death of the PC" -- is available on Amazon now.

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