5 Lessons in Sustainability and Innovation from Those Long CVS Receipts

CVS receiptThe latest example that more is not necessarily better comes from CVS, where its absurdly long paper receipts have generated a public outcry on social media. It wasn’t the first time customers complained about the wasted paper, but the receipts got a lot of attention last week after Matt Brownell reported on Daily Finance about a coworker at AOL who bought a single item at CVS and received a 38-inch receipt.

CVS explained that this was its way to inform its ExtraCare rewards program members about coupons and rewards. In the age of apps and eReceipts, that answer felt unsatisfactory to many and the outcry became viral with the help of Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, where a new account, ‘CVS Receipt’ gave people a stage to demonstrate their irritation creatively:


After a couple of days, CVS decided it should do something about it and came up with a creative solution: “You asked for ALL the savings and LESS paper,” the company posted on Facebook. “So, we’ve found a way to reduce the size of the ExtraCare portion of your receipts by 25 percent while still providing you all the coupons and rewards.”

This episode, which seems to have passed quickly, provided us not just with an opportunity to make fun of CVS, but also some important lessons in innovation, sustainability and responsibility:

1. It’s about materiality, not just innovation

CVS claims it is “a pharmacy innovation company.” “Innovation” to us means demonstrating openness, curiosity and creativity in the relentless pursuit of excellence…Simply put, we must innovate and do things differently,” explains Larry Merlo, the company’s President and CEO in its 2011 sustainability report.

So does this story mean CVS is not as innovative as it likes us to think? Not necessarily. The problem here seems to be more about materiality. CVS doesn’t believe the length of the receipts is a material issue for the company (in terms of cost or environmental impact) or the customers (in terms of annoyance) and therefore there’s no reason to apply here its “relentless pursuit of excellence.”

Did CVS get it wrong? It depends. While in the long-term CVS might be wrong, in the short-term, they are probably right.

2. Consumers won’t abandon CVS because of the receipts

First, other chain pharmacies also play the long receipt game. More importantly, switching pharmacies can be a hassle, and  for most consumers long receipts are not a substantial enough reason to bother with making a change.

The Re:Thinking Consumption study shows us that for consumers in developed markets, price (64 percent), value for the money (62 percent) and promotions/discounts (25 percent) are much more important as drivers to switch brands than environmental impact/benefit (8 percent).

The authors explain, “consumers decide whether to try new products and services based on perceptions around quality, value, brand and safety.” Apparently the long receipts at CVS don’t jeopardize any of these perceptions for the moment either because they’re annoying, but not too annoying, or because consumers don’t care too much about their impact.

3. Less bad design is still a bad design

Design, to paraphrase Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart, is the first signal of company’s intention. The concept of using lengthy receipts to promote coupons is probably beneficial to some degree but it is also anachronistic, annoying, ignorant of the digital sphere we live in and is as delightful as receiving the latest Yellow Pages. In other words, this is just a bad design.

Indeed, these receipts will be soon 25 percent shorter, which is an improvement. At the same time it means they will still be pretty long, given the status quo. Is it too much to ask CVS to think in terms of disrupt and delight and come up with solutions that will provide consumers with coupons and rewards in an effective yet sustainable and even  (god forbid) playful way?

4. Sustainability is still not a compelling concept

I think is clear from this case that we still need to do a lot of work to reposition sustainability as a compelling concept that is about innovation, improved customer experience, business opportunities, better design and creating a winning brand.  Until then we’re left with ‘sustainable business as usual,’ aka reducing the length of the receipts 25 percent.

5. Want a change? Stop tweeting and start acting

Social media offered many annoyed customers a place to share their irritation with the long receipts, which is really great. Still, writing witty tweets such as “I’m never sure if I’m supposed to cram my CVS receipt in my bag or wrap it around my entire body like a mummy,” is no replacement for taking real action.

It’s not that social media can’t make a difference – it does. But the problem is that when it is focused only on making fun out of an annoying practice, the impact of such grumbling is limited at best. The company can see pretty quickly that there’s no threat to its business or to its brand, and that it can easily resolve this issue with a promise to make incremental modifications, continuing with business as usual.

If consumers really care and want to change a practice, they should put some effort into real action like telling CVS they’re not going to buy there until a real change will take effect. Maybe instead of tweeting “bought milk at CVS today and my receipt was three feet long,” people can tweet “no more milk at CVS until they get rid of their absurdly lengthy receipts!” I can assure you that if enough people boycotted, CVS would have much more motivation to demonstrate how innovative it can really be when it comes to its receipts.

[Image credit: Scott Greenway, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

7 responses

  1. Cutting the receipts by 25% still makes them longer than usual. If the point of the receipts being so long is to inform rewards members about deals, then CVS already has the members email addresses and could just send the deals via the web. I think the reason the receipts contain so much info is because CVS fears consumers won’t read the information if it is given to them electronically.

    1. @Kevin: Visual stunts do get attention, don’t they!? I’m sure someone there (and at a host of marketing firms advising retailers) believes and has convinced their client that “a receipt in the hand is worth 12 emails.” I’m not sure, in a way, that they’re wrong. It’s still too easy to ignore emails or other electronic msgs.

  2. Their response to me was that receipt would soon be 25% shorter (so the four-foot one I got yesterday would only measure three feet) and that “for the ones you don’t use, please don’t forget to recycle!” That’s insulting and disingenuous. Many municipalities won’t recycle thermal paper because it’s laced with BPA, a chemical that is harmful to human health and the environment, and they know it.

  3. Very interesting observations! I wonder how much money CVS spends every year on paper for those receipts? What if they just made receipts optional if you gave them an email address? I’m willing to bet hard core coupon enthusiasts would love it just as much.

    People like me, who rarely use coupons wouldn’t be a loss at all.

    I’m willing to bet such a transition would pay for itself and then some.

  4. Some Walmarts are starting to print receipts on both sides. The item, total, and return barcode on the one side. Other crap on the other. I think that more companies should do this. It would make more sense.

  5. You only get the long receipts if you use an “Extra Care Card”. If you don’t use it, you get a receipt just long enough to list the items you purchased. You don’t get the coupons, but I imagine people who use the coupons don’t mind the long receipts as much.

    I highly doubt that people will boycott CVS because of long receipts, but I think refusing to use their rewards program would get their attention. That tracking data is incredibly valuable and I bet they’d change their coupon-delivery pretty quickly once they realized the long receipts was preventing them from getting good data.

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