If I ruled the world

These days, you can’t buy so much as a chocolate bar without being given a receipt. What’s behind this unnecessary pedantry?
November 18, 2009

“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 feedback loop of complaint, whereby people return to the till for a refund on account of a receipt they are unable to prove they should have been given.

A pledge that “if your coffee tastes like boiling dishwater, your order is free” would be a welcome addition to our lives. Instead, Costa is more fixated on the book-keeping than the product. Meanwhile, I have developed a technique of collecting change while using my thumb to eject the paper data trails onto the counter. And even when I blurt out “don’tneedareceipt!” in time, the irritation that I was about to receive one remains.

The most obvious practical explanation for receipts concerns expense claims and tax. Now that we’re all freelancing, knowledge-based nomads, flitting around the global village from café, to airport, to library, with nothing but a credit card and a BlackBerry, our work and leisure have dissolved into a single socio-economic stream of consciousness that our accountants and contractors are tasked with piecing back together on paper.

There are two problems with this. One, it’s bollocks. Two, codifying every micro-interaction is and should remain a choice. I believe that beyond a certain point, the benefits of calculation and data collection are outweighed by the psychological and cultural costs of penny-pinching and paper-sorting. Yes, auditing matters, but even in my more hubristic moments I have never mistaken myself for Enron. I know others who are more enthusiastic micro-accountants, but they can always request a receipt.

Another explanation is managerial surveillance. Digital cash registers and greater use of barcodes have made it harder for employees to divert money out of the till. If they have to give a receipt for every transaction, it becomes impossible. The employee is caught in a pincer movement between manager and customer.

I suspect that this trend touches on something deep in the British psyche. It is the nano-level equivalent of Karl Polanyi’s “great transformation,” whereby Victorian liberals sought to separate the free market from the social institutions in which it was embedded. The receipt seeks to cleanse transactions, to seal them off from the social ambiguity that accompanies two strangers interacting in public. In place of the quality of remembered experience, it offers the quantity of time, date and price. The transaction is declared formally over.

The economic anthropologist Marcel Mauss explained why this project fails. Just as every gift implies reciprocation, so every exchange includes social spillage. Smiles, small talk, even hostility between traders may be deemed externalities by economists, but they are an ever-present and valuable feature of economic life.

So here’s what I’d do if I ruled the world. For products that cost less than £5 or are consumed on the premises, a receipt should be given only on request. And once I’d done that, I’d tackle those unnecessary offers of blueberries.