If you’ve ordered a coffee and been asked to tip your barista at Starbucks and hesitated, you’re not alone: If you don’t tip, will your chipper barista be let down? What does everyone else do?
This was the subject of a fascinating new study by the Pew Research Center, which created an interactive fictional American town, “Tipping Point,” that asks users how they’d tip in various situations — after ordering a coffee, eating at a sit-down restaurant, or using a rideshare service — and then lets you see how your answers compare to others.
The survey is timely: Establishments requiring or asking for tips has increased. If I’m at a business and an employee hands me an iPad, I know I’m about to be asked to tip them on something that I’ve probably never paid a tip for before.
The ubiquitous and convenient nature of electronics has allowed businesses to ask for tips in more scenarios than ever. According to Pew, 72% of U.S. adults say that tipping is expected in more places today than it was five years ago. Some have dubbed this new era “tipflation” because it seems so excessive.
High-tech electronics are not the only cause. It seems like a trickle-down effect of participation trophies, the trend that picked up in the 1990s that rewarded kids, and even adults, just for being on a team, whether or not the team won.
Advocates will say this has been around decades. Cynics will say it ratcheted up in our lifetime. Hear me out.
Tipping used to be based on service excellence. If a waiter was prompt, attentive and polite, that person earned a 20% tip. Now, large parties at more expensive restaurants will find that a 20% tip has been automatically added to their check, regardless of how their service, food or experience was. This is presumably to prevent a hard-working waiter earning a lower hourly wage from getting stiffed at the end of a three-hour service for 10 people, but it also assumes the person did a stellar job to earn what could amount to several hundred dollars.
Now, scanners at registers ask for tips even when there doesn’t appear to be any “extra” service, let alone excellent service.
If everyone gets a trophy for being on the team, even if it lost every game, why shouldn’t every establishment at least offer — if not expect — their employees to receive tips on their service, even if you do all the work? I’ve gone to some stores where I’ve done all the shopping myself, gone to the counter to pay for the items with my own money, and still been asked to tip the establishment. In that scenario, what am I paying for? Just the fact that the business exists? It seems like tipping culture is removing incentives for employees to do their best.
In this tough economy, it’s easy to see why establishments at least ask for tips. Times are hard for everyone and a lot of people — particularly Americans — are generous. Around the holidays, a season that emphasizes charity for those in need, people tend to boost their giving, too, a boon for both parties. Still, it’s difficult to reward establishments just for existing and especially for subpar service.
Understandably, Americans are torn about the new tipping culture they find themselves in. About 45% say they still tip based on specific situations and 40% oppose suggested tip amounts, the Pew report found.
Recently, a viral TikTok and YouTube video showed a driver delivering $400 worth of food. When she realizes she isn’t getting tipped, she says she’ll keep the food her customer ordered. Reactions online were mixed but many people commented that the driver is already getting paid by the app to deliver food and a tip would have been a bonus, not an expectation.
Employees might appreciate devices that at least encourage patrons to tip, but unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to have succeeded. Adults in the survey said they tip because it’s an obligation, and the industry that earned the most tips was still sit-down restaurants, followed by haircuts, food delivery services and purchasing a drink at a bar. Just 43% of Americans always tip when using a taxi or Uber, and a mere 12% always tip at a coffee shop.
The holidays are a time to be generous, but it’s also important for society to reward a job well done. Tips should be earned, not expected. Yet people should also be generous and charitable when given the chance — you never know how an expected gift could get someone through a tough time.
Americans spending their dollars must make this choice wisely, especially now that anyone can leave a tip just about anywhere.
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