These days, you can’t buy so much as a chocolate bar without being given a receipt. What’s behind this unnecessary pedantry?by William Davies / November 18, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Would you like any pastries with your coffee?” No thanks, I’m fine. “Any muffins at all?” No thanks, I’m fine. I maintain a half-grateful smile, remembering to divert any irritation towards the manager who first insisted that coffee should come bundled with cake. “One medium Americano with milk, sir… And your change! Have a nice day!” Thank you. You too.
Around this point in the ritual, something unnecessary occurs. More unnecessary than the offer of glutinous blueberry-based carbohydrate. More unnecessary, even, than the day’s third coffee, which I’ve bought because Starbucks advertising execs convinced me that ten minutes of solitude is an event worthy of celebration. Coins are duly deposited in my hand, but not before something else is placed beneath them—my receipt.
Not long ago, receipts were restricted to situations where the customer might have a future need for reimbursement, replacement or repair. The receipt was principally a guarantee. More recently, they have become something else—ubiquitous, insidious documents of every fleeting high-street transaction. Newspapers, bottles of water, even pints of beer are now traded as matters of record, noted and accounted for by these miniature Hansards of our economic lives. “Here, enjoy your drink,” they say, “and in case you were wondering—yes this did just happen.”
Whereas its cousin, the bill, can be issued in a range of moods—from mint-laden and charming, to red and angry—the receipt only ever arrives with the blank gaze of the auditor. Events are ticked off and confirmed, with an almost existentialist fear that they might otherwise be beyond proof.
And its normalisation is gathering pace. As I queued in Costa Coffee recently for another Americano with milk, I spotted a sign reading: “if we don’t hand you a receipt with your change, your order is free (if you tell us straight away that is!).” Note the caveat, which pre-empts an infinite fe…