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> Accessories > Receipt trends – should you go digital or stick to (toxic) paper?

Receipt trends – should you go digital or stick to (toxic) paper?

By Emily Sorensen|2018-12-20T12:49:38+00:00December 19th, 2018|

Digital receipts are gaining traction among UK retailers, so should you provide them too in your business?

To start with the basics, Trading Standards told us it is not a legal requirement for face-to-face businesses to provide a receipt to customers in the UK. By extension, that means there’s no rule about what type of receipt you’re obligated to provide on request. However, when a customer buys something on the internet, there has to be purchase information provided to the buyer in the form of a digital receipt, confirmation page, or similar.

For face-to-face customers, there’s certainly upsides to text and email receipts as opposed to paper receipts, but also problems. Let’s look at both sides, so you can consider what’s best for you and your customers.

Perils of paper receipts

As it turns out, half of Britain’s 11.2 billion paper receipts handed out each year are non-recyclable and coated in the toxic chemical Bisphenol A – i.e. BPA – and in some cases the lesser-known and also toxic BPS. This applies to any thermal receipts – basically the shiny ones printed by receipt printers and card machines that don’t require ink.

90% of paper receipts end up in the bin, and most of these straight after receiving them (just think about the supermarket bins next to self-service checkouts, stuffed with receipts). Of the kept receipts, many are often lost when needed for refunds or bookkeeping.

How is it bad for your health?

Sure, it’s annoying with stacks of paper scattered in your wallet or drawers, but let’s get back to the health risks of BPA coating on paper receipts. The chemical is associated with:

  • Hormone imbalances
  • Increased risk of infertility, miscarriage and premature birth
  • Prostate cancer
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Behavioural changes in children
  • Altered brain and nervous system development
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity

The BPA on the paper surface is absorbed right through the skin – not great for shop assistants handling these all day. It can linger in the body for months, which means you can accumulate it and thereby increase the risk of negative effects.

Ingenico card machine with paper receipt printout

Card machines with an inbuilt receipt printer typically use thermal paper containing the toxic chemical BPA.

What about the environment?

Not only is BPA bad for your health, it also cannot be recycled as that would release more BPA into the air or contaminate groundwater. It is therefore strongly advised not to put receipts in the recycling bin. Unfortunately, the UK already generates 1.5 billion pounds of waste from paper receipts annually, so merely disposing them the right way still exacerbates our environmental footprint.

Can environmentally-friendly paper receipts help?

There are, however, environmentally friendly paper receipts that are recyclable or made from recycled paper, so paper receipts aren’t all bad. Still, many people can’t distinguish (or even notice) the differences between paper types, leaving room for error in the recycling process.

Furthermore, most cloud-based POS systems connect mostly with thermal heat printers. This is often the most economical solution for businesses that want to provide paper receipts, which makes it harder to find an affordable solution for those who want an environmentally-friendly paper solution.

On the other hand, you could just accept the more tedious process of buying a good old-fashioned receipt book in which you can handwrite transactions for customers who request it. This may not be such a bad idea, since fewer customers today insist on paper receipts, but it could represent problems in busy shops where impatient queues are sensitive to efficiency at checkout.

Digital receipts pose issues too

Virtual receipts via email or text avoid the environmental footprint (no further trees are cut down, and no need for toxic chemicals) and you have a permanent record of purchases accessible from a phone anywhere. Paper receipts can get lost, the print can fade, or they’re ruined in the wash. But as long as your inbox doesn’t get hacked or you delete the electronic receipt, you should have a permanent record of the digital receipt.

All this sounds good, but are there any issues going digital?

Data privacy and impact of GDPR

Despite the good intentions, digital receipts are not perfect solutions either. Just think: you’re in a busy store and just paid for an item, then you’re asked for your email address or phone number. Do you want to share that to a stranger, and in a rush so the next person can pay for their stuff? How do you know the shop isn’t going to bombard you with marketing emails or sell your contact details?

Since General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was enforced earlier this year, consumers should ideally be able to trust that stores abide by certain privacy rules. That is, businesses are not allowed to use contact details for marketing messages – or anything else – unless the customer deliberately consented to it. In other words, you have to make it very clear to customers if you intend to use their contact details for anything other than the thing they consented to, i.e. receiving a receipt from you for the purchase they just made.

But after the long pre-GDPR age, customers often get suspicious when a business asks for personal contact details, even for something as simple as a receipt. You can get around this fear by having a go-to explanation for what it’s used for, even put up a sign at the till point to state exactly what the phone number or email address is used for: to send a receipt only.

cafe queue of angry customers and till assistant

Your staff should be prepared for scenarios where the customer feels vulnerable providing personal details in front of a queue.

Impact on queues and checkout efficiency

Another worry is checkout efficiency. With paper receipts, no contact details are needed, so all you have to do is wait a few seconds for it to print, and off the customer goes. This can speed up long queues so more people can be served.

In contrast, digital receipts need to be sent to an email inbox or phone number, which has to be communicated first. This means dazing the customer by asking them to provide personal information in plain sight while standing at the front of a queue under the watchful eyes of the till assistant. Until shoppers get used to this, it will inevitably lead to some semi-awkward encounters.

Newer e-receipt systems, however, seek to eliminate this issue so it requires no or minimal input from customers to get an electronic receipt – more on that below.

Implications for accounting

A big reason for receipts lies in the need to record business expenses. In the past, paper receipts were a necessity to claim back money for such expenses, or just as legal backup if it became necessary to prove the transactions took place.

The most promising solutions involve minimal effort from the customer’s and retailer’s sides, which mobile wallets and automatic receipt generation can accomplish.

Now that online online accounting is the norm, more and more companies use cloud systems requiring employers or business owners to submit receipts electronically to the accounting system. If they only have a paper receipt, they need to digitise it by scanning or taking a picture of it and submitting it to the system. There are even tools for this, like the apps Xero Expenses and Receipt Bank that both allow you to snap a picture of individual receipts.

In such cases, having a digital receipt is easier. Many accounting systems have a dedicated email address for receipt submission, so you only need to forward email receipts to this to record and store it. Then based on machine learning recognition, the system will attempt to categorise the expense.

It is therefore no longer required for many businesses to obtain paper receipts. Some companies still use traditional, paper-based accounting systems, but if they get an email receipt, they can print it from an office printer for their records.

Better alternatives are being developed

Neither paper nor digital receipts are perfect, but that doesn’t mean there’s no optimal solution. The increasing need for businesses to be environmentally sustainable while keeping costs down paves way for more innovative systems.

The most promising solutions involve minimal effort from the customer’s and retailer’s sides, which mobile wallets and automatic receipt generation can accomplish.

For example, Barclays has launched a beta app called Launchpad, which is similar to their regular banking app, but with more features. If you activate the digital receipts function (powered by Flux), it creates and stores digital receipts for things you’ve bought with your Barclays debit card from stores participating in Flux’s system. Launchpad is still in the test phases, but it’s one of several apps now storing receipts automatically for certain purchases.

The card reader company iZettle has another approach. Once a customer has a receipt emailed the first time, iZettle safely stores the email address in their system, linked to that specific debit or credit card. The next time the customer pays via any iZettle card reader, it then knows what email address is linked to the card, enabling you to send it without asking for contact details again.

pasta stall table with iZettle Reader

Many startups in London don’t print paper receipts, especially mobile businesses with younger clientele. Photo: Emily Sorensen, Mobile Transaction

What should you do in your business?

It seems the better solutions are more sophisticated than what the “paper versus digital” debate makes of it. Moreover, many still prefer paper, but that doesn’t mean customers will be aversive to email or text receipts. As a face-to-face merchant, you’re not obligated to provide a paper receipt, so only sending electronic receipts is an acceptable arrangement.

In the end, most businesses will do what’s most affordable without hassling the customer too much, but more and more businesses are also considering their environmental footprint. It’s a fine line to draw, but you know your customers and priorities best. So consider this:

  • Do your customers tend to insist on a paper receipt?
  • Would there be significant negative implications if you said you only provided digital receipts?

Trading Standards told us it is not a legal requirement for face-to-face businesses to provide a receipt to customers in the UK. By extension, that means there’s no rule about what type of receipt you’re obligated to provide on request.

If the answer is no to both, the better thing for the environment, your employees and profits (because you don’t spend money on receipt printing) is to go paperless. If the answer is yes to one or both questions, you may still want to use a receipt printer.