Retailers are using "disappearing ink" on receipts to limit or enforce a strict window on returns.
The widespread cost-saving measure of printing receipts on thermal paper leads to fading when exposed to heat or light.
Retailers' reasons for using this form of printing are widely understood, and secondary verification measures can be used as effective "receipts."
The holiday shopping season often spurs rumors that retailers use “disappearing ink” on receipts, making it difficult for consumers to use paid-for warranties or return unserviceable merchandise.
Some rumors were more broad, involving anecdotal concerns about “disappearing ink” receipts, addressing retailers:
I know you are in business to make money. I know that fraudulent returns cut into your profit margin, so you feel the need to tighten up your return policies. I am totally on board with that.
BUT, could you please then stop using disappearing ink on your receipts? I just had my baby shower, and EVERY SINGLE gift receipt from your store was so faded, it was barely legible. Then, you tried to give me a hard time because your computers couldn’t read the receipts, therefore making my duplicates off the registry unreturnable (but improper registry maintenance is a whole other issue.)
To sum up. You require receipts? Then print legible receipts. Thank you.
Others were more specific, claiming very clear timeframes—30 to 45 days—and practices governed the legibility of receipt ink. Iterations of that sort asserted companies deliberately sought out to ensure that no receipts past a certain point could be used, presumably rendered void when the ink “disappeared” by design:
PLEASE READ: Learned something new tonight…I guess you guys need to be made aware of (if you don’t already know)…I was informed this evening after making a purchase with an extended warranty from Wal-Mart that I needed to go home and make a photo copy of the receipt and file with the warranty card. I curiously asked why and the lady told me that Wal-Mart now uses disappearing ink. My jaw dropped. So this means after 30 -45 days moving forward, you will no longer have a legible receipt from Wal-Mart for returns or warranty usage or credit card issues. Heads up guys ! This will be a problem for many ! I understand the reason they gave for this action, but it sure makes for a difficult life for the honest folks in this world.
Don’t forget to take a picture of your receipts. Disappearing ink is one big snowjob, so be ready for the storm…. 30 days and presto-change o.
Although the rumor was rife on Facebook, instances of it far antedated the social network. Forum posts as far back as 2003 referenced the phenomenon.
However, many retailers’s return policies stipulate that receipts are not the sole manner in which consumers can prove a purchase. Walmart maintains:
Walmart will accept a non-receipted return or exchange provided it meets the following conditions:
The refund verification process accepts the return.
The government issued ID must not be altered and is accepted by Walmart.
To return or exchange items without a receipt, you are required to present a valid government issued photo ID. Information from the customer ID will be stored in a secured database of returns activity that Walmart uses to authorize returns.
At Lowe’s the policy reads, in part:
In most instances, your receipt can be retrieved by using the original credit card, checking account number, MyLowe’s card or by your phone number. For returns without a valid receipt, in-store credit may be issued for the item’s current selling price. Lost or stolen gift cards can only be replaced for the remaining balance by presenting the original receipt.
Similarly, CVS notes “returns or exchanges are subject to a third-party verification process,” suggesting physical paper receipts were not the sole manner in which proof of purchase was retained by the consumer or retailer. The web site CreditCards.com surveyed major retailers and reported that in addition to protections offered by issuers such as American Express and Mastercard, receipts were rarely the only recourse:
Our survey of 12 large retailers’ policies regarding returning items without a receipt shows most allow it – within limits.
Although a staunch “no receipt, no return” policy is rare, it does still happen, and there can be individual store quirks that make the return process difficult to predict. Store policies tend to be tiered, with full refunds reserved for those who meet the gold standard: They return the entire item, in its original packaging, quickly, with a receipt. The further you vary from the gold standard, the less you get back.
Credit card holders may find that using their cards provides an added avenue to a refund, since some retailers will look up a credit card transaction and let you use that as proof of purchase for a return.
As to how you’ll get your money back, it’s typical for stores to return it in the same way it was tendered. So if you used a credit card, expect to get the money back in the form of a credit on your card’s statement.
Retailers’ policies stipulating for other verification measures undermined the implication receipt degradation was a deliberate action to discourage store returns. As for why receipts tended to fade (at least under certain conditions), papermaker Panda Paper Roll explained that the effect was a cost-saving measure for different reasons:
Receipts are typically printed on thermal paper, a chemically coated paper that produces text and image when heat is applied to its surface. Since this kind of paper is susceptible to heat and UV light, extended exposure to these elements will ultimately cause gradual fading. If you are in the mood for experimenting, place a receipt that you don’t need under a hot iron for about 10 seconds. The heat from the iron will change the color of paper to black. Oil and humidity are also factors to blame.
Now if you’re wondering why the use of thermal paper is so widespread despite this massive disadvantage, it’s because they are very low cost and the equipment used to print it is low maintenance, since it doesn’t need ink or ribbon cartridges.
That claim was echoed in a since-deleted 2014 WFLA story about “disappearing ink” receipts:
If you keep paper receipts, this could happen to you, too. That’s because more retailers are using thermal paper. Heat and light fades the ink.
Although it was clearly true that many receipts faded over time, the claim involving “disappearing ink” was a misnomer. Retailers’ well-known reliance on thermal paper due to its cost efficient nature led to the generation of fragile receipts, particularly those exposed to heat or light.
The phenomenon was real, but the cause was often misinterpreted by concerned consumers. Early iterations of the rumor also antedated the rise of online retail giants, e-receipts, smartphones with storage capabilities, and other technological advances that served effectively as a “receipt” for consumers.