Wednesday, November 24, 2004

I Want My Smart Receipts

I’m going to make you a small fortune. Incorporate yourself and take this idea to your nearest venture capitalist.

I want all of my receipts to be smart receipts. In other words, I want them all to be machine readable without a scanner and supercomputer running the latest optical character recognition software. There shouldn’t be anything especially difficult about this. Many major chains already print bar codes on the receipts that employees can scan when working at the returns desk. The scanning register queries the corporate database to reopen the sale identified by the code on the receipt, and it is done.

Make it so that I can do the same thing using a low-end webcam or cell phone camera. Such cameras can already read traditional bar codes, so all I need on the receipt is some kind of code for a URL like: Make sure the address is printed below the bar code, just as with UPC codes, for times when the code is damaged or I am temporarily without a working reader. Finally, provide a small, free plugin for my favorite spreadsheet or money management program that will seamlessly use this address to enter the data from my receipt directly into my software.

What’s the big deal, you ask?

As it stands now, most receipts just clutter up my desk until it’s obvious I won’t be returning anything with them. Then they are thrown away. When you allow my computer to read my receipts, I will begin to truly take advantage of them. I will rack up the individually small but collectively large tax deductions an attentive filer can claim. I will conscientiously track my spending and spot worrisome trends at the category or product level. (I spend how much a month on Chip Blaster Deluxe Cookies??) I will scan all of those damned bits of crumpled paper as soon as I dredge them, lint-draped, out of my pocket--getting them off my desk, out of my sight, and into manila envelopes with witty inscriptions like “2004: In case of audit, break seal”.

Or maybe I won’t. But if good intentions are enough to keep fitness centers and weight-loss programs in business, they’re good enough for me to make demands of you, the entrepreneur who will sell affordable coding and hosting services to business unable or unwilling to meet my needs on their own.

Not that I expect to be the primary end-user target of smart receipts. I think hotels, copy centers, restaurants, and office supply chains will be the first introduce smart receipt services as another way to entice the well-heeled business person—a customer much too important to fill out expense reports by hand. Next down on their target list will be the increasingly common self-employed soul with every reason to show the IRS just how expensive it is to run a business. And after that? Everyday people looking for the all-important moral high ground, in the form of numbers that can be waved in the face of a spouse about to throw another six-pack or pair of shoes onto the checkout counter.

Yes, there’s going to be some money changing hands, but I’m so generous I won’t even ask for a tiny slice of your profits. I’ll just sell my accumulated receipt codes to the highest bidder. Market research firms will love to get their hands on my receipts once they can get them online, without waiting for scraps of paper with data that must be entered manually. Sometimes I will carelessly drop my receipts in the street, or in public trash cans, where a homeless person will retrieve them for their codes while collecting aluminum cans. Market researchers will need the continuous threat of people like us to leverage reductions in the exorbitant prices retail giants usually charge for this data—when they sell it at all.

You should now understand that smart receipts will be a win-win for everyone; and the biggest winner will be you.

Go now. I will watch for word of your success in the pages of Wired and Slashdot.


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