Digital Receipts for Brick-and-mortar Sales?

Within a year to 18 months, shoppers could be able to opt for an XML-based digital receipt that can be viewed through their Web browsers under a proposed standard NCR Corp. unveiled last night in conjunction with Visa International Inc., Office Depot Inc. and several major high-tech vendors.

Backers said consumers no longer would have to worry about losing receipts, since they'd have an always-available record that could be used for warranty and potentially even tax purposes. The digital receipts also could benefit businesses that want to better manage and track employee purchases made with procurement cards, proponents said.

The Digital Receipt Alliance group -- which also includes America Online Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s VeriFone division -- submitted the proposed standard for digital receipts to the National Retail Federation's Association for Retail Technology Standards in conjunction with the NRF's annual conference.

"Conceptually, I think it's a great idea. If you can eliminate paper, that's good for society and [improves] efficiency and accuracy," said George Chernenko, director of data centers at Toys R Us Inc. in Montvale, N.J. "But practically, there's a lot to be worked out still."

The receipts could be delivered via e-mail or over the Internet -- either from a retailer's Web site or a portal-- for both online purchases made with Web retailers and off-line purchases made in brick-and-mortar stores, backers said.

They would contain a standard set of information, including transaction data and hyperlinks to the retailer's Web site, the product manufacturer and potentially offers for discounts and promotions on future purchases.

Shoppers at brick-and-mortar stores could opt to have the necessary e-mail and identification information affixed to customer loyalty cards or the magnetic strips on the backs of credit cards, said NCR Senior Product Manager Jim Greene, who predicted that digital receipts will become available in the next year to 18 months.

"The digital receipt, we think, is going to change the nature of retailing. We think that it's a great innovation for retailers that have brick-and-mortar operations that want to reach the online consumer," Greene said.

Retailers not only will capture receipt data, but they will also gain a digital platform for communication such as targeted promotions and feedback from customers, Greene predicted. They'll also be able to link small applications to the digital receipts, such as warranty information or rebates.

Raymond Burke, a professor at Indiana University, said he can envision retailers being able to use the information they gather to offer consumers a profile of how nutritional their diet is or to give advice on wardrobe planning.

"In many ways, this database they have is going to be better than the ones that the retailers use in their frequent-shopper programs, because it will track the consumer's transactions not just for a single retailer, but across all of the retail stores, both in-store and online that they purchase from, so you get a richer picture of consumer behavior," Burke said.

George Grant, a consultant for Musicland Stores Corp. who works for Minneapolis-based Wireless Network Solutions Inc., said the digital receipts could "break the ice" for brick-and-mortar shoppers, getting them to test out the Internet and driving traffic to Web sites. "They have a reason to go online, and they're right on your Web site," Grant said.

Backers of the digital receipt movement claim they expect products that support digital receipts to emerge this year.

That prospect was extremely appealing to Brian Hume, president of Martec International Inc., a retail consultancy in Atlanta. Hume, who hails from Great Britain, said his wife gave him an expensive watch for his birthday, but she left the receipt for his U.S.-bought watch in England. When the watch band broke nine months later, he brought it back to the store and didn't have the receipt. "I'd find [digital receipts] very useful," Hume said, adding that he'd also use them to help reconcile business expenses.

However, others weren't sure consumers would be interested.

"That seems like a solution looking for a problem. We've never had consumers complain about the lack of digital receipts or the current method of delivering for online transactions," said Nicole Vanderbilt, an analyst with Jupiter Communications Inc. "I'm skeptical of the value for the consumers but I see the clear value for retailers."

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