Progress Report: Paper Receipt Death March

Progress Report: Paper Receipt Death March

As consumers, many of us have been wishing for the death of paper receipts for a long time now. There are many reasons for this. Some of us are environmentalists, and we can't stand the thought of contributing to the massive waste of paper products. Some of us are minimalists, and we have moved away from 1980s-style wallets to a simple credit card and driver's license holder. Some of us are germaphobes or health nuts, and we prefer to not handle cash and paper receipts. Still others are super organized savvy shoppers who want to be able to digitally analyze all purchases and return items later without fear of losing a receipt. But if you are reading this article on Certify's blog, you are probably among the masses of business travelers who want paper receipts to go away for the simple reason of streamlining your expense reporting workflow. I can identify with all these groups, though I am ashamed to say that I have yet to downsize to one of those slick, streamlined wallets.

And so, for the past decade or more, we have all been watching paper receipts. We spend time thinking and dreaming about ways to eliminate them. We watch the ecommerce and retail industries, looking for any new trends that might shift public opinion and habits away from paper. Here at Certify, we spend countless hours architecting systems that analyze and interpret receipts, whether in paper or electronic formats. It is interesting to reflect on the fact that paper receipts have been around for thousands of years. Perhaps that is why, as of 2017, society at large has not yet eliminated them. The current state of the paper receipt is perpetuated by companies such as Iconex, Ritemade, Panda Paperroll and many others, who make their livelihood on paper receipts and therefore have a vested interest in keeping them alive.

Various bloggers have latched onto this topic over the past decade, giving it a fresh look in their own way. The Big Money wrote about it in 2009, doing a great job of analyzing the changes that would have to take place across multiple industries in order for paper receipts to go away. Mashable wrote about it in 2013, lamenting the problem and identifying the causes which, at the time, included low smartphone penetration and retailers with little ability to change. Our friends at Abacus wrote about it in 2014, giving us an enlightening and enjoyable read about the history of paper receipts.

But now we have some progress to report – here we are in July of 2017, and it looks like change is finally in the air! Uber and Lyft are now allowing users to create a business profile, which automatically forwards receipts to an expense management provider selected by the rider. This allows business travelers to decide if they want to include the trip on their next expense report, and if so, to basically forget about the receipt entirely. Of course, when using Uber and Lyft, the receipt is already in an electronic format, but the experience is entirely frictionless, which appeals to several of the psychological personas we discussed earlier. These solutions are changing the game when it comes to receipts, conditioning and convincing the public to trust electronic receipts and make the jump away from paper. The ecommerce and SaaS industries are doing the same thing, and now Amazon is bigger than most brick-and-mortar retailers put together.

But get this – even beyond SaaS providers and ecommerce, brick-and-mortar retailers are now able to participate in the electronic receipt revolution by choosing a point-of-sale solution such as Square. As a consumer, you have probably used Square already (and likely enjoyed it), even if you did not know the name of the product. Square was the first to market, and is still the leading provider of, those gorgeous point-of-sale solutions that are actually an Apple iPad. You know the one – when making a purchase the cashier rotates the iPad to you, and you can sign with your finger and flip it back around. But while you are happily signing your name with your index finger, Square asks you a few other questions, such as if you want to add a tip and, crucially, if you want a paper or email receipt. If you select email, Square makes it exceptionally easy for you to enter your email address right on the iPad. This is good because you don't have to spell it out verbally to the cashier (spelling an email address can be a horrible experience and invariably means errors, clarifications, small talk about your email address provider, and the possibility of eavesdropping by other patrons).

But the most important aspect of Square's use of email address for electronic receipts is that Square saves your email address along with your credit card information. This is somewhat controversial, but it means that the next time you interact with a Square point-of-sale device at any retailer anywhere, you do not have to type in your email address. The process of choosing electronic receipts from that point and onward is entirely frictionless. This is a huge step forward and will surely hasten the death of the paper receipt!

Square is not alone in this march toward progress. Other Square competitors (which also use a white iPad and turn-style mount) are likely going to do the same thing. Now that point-of-sale systems are delivered via a cloud-connected system, the barrier to entry for delivering this experience is exceptionally low. Of course, it is mostly small retailers and restaurants that are using these newfangled point-of-sale systems, but the big ones seem to be catching up as well. Within the past year, I have noticed that my Home Depot check-out experience has added the same feature, albeit with a much less snazzy piece of hardware for the point-of-sale device. But after entering my email address somewhat painfully the first time, the process is now fairly frictionless, and the receipt does in fact arrive by email. If Home Depot can do it, why can't other large retailers?

It turns out that many of the largest retailers are already hot on the trail, and Home Depot is only one of the more prominent merchants to do so. In fact, progress along this path is easy to track because there is a patent troll called ECeipt, LLC that is bringing a lawsuit against Home Depot and other merchants for precisely this technological advancement. This is a classic example of a patent troll. The company ECeipt, LLC has no website, and all legal action is taking place in the patent troll-friendly state of Texas. Reading through the details of the patent demonstrate only the most basic idea that simply allows the user to select between printing a receipt or sending it by email. Just like a classic patent troll, ECeipt, LLC is simultaneously suing Square, BestBuy, Nordstrom, and many others.

But don't let the patent troll problem get you down just yet! Sure, patent trolls are a blight on society and remind us of the blatant and unashamed opportunism of which humanity is capable. But perhaps the silver lining in this case is that this company, ECeipt, LLC, is actually making it easy for us to track the progress of electronic receipts. All we have to do is search Google for “eceipt llc lawsuit” and we can easily see what that shameless company is up to. At present, it looks as though several dozen of the largest retailers are getting on board with emailed receipts, which marks the fastest progress in this battle in many years.

The strange paradox of all this is that the chosen method for killing the paper receipt is email. For many years now, we have endured countless bloggers demanding that email must die. Dozens of startups have been born with the sole purpose of replacing it, and as of 2017, it looks as though Slack is actually making headway in this endeavor. And yet it turns out that email is ubiquitous and flexible enough to assist in killing paper receipts, even while it is under attack itself. I suppose this is a fine trade-off, because after all, email is a massive advancement over paper, right? At present, there are no signs of email receipts going away. Instead, the signs show increasing usage and reliance upon them. For this reason, Certify is continuing to double down on its investment in receipt OCR and parsing, whether the source of the receipt is paper or email. We are happy to report that Certify's ReceiptParse™ technology analyzes every receipt that passes through the Certify cloud, whether the source of that receipt is paper, scan, fax, mobile phone camera, or email. This means that we are watching the entire commercial world shift from paper to email receipts, and we are giving better parsing results as the shift takes place, primarily because the OCR layer is less and less at play.

So, there you have it, folks. It's 2017, and the days of paper receipts might actually be numbered now. If I had to make a few reckless predictions, I would say that these trends will continue, and by the year 2020, paper receipts will be in the minority. By 2025, it would not surprise me if governments begin to legislate against paper receipts. By 2030, Hollywood will begin making retro-comedies set in the early 2000s, showing people crumpling paper receipts and chucking them in the garbage. Like throwing a dirty diaper out the car window on the highway, we will all ask ourselves, “did we really do that?”