A bit of retail history was made on late-night TV recently, when CVS finally buckled under the pressure of consumer annoyance and Jimmy Kimmel's wrath.
We're speaking, of course, about the pharmacy chain's legendarily long receipts, which customers will soon be able to opt into receiving digitally rather than as several feet of flowing paper.
CVS president Helena Foulkes showed up on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and, before an audience of some 2.4 million viewers, announced that the long national nightmare was over.
"We knew that our customers were very concerned about the length of our receipts," Foulkes said. "CVS is moving our receipts to be digital."
It was a fine moment, not least because CVS didn't try to wiggle out of responsibility for the longer-than-your arm receipts that its registers have spat out for years. Foulkes owned up: "They were too long!" she admitted, flashing a polished, executive smile.
CVS' subsequent press release touted Foulkes'' "surprise appearance" on the show—but it was, of course, only a surprise for viewers. Foulkes camera moment had been carefully orchestrated behind the scenes. It was funny, effective, and a textbook example of how a brand can seize on the right media moment and turn it into a swell piece of marketing.
"[Kimmel] welcomed Helena Foulkes, as a guest on the show," CVS director of retail public relations Erin Pensa told Adweek, "and it all came together quickly."
In another way, though, this moment of redemption was a long time in coming—seven years, actually. Here's how it happened:
The long road to shorter receipts
CVS has hardly been the only retail chain to hand extremely long receipts to customers. Registers at Kmart, Men's Wearhouse, Staples and Rite Aid were also known to spit out block-long ribbons of paper, usually packed with coupons, special offers, loyalty points and all sorts of other marketing baggage.
(Last year, Adweek did a field study on which chains gave us the longest receipts for a simple pack of gum, and you can read it here.)
But CVS, deservingly or not, became the poster child for protracted paper. The chain knew that customers were peeved about the issue since at least 2009, when it admitted to the Wall Street Journal that "customers have complained about long receipts."
In 2010, CVS announced that it was "working toward" a system by which its ExtraCare rewards-program members (these were the shoppers who frequently received the marathon-length receipts) could avail themselves of a digital alternative—only for it to emerge a year later in the Los Angeles Times that, in fact, such a system wasn't coming after all.
Two years later, in the summer of 2013, social media spontaneously erupted in a tirade against CVS over its "man-sized" receipts.
The mockery resulted in a pledge from headquarters that its receipts would be shortened by 25 percent. Shorter was better, of course, but ultimately it wasn't a solution.
Enter Jimmy Kimmel.
Man on a mission
In the first weeks of 2015, the TV host "vowed to make it my life's mission" to eliminate distended receipts—especially at CVS, which he identified as "the main offender."
Kimmel's crusade was hilarious and relentless. He aired a Receipt Fashion Show (featuring models wearing outfits made from receipts.) Kimmel even asked President Obama if he could do anything to curb the national crisis of long receipts. (The president could not.)
But then when Kimmel announced that he planned to run for vice president and made long store receipts a major plank of his platform, CVS could stand by no longer. Kimmel represented not only a high-profile way for the chain to take care of a nettlesome problem, but also a way of looking cool while doing it.
"Since Jimmy was one of the most vocal critics against long receipts, we wanted to show we had a sense of humor and also find a unique way to get the word out to millions of our customers," CVS' Pensa said. "Our PR team had been in touch with Jimmy Kimmel's team, and they let us know that one of the pillars of his campaign for vice president was tackling 'real issues' including too-long receipts." CVS proffered its president Helena Foulkes, and ABC accepted..
The response—and what's coming
Foulkes' appearance went over well. "Love it! …Hilarious reveal" tweeted blogger Colleen "Classy Mommy" Padilla. Social media consultant Kevin Bryant called it "clever marketing"—and indeed it was, a win-win for the late-night show and the brand.
"This ended up being a true collaboration that gave us the opportunity to break the news of our digital receipts launch on such a fun, national stage," Pensa said, "and Jimmy was able to keep his campaign promise and surprise everyone."
That said, it bears mentioning that the digital receipts—promised at all 7,900 CVS stores by the end of next month—are for the pharmacy chain's ExtraCare members, who must opt in to go digital. Presumably, the rest of us are still in for that slip of paper, ultimate length to be determined.
Which begs an obvious question: Now that CVS has finally taken the leap into digital receipts, will it ever nix paper receipts completely? For now, that answer would be no.
"There are still millions of consumers who have told us they do prefer paper receipts and who like having something physical to hold," Pensa said. "So we don't have any plans at this time to do away with paper receipts completely."