New York CNN Business  — 

Have you ever stopped by CVS to pick up shampoo, soap or snacks and ended up leaving with a receipt up to your neck?

You’re not alone. Miles-long paper CVS receipts have been a topic of consumer fascination and memes on social media for years. They have their own Facebook page and an active Reddit community. People have dressed up as them for Halloween.

CVS receipts are “notorious for being longer than just about anybody’s in the industry,” said Craig Rosenblum, vice president at Inmar Intelligence, which advises businesses on marketing strategies. “We see printed receipts as another great way to connect in store with shoppers.”

Not all of them. Comedian Jimmy Kimmel has crusaded against CVS’ long receipts for years, even asking then-President Barack Obama on his show in 2015 if there was anything Obama could do about them.

The following year, Kimmel returned to the issue in a faux vice presidential speech. “My number one issue is this — these insanely long receipts they give you at CVS,” Kimmel said. “I want to live in an America in which the receipt you get for buying one roll of toilet paper is shorter than the actual roll.”

CVS (CVS)’ then president, Helena Foulkes, appeared on that show to announce CVS (CVS) would launch a digital receipt option at all its stores for customers enrolled in the company’s ExtraCare loyalty program. But in 2018, Kimmel once again returned to the issue, saying the receipts were still excessively long.

Indeed, customers on social media continue to post photos of CVS receipts longer than their dogs. A man’s TikTok video with his CVS receipt paired with the theme song from Star Wars went viral earlier this month.

The strategy behind CVS receipts

Why are they so long? Blame CVS’ ExtraCare loyalty program.

When an ExtraCare card member checks out in a store, personalized rewards, coupons, new product suggestions and other benefits show up at the bottom of the receipt.

No two customers get exactly the same savings and offers, a CVS spokesperson said, as they are tailored based on customers’ past purchases or other inputs — for example, a coupon for allergy products if pollen count is high in that customer’s area.

This receipt strategy is a way to communicate the value of being an ExtraCare member to customers, said Deidre Popovich, an assistant professor of marketing at Texas Tech University, who studies consumer psychology. CVS is “trying to remind them to take advantage of their loyalty program perks and prompt them to make return purchases in the near future,” she said.

Around 25 years ago, CVS switched its promotion focus from mass marketing in weekly print circulars, newspapers and directly to customers’ homes. CVS launched the ExtraCare card loyalty program in 2001 and shifted to offering customized rewards, coupons and other benefits to members as customers paid for their items, said Rob Price, CVS’ chief marketing officer from 2006 to 2014.

CVS was one of the first national retailers to make such a shift, which meant printing fewer circulars and pages, and adding more offers to its receipts.

“Before it became a meme and before it become a cliche, it really was a great novelty,” Price said. “The offers were tailored to [customers], which was very avant garde and very unfamiliar to people. It had a gamification aspect to it before gamification was cool. People liked feeling like they won something, feeling like they scored.”

Long receipts with tailored rewards helped CVS draw more frequent customer visits than the chain had seen with weekly circulars for key items such as health and beauty and groceries, Price said. And having an expiration date on the coupons created a sense of urgency to redeem them.

Price said he and other CVS leaders never believed the meme culture and the satire around the receipt lengths meant the company should end the tactic. Rather, they forced CVS to improve the rewards and target them more precisely to each customers’ shopping preferences.

Price left CVS eight years ago — he’s now CEO of the music school School of Rock — but the CVS receipts are “still very much part of my life.” He still has a CVS receipt scarf.

And he continues to shop at CVS. “I still opt to get the receipt because I think it’s fun.”

‘YouTube stars’

There are environmental and health hazards associated with store receipts more broadly, Green America, an environmental and consumer advocacy group, said in a 2018 report. The group launched a Skip the Slip campaign to raise awareness about the harmful impact of paper receipts.

“The slim size of paper receipts doesn’t convey the unnecessary environmental and health risks they carry,” the report said. Every year in the United States, paper receipts consume more than 3 million trees, 9 billion gallons of water, and 4 billion pounds of carbon dioxide — the same greenhouse gas emissions as driving more than 450,000 cars each year, according to Green America.

Also, an estimated 93% of paper receipts contain the hormone-disrupting chemicals BPS and BPA, according to a 2018 study conducted by Ecology Center, a health and environmental nonprofit in Berkeley, California. (CVS said in 2019 it phased out the use of such chemicals in its receipts, shortened the receipts by 20% and made them recyclable.)

San Francisco Assemblyman Phil Ting introduced a bill in California in 2019 aimed at phasing out paper receipts entirely — one of Ting’s aides dressed as a paper receipt during a press conference to dramatize the issue. Retail and restaurant trade groups opposed the bill, which did not pass.

CVS workers say that while customers often complain about the length of the receipts while they wait at the cash register, they rarely sign up to switch to digital receipts sent to their emails in stores or on their CVS app.

Only about 10% of ExtraCare’s around 75 million members have switched to digital receipts. (A CVS spokesperson said the company was “exploring ways” to increase digital receipt growth this year, including giving customers the option to choose which type they’d like each time they check out.)

Popovich, the Texas Tech marketing professor, said that since print receipts are the default option, most customers have “status quo bias” and won’t expend the extra effort of switching to the digital option.

“We’re YouTube stars when it comes to our receipts,” said a CVS store employee in San Jose, California, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

Customers may grumble about their receipts’ length, the employee added, but “as soon as that $10 or $3 [coupon] spits out, they’re there to redeem it.”