Retailers push paperless receipts

11:46AM EDT November 3. 2012 – The “paper or plastic” mantra at store checkouts is getting a digital twin: “paper or e-mail.”

As smartphones proliferate, more stores and banks are offering to e-mail shoppers their receipts rather than giving them a printed copy. These electronic or digital receipts, touted as green for saving paper and convenient for saving time, enable retailers to market directly to customers.

“It’s a growing trend,” says John Talbott,of Indiana University’s Center for Education and Research in Retailing. He says companies are rushing to mimic what Apple started in 2005, adding he expects “any retailer worth their salt will offer this.”

This year, Macy’s began offering paperless receipts at its stores nationwide and, beginning in August, Wells Fargo extended this option — begun at its ATMs in 2010 — to transactions inside bank branches. Citibank announced in September that it would also offer electronic receipts at its ATMs. Other companies with an e-receipt option include Nordstrom, Best Buy, Whole Foods, Kmart, Sears and Gap.

A third, or 35%, of retailers offer digital receipts, and half of them do so at all their stores, according to a survey of 3,900 retailers released earlier this year by marketing firm Epsilon.

“There’s a tremendous amount of interest,” says Epsilon President Andrew Frawley, noting digital receipts have proved to boost sales. He says while an e-mail address can be worth hundreds of dollars to a retailer, he advises corporate clients not to deluge customers with too many promotions because of “e-mail fatigue.”

“Sustainability is a large part of our culture, so paperless receipts were a no-brainer for our shoppers,” says Rick Kilmer of FLOR, a company that opened 12 U.S. stores this year to sell carpet squares made with recyclable materials. He says usage varies by city, but at least half of its customers nationwide choose e-receipts.

“It’s really about convenience for the customers. … No one likes the mess of all the paper,” says Richele Messick of Wells Fargo. She says 12% of eligible ATM receipts are now electronic.

At Macy’s, shoppers are also choosing e-receipts for 12% of transactions, says spokesman Jim Sluzewski, adding the digital option was part of a corporate effort to go paperless.

E-receipt users need to be vigilant about e-mail, says Katherine Hutt of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. “Scammers may pose as a bank or retailer having a problem with your account, and ask you to click on a link or provide personal information,” she says. “That’s a common tactic for identity theft, and we expect it will become more and more common as people shift to paperless receipts.”

Frawley says digital receipts do not make consumers more vulnerable to identity theft, partly because they’re easier to trace.

While that may be true, what’s driving e-receipts is the bottom line, says C. Britt Beemer of America’s Research Group, a consumer research and consulting firm. “Less paper means fewer people” to file records, he says. “It has everything to do with saving money.”

Rose Holley, a shopper at Tysons Corner in McLean, Va., says she’s old-fashioned and still wants printed receipts. “Because I’m bombarded with e-mail already, I don’t want to overlook a receipt” or get more promotions, she says.

Talbott says his wallet often bulges with receipts, so he goes paperless when given the option. In the past, he says he’d collect receipts for Christmas purchases but, post holiday, couldn’t find them. Now he has a designated computer spot for e-receipts.