The transition from analogue to digital is not always smooth and seamless. Some old technologies continue to live on well past their use-by date. Here, Richard Blundell lists eight of the more stubborn everyday items that should be put out to pasture, moved on in favour of digital successors.

Earlier this year, I discovered a new copy of a printed business directory hanging out of my mailbox. I haven’t used one of those for about a decade. Back then, directories and listings came in thick volumes for the vast sprawl of metropolitan Melbourne. Now, one book covers the whole city and it’s not much bigger than a novel.

I do wonder why they still print them. (My copy made it as far as the recycling bin.)

This got me thinking: what other commonly-encountered items are becoming increasingly irrelevant in today’s digital world – but have yet to be fully consigned to history?

Here is a list of eight such objects and items. How many others exist in our day-to-day lives?

1. Business directories
and phone books

The cousin of the business directory, the phone book, is declining in relevance even faster. The mobile revolution has seen fewer people than ever use landlines. Sensitivities around personal data and publishing private contact information have led to widespread directory opt-out.

The network effect that supported these directories for more than a hundred years – you had to be in it because everybody else was in it – has been against them for the last decade: there’s no value to being in it anymore, because no one else is.

Thanks to the rise of social media and peer-to-peer messaging via smartphone, messenger platforms are fast becoming the modern combined business directory and phone book.

2. Postage

Snail mail is far from irrelevant, but consider the customer experience surrounding a postage stamp.

To post a letter, you have to go out and acquire a stamp from a post shop or newsagent. Digital solutions such as do exist, but these usually require access to a printer and label – increasingly niche, fixed-abode items where the logistics and costs of acquisition can equal (and perhaps even outweigh) the convenience and value of the service.

What might an alternative look like? The use of smartphones and image recognition technology. Address a letter, write a customer reference number, photograph it with a mobile app, then drop the item in the mailbox. The postal company then uses AI-powered image recognition technology to identify the item, match it to your submission and charge your account accordingly.

3. Cash

This is a big and controversial idea, but do we really need cash anymore? Apart from helping micro businesses such as flea market vendors, what’s the advantage?

For decades, the use of cash has been steadily declining as technology has taken its place, beginning with special ‘charge coins’ or plates before progressing through to magnetic stripe cards and electronic point-of-sale terminals.

With the rise of mobile payment technology (paying using a smartphone or wearable device), cash may be dealt another blow.

4. Keys

Keys have been weighing us down since they were first used in 4000 BC in Mesopotamia.

Many smart lock options are now available, using technologies like fingerprint scanning and swipe cards. Wireless signals such as Bluetooth, radio frequency identification, or Wi-Fi can also be used, creating a smartphone-managed electronic deadbolt.

As well as doing away with an easily losable piece of metal, these locks can come with additional advantages such as the ability to grant access to a visiting guest, real-time monitoring, usage statistics, or alerts if the locks are compromised.

While a smart lock is only as secure as the platform it operates on, surely the time to hang up clumsy keysets is fast approaching?

5. The fax

I was stunned to discover the ubiquitous role the long-in-the-tooth fax machine still plays in many of our public sectors. Healthcare is one example: there,  between the fragmented parts of the Australian medical system.

This method of communication is fragile and the chances of faxing somebody else’s information, or misidentifying the information at the receiving end, is high. Of particular concern is how this data will often be used to make extremely important medical decisions.

Not only could digitising this data transfer between institutions save taxpayer money (no longer will an antiquated medium have to be maintained), it would speed up the process and decrease the chances of misplaced information, thereby improving the patient experience.

6. Letters for appointments,
confirmations and statements

Whether it’s a hospital, insurer or a bank, many institutions still like to mail a paper confirmation statement, regardless of your preferred channel of interaction (face-to-face, phone, web, etc).

This was confirmed to me during a recent experience changing insurance providers. Despite having my preferred contact medium recorded (email), a letter confirming the changes was sent over a week later. What’s more, the content of the letter was wrong.

Emailing these changes would be quicker and less costly. Further, the trimming of paper communication costs could be better spent elsewhere – perhaps in lowering insurance premiums.

7. Retail

Why are multiple paper catalogues still indiscriminately hand-delivered to most mailboxes?

Admittedly, a large proportion of the population continues to respond to catalogues. Research from Roy Morgan in 2014 showed that 53% of Australians read one or more in an average week.

However, with a weekly catalogue costing up to $1 million per issue to compile, print, and distribute to most doorsteps in Australia, is this sort of untargeted marketing worth it? Particularly if 50 are printed throughout the year?

Digital can help the situation. It’s now possible to hyper-target marketing messages electronically, using analytics and purchasing data to develop more personalised and curated product offerings. These can then be targeted to smaller and potentially more receptive geographical areas.

Even if the catalogue channel must remain, digital technology can improve their production. Analytics and data could be used to determine which products should be featured and how prominently.

8. Paper dockets,
receipts, coupons

Almost every purchase you make generates a paper receipt, even when the retailer has previously recorded your contact information. Why not email these receipts by default and only print on request?

Many receipts also have coupons printed on the back of them. These could be attached to the emailed receipt or loaded within a mobile app, taking advantage of the increase in mobile shopping activity. Better yet, the coupon could be loaded against every customer’s record, then auto-redeemed when valid – a pleasant surprise that would add significant value to the customer experience.

This post has been adapted from an entry on Richard Blundell’s blog, ‘Eight everyday things that should be consigned to history’. Click here to visit his website.



Richard Blundell

Richard Blundell is a business specialist in PwC Australia’s Digital Services team.

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