CVS is a drugstore much like other drugstores, with one important difference: The receipts are very long.
How long are the receipts? For at least a decade, concerned shoppers have dedicated themselves to this question, producing a robust body of phone-picture literature on the subject. You could not major in CVS receipt studies, probably, but you could minor.
Not all CVS receipts are created equal. If you, a non-loyal shopper, mosey into CVS and buy some Tylenol and a package of seasonal candy, you will get a receipt that is unspectacular (read: a normal length). To get one of the iconically long CVS receipts, you need to use your ExtraCare card, which means you need to be an ExtraCare member. (You can join as long as you are willing to turn over your name and phone number in exchange for better deals.)
People on the internet have documented this phenomenon with a vigor usually reserved for cats climbing in and out of boxes. On Twitter and on Instagram, shoppers stand next to their CVS receipts, which are often as tall as they are, and sometimes taller.
Here is a CVS receipt as long as a sofa:
Here is a CVS receipt as long as a person:
The receipts have spawned memes:
And Halloween costumes:
For years, Jimmy Kimmel has been very upset:
It does not matter how much you buy; the endless CVS receipt is deeply egalitarian. You can buy a single pack of gum, for all CVS cares. This cold-ridden man bought ibuprofen, NyQuil, and cough drops — three items! — and still got nearly 6 feet of receipt, filled with coupons for whatever CVS sells, which is everything.
But are CVS receipts really longer than other receipts? I mean, yes. But as a journalist, I cannot accept common wisdom as the truth. Also, I have a cold. Given this alignment of the stars, it seemed the only thing to do was investigate by buying a lot of cough drops from a variety of chain drugstores, plus a grocery store, and compare receipts: Rite Aid, Duane Reade, and Stop & Shop, in addition to CVS.
In the interest of science, I tried each location twice, once with a loyalty card (not to brag), and once without.
At Stop & Shop, a summary of my “Fuel Savings” (14 cents) took up some extra space, as did a large-print celebration of my 2018 Card Savings (also 14 cents). Rite Aid uses a similar philosophy: When I used my BonusCash Rewards card, my receipt had a few additional inches of information, such as an update on my Available BonusCash Rewards*. I have zero. At Duane Reade, the receipts are likewise more or less the same.
CVS takes … a different approach. My regular receipt was a normal receipt length: 10.5 inches. Is that a lot of inches to verify I bought cough drops? I mean, it is, but I wouldn’t make a Halloween costume about it.
My ExtraCare receipt, however, was 4 feet and 1.5 inches long, or roughly the height of the average American 8-year-old. I have never used a coupon from a CVS receipt, but while they print, I am filled with a sense of possibility. Maybe this is the month I save $2 on Garnier Fructis hair products, and also start using Garnier Fructis hair products. It is a thrill that I imagine others get from playing slots.
This receipt included coupons for Colgate toothpaste; vitamins (all); shampoo, conditioner, or hairstyling products more than $12; assorted menstrual products; medicine for children; medicine for adults; heartburn medicine; and 40 percent off Neutrogena makeup. All this for buying cough drops.
I reached out to CVS to ask about the history of the receipts — when did they get so long?
“We are always listening to customer feedback,” a spokesperson responded, noting that the company has “taken a number of steps over the past several years to redesign elements of our receipts and the ExtraBucks Rewards that print on them to make sure we’re making them shorter where we can but also making it super easy for customers to understand how many rewards they’ve earned or what savings they can take advantage of.”
I do like knowing how many rewards I’ve earned; it helps mark the passage of time.
Know Your Meme begins its history of the long receipt phenomenon with a 2008 Facebook group, One Million Strong Against Unnecessarily Long CVS Receipts, which currently has seven members. A year later, the Wall Street Journal looked into the general phenomenon of long receipts, tracing it back to the early aughts, when stores began using “sophisticated software” to track consumer habits. They began using that data to customize receipts with things like targeted coupons, and receipts got longer.
Receipts aren’t just proof of purchase anymore; they’re a forum for stores to tell you things. That still seems true. My receipts offered me information about other, even more rewarding rewards programs I could join. The told me about satisfaction surveys I could take where I might win $1,000, or $3,000, depending on the drugstore. They updated me on my rewards points. They explained how rewards points work. It was like a satisfying chat with a very rewards-points-oriented friend.
In 2013, in response to mounting criticism, CVS announced it would trim the typical length of receipts by 25 percent, the Boston Globe reported. “A couple years back, redemption rates reached all-time highs,” the CVS spokesperson told me. “But we heard loud and clear that while our customers loved receiving coupons and special offers via receipt, many wanted a paperless option.”
In 2016, the company introduced “digital receipts” for ExtraCare members, who “simply needed to ask the cashier at checkout” to enroll. As of this year, you can just adjust your settings on the app. (Even if you opt in to email receipts, you can always get a nostalgic paper printout in the store.)
Not everyone is satisfied with this. Jimmy Kimmel, longtime anti-CVS receipt crusader, returned to his cause in January. His complaint: The default CVS receipts are still very, very long. In August, the ethical consumerism nonprofit Green America launched a “Skip the Slip, CVS” campaign, urging the company to change its receipt practices.
Since introducing the digital option, CVS says it has saved “more than 3 billion inches of paper,” which translates into the marginally more comprehensible statistic of 47,348 miles. Still, the spokesperson said, “many shoppers do continue to prefer the paper option.”
If you have thoughts on your own recent receipt experiences, CVS would “love to hear your feedback,” which I know, because it says so, right there on the receipt.