You won how much for doing what now?

Keep those wee bits of paper!

June 2021

It took us a long time to work this one out. Even when we’d spent very little buying something, the shop assistants in Taiwan would always look surprised when we refused their offer of a receipt.

For us, it seemed simple. We didn’t want lots of unnecessary bits of paper cluttering up our pockets. Yet, every time we refused their offer, there was always a strange feeling that we’d made a bad decision. Receipts were frequently pushed onto us with such insistence that the second Chinese expression I learned after hello was, “receipt, no need”. Then I would get a polite nod and the small piece of paper would be taken back. But we could always sense that the store assistants were puzzled. They would frown and seem to say, “You don’t want this little piece of paper? You’re crazy!”

It slowly dawned on us that there must be a reason for this. It was not just about a piece of paper. Something else was going on.

One day we noticed something else. There were large perspex boxes in most stores, usually by the till. Sometimes they were outside, near the door. They were partly coloured, and had Chinese characters on them. And all were full of shop receipts. But they were not litter bins. There was nothing else in them. Just receipts.

Shortly after this discovery, as we again turned down the kind offer of a receipt, we noticed something else. The shop assistant took our receipt and put it into one of these perspex boxes, saying “I’ll help you to put it here, okay?”

Finally, we asked some friends what was going on. When they explained, it was like a light going on. There is a reason people keep receipts! There is a reason store assistants are surprised when we refuse them! There is a reason unwanted receipts are put into large perspex boxes!

For a long time, we learned, no one was much bothered about receipts in Taiwan, especially business people. The last thing store owners and stall-holders wanted to do was hand out receipts. Receipts are proof of sales. Sales are linked to income. And income is linked to the amount of tax people pay. So, like almost everywhere, business people would sometimes issue receipts and sometimes not. This allowed them to “massage” their declared sales figures, and so cut their tax bill and increase their income.

The government knew this was happening, of course. They knew they were being cheated out of taxes but they had almost no way of fixing the problem. They could try to force businesses to issue receipts but they couldn’t enforce the law because they couldn’t track every transaction. And the customers didn’t care. They weren’t particularly interested in getting a receipt for everything they bought.

A big idea

Then someone in the government had a eureka moment. The solution was to introduce a lottery, linked to every receipt.

This is why everyone keeps receipts. They all have a number at the bottom which gives people the chance to take part in a lottery which offers big cash prizes. It’s this free-to-enter lottery which explains why shop assistants are surprised we don’t want to keep these little pieces of paper.

Every two months, there is a live television draw, with the winning numbers cranked out from special machines. The first prize, worth $NT200,000 (6,000 euros), is given to the person who has the winning eight digits in the correct sequence. Other prizes, from NT$200 (6 euros) to NT$40,000 (1,200 euros), are given to those who only have some of the correct digits. There is also a Special Prize of NT$10 million (300,000 euros). Last month it was won by a man who had bought a cup of tea from a convenience store for NT$23 (70 cents).

Every time the draws are made, everyone’s newsfeeds and social media postings are filled with stories about what people bought and how much they won. ‘She won NT$40,000 for buying a bowl of longan congee’. ‘NT$1,000 for a macha latte shaved ice bubble tea!’ ‘He got NT$2,000 for buying a jar of essence of clam!’

And yes, the system works for electronic receipts too.

So what about the perspex boxes?

They’re for donations. If you don’t want to go through all the receipts you’ve accumulated every two months to take part in the lottery, you can put them into one of these boxes. Then your winnings go to charity.

So now we ask the store assistants to put our receipts into one of those boxes, and there are no more frowns.