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Published: Wednesday, 8/10/2011

Retailers, customers embrace e-receipts


NEW YORK -- Fabienne Michel made a routine purchase of khaki shorts at an Old Navy store in New York recently. But she left the store without something equally routine: her receipt.

The clerk had sent it to Ms. Michel by email. "It's easier," said Ms. Michel, 30. "You can reprint it, save it, make folders in your email."

To the rubbish pile that the Internet is creating, alongside the road maps, newspapers and music CDs, add one more artifact of American consumer life, the paper receipt.

Major retailers, including Whole Foods Market, Nordstrom, Gap Inc. (which owns Old Navy and Banana Republic), Anthropologie, Patagonia, Sears, and Kmart, have begun offering electronic versions of receipts, either emailed or uploaded to password-protected Web sites. Retailers say increasing numbers of customers are opting for paperless.

"As consumers, we're changing the way we shop," said Jennifer Miles, who oversees retail systems at VeriFone, which makes checkout technology. "Customers are starting to want electronic receipts."

Many people like keeping searchable records on a computer -- e-receipts come in handy during tax season and are a tidy addition to the e-purchases stored on countless hard drives.

Others consider the paper versions anachronisms, wasteful of resources and as irrelevant as printed bank statements and mutual-fund reports.

Retailers first bandied about the idea of electronic receipts in the late 1990s, but the dot-com crash stopped most of the efforts, said Birame Sock, who runs an electronic-receipt company.

In 2005, Apple Inc. introduced electronic receipts at its stylish retail stores. More mainstream retailers found the checkout system difficult to replicate and, Ms. Miles said, worried that most shoppers were not quite ready for such a technological leap.

Now, though, the rush to imitate Apple's success is in full force, and paperless receipts have become a rite of passage for retailers trying to integrate the digital experience into their brick-and-mortar stores.

Ms. Sock said that once mobile phones were widely used to make payments, as with Google Wallet and other efforts, e-receipts would become standard. "A lot of these retailers are looking into mobile payments, and with mobile payments, you have to talk about the digital receipt," she said.

Beyond the cost savings and environmental benefit (an estimated 9.6 million trees are cut each year for receipts in the United States, according to allEtronic, a digital receipt company), the e-receipts present marketing opportunities for retailers. Gap, Nordstrom and many other stores, for example, add the customer's email address to a mailing list for follow-up offers.

That marketing potential is a drawback to some customers, said Robert Cohen, vice president of retail at Patagonia. "People are very protective of their email in-box," he said, so only about one-third of Patagonia's customers choose an electronic receipt.

Jesse Billin, an entrepreneur in Chocorua, N.H., said he was eager for the day when all receipts were digital.

"I don't think I've ever held on to a receipt thinking, 'That was a really great pair of chinos. I want to remember those babies forever,' " he said.

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