You might have noticed that many retailers are getting rid of ink printers and replacing them with faster, less expensive thermal ones. To print a thermal receipt, a heated stylus passes over thermal paper, which is coated in a chemical that darkens when heated. Unfortunately, the chemical layer remains active after the receipt is produced, so it's sensitive to light, heat, friction, abrasives and plastics, and can fade or darken quickly.

Receipt rights

Fortunately, a faded receipt is not necessarily the death knell of your tax records or warranty periods. If a receipt is faded beyond recognition (or if you've lost your original receipt), there are other ways of providing proof of purchase. According to NSW Fair Trading, credit card or debit card statements, handwritten receipts, lay-by agreements, or a confirmation or receipt number provided for a telephone or internet transaction are all considered proof of transaction.

Under the Australian Consumer Law (ACL), businesses must provide consumers with a proof of transaction for goods or services valued at $75 or more (or for a less expensive purchase by request), but there's nothing in the legislation that specifies how that receipt should be printed. Several departments of fair trading or consumer affairs around Australia told CHOICE that as the ACL isn't specific about receipt requirements, there's no legal onus for a receipt to be remain legible after the initial sale.

"There's nothing in legislation that prevents retailers from providing receipts that may fade," says Grant Rasmussen, manager of investigations at the Queensland Office of Fair Trading. "We were hopeful there would be advances in the quality of thermal paper so that receipts last longer, but I don't think we're seeing those advances as yet. The retailers are aware of our concerns."

Stop receipts from fading

For the best chance of keeping thermal receipts legible for a few years, you need to store them correctly:

  • Don't store receipts in plastic sleeves.
  • Do store receipts away from heat and light.

But sometimes there's not much that can be done to prevent the decay.

Ultimately, the best way of keeping thermal receipts is to make a copy of them. Photocopies should suffice as proof of purchase, according to consumer rights experts CHOICE spoke with, but we've heard of some stores (contrary to Australian Consumer Law) refusing to honour them. For these cases, the original receipt stapled to the copy and/or a complaint to the ACCC should work better.

If you have a smartphone or tablet, the ACCC Shopper app allows you to take photos of your receipts and store them. It also features information about consumer rights and reminders for dates when gift cards expire, and provides information on country-of-origin labelling. Other departments of fair trading and consumer affairs have released their own versions of the app, including NSW Fair Trading's ShopSmart, Queensland's BuySmartQld and Victoria's MyShopRights.

How do you know if you have a thermal receipt?

To check whether you have a thermal receipt, scratch a blank part with a fingernail and look for the tell-tale black mark.

Results from our shadow shop

In May 2013, CHOICE asked shadow shopper Lisa (not her real name) to contact five stores. Lisa told them she had purchased an item that was faulty, but her receipt had faded before she had an opportunity to return it.

  • At Myer, Lisa's story met with little resistance. "The receipts do fade, they don't last forever," a Myer customer service agent acknowledged. "You should photocopy them." The agent told Lisa she could use a record of her credit card transaction, her MYER One (Myer's loyalty program) purchase history or the date of the purchase as proof of purchase, and Myer would attempt to reprint the original receipt.
  • Similarly, JB Hi-Fi was willing to reprint a receipt if enough information could be gathered from the original, or if a bank statement was provided.
  • Bunnings told Lisa it could use the original receipt's information or a credit card/bank statement to reprint the receipt, but only at the manager's discretion.
  • When Lisa approached Coles with her problem, she was told the supermarket can reprint receipts if there's enough information on the original, or search for the receipt using information such as the store the item was purchased from and date of purchase. Flybuys, Coles' loyalty program, also records a transaction history and can be used to reprint receipts.
  • Woolworths offered to provide a copy of the receipt if the transaction time was available, but otherwise offered to swap Lisa's faulty product for a new one without proof of purchase.

Complaints about fading receipts

When we asked CHOICE members what they thought of fading receipts, the response was vocal.

  • "If the warranty is for two years, printing a receipt that lasts about three months is in my opinion like printing a legal contract in disappearing ink!" says Simone Johnston.
  • Nicole Lewis had an issue returning goods to one store with a photocopied receipt. "We photocopied a receipt like some of the stores tell us to do, but when we went to return a faulty product to Target, it said it doesn't accept photocopied receipts."
  • "I had problems with a receipt that was left in a hot car once and went black straightaway. I didn't even get the chance to scan that one!" says Ray Joeh.
  • "What if you don't have a scanner, computer or smartphone?" asks Wendy Lindsay. "Why should I have to pay to have a receipt photocopied because businesses are too stingy to get rid of thermal printers? I have a lot of problems with fading receipts as I live in the tropics. Receipts are lucky to last six months."