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I know: a conversation about tipping is not nearly as important as a discussion about inflation, gas prices, our southern border debacle, rampant crime, or any other “debacle of the day” we face daily. But, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19 and subsequent lockdowns, tipping has quietly been broadened in scope…and in demand. And it doesn’t feel right. And it leaves me with a sense of foreboding: “What’s the perfect amount to tip; I don’t want to seem stupid if I ask a question about it, or should I tip at all?”
I’m a notorious large tipper. And this “post-COVID-19” insanity in everything we do flies in my face whenever I go to a restaurant.
What happened to start this fear and insanity about something as benign as tipping?
The “Down And Dirty”
Last month, Jenny Kivett went to see the band War on Drugs at Colorado’s storied Red Rocks Amphitheater. The show was great. Buying merch, less so: A vendor prompted her to kick in a 20 percent tip for an $80 purchase.
Casey Schreiner wanted to cut down on plastic use, so he tried Mama & Hapa’s, a zero-waste store in Portland, Oregon. He located and picked out a few dishwasher pods and brought them to the cashier, whose tablet register prompted him to leave a tip.
Erin Browne decided to celebrate fall by taking her kids to pick their own apples at Fishkill Farms in New York. She made a reservation online and was asked to leave a tip of between 10 and 20 percent.
None of them expected to be asked to tip and weren’t exactly sure which services they received merited a gratuity. Kivett and Schreiner were buying non-food items that didn’t require their cashiers to do much beyond tap on a touchscreen. Browne and her kids would pick their own apples (“Does the tip come back to me for doing my own labor for fun?” she wondered). All three said they generally want to show their appreciation and leave tips where they’re traditionally expected. But they hesitated when it came to tipping for things like retail purchases or online reservations for self-service fruit-picking sessions. But Kivett and Schreiner ended up leaving tips anyway, partially to avoid the awkwardness and the guilt of saying no in front of the customer service worker. Browne didn’t tip but said she felt guilty for not doing so. She just couldn’t figure out who or what she was being asked to tip for.
Sometimes it seems as though everywhere you go, you’re asked to chip in a little something extra, even for things that weren’t tipped services just a few years ago. Tips are requested at automatic car washes, Botox treatments, and even for smoothie-making robots, usually through those touchscreen tablets a lot of businesses use as their point of sale (POS) systems. Thanks to a combination of technology, social pressure, and a pandemic that accelerated the adoption of contactless digital payment methods, those tablets have become ubiquitous, and so have the tip requests. At a time when the prices of many goods and services are already far higher than they used to be due to inflation, we’re paying even more again to the workers who provide them.
Call it tipflation, if you will.
It’s hard to say just how bad this tipflation has gotten because there isn’t much real data to go by. We do know that in the United States, people are generally asked or expected to tip far more, and for more types of services than anywhere else in the world, so tipflation is going to be especially bad here.
Tipping is a largely underground (and lucrative) economy, especially when those tips are left in hard-to-track cash. While those digital payment systems give us a new data source, that data is controlled by the companies that provide them. Unlike tip-happy customers, they tend to be pretty stingy with the details.
Square, the market leader in this space, declined to give Recode any data about tipping on its platform at all, despite collecting plenty of it. Toast, a Square competitor, does release quarterly data showing the average tips its clients’ customers leave. Still, Toast’s products are for food services businesses only, where customers are far more likely to expect to be asked to tip in the first place.
Michael Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior and marketing at Cornell University, has studied tipping for decades. He says tablet tipping data is hard to come by and harder still to compare to whatever pre-tablet tipping data is out there.
“There are good reasons to believe that these increase tips, but as far as good, solid, direct data? It just doesn’t exist,” Lynn said. But, he added, there is a lot of data on how those suggested tips affect the tips customers leave. He says the higher those suggested tip amounts are, the higher the overall tip revenue tends to be.
But those studies don’t help much when you’re on the business end of a touchscreen tablet asking you to leave a 20 percent tip to someone just for grabbing a band T-shirt and an album out of a bin. What should you do when the register spins around and asks for more?
The Dark Patterns That Push You To Pay
Tipping is supposed to be a reward for excellent service, but studies have shown that the vast majority of people are motivated more by social pressure. Tipping is expected of them, and they don’t want to deviate from a long-established norm — especially if other people are watching and possibly judging them.
Digital POS systems aren’t the only way a business will request tips, but it’s one of the newest and hardest to refuse. Unlike tip jars on a counter, which are easy to ignore, or writing a tip on a receipt, tip-by-tablet becomes a public affair. You’re forced to declare your level of generosity or cheapness to anyone within eyesight, including your server.
Meng Zhu, a professor at Johns Hopkins who studies consumer decision-making and marketing, says just the act of asking people to leave a tip can be enough to push some people into doing so, especially when they’ve already initiated a business transaction.
“Let’s say you already shopped at a restaurant or coffee shop. You’re already committed,” she said. “When they ask you for something else, you’re more likely to comply because you want to be consistent with your earlier decision.”
The tip prompts are also designed to push the customer into not just leaving a tip but leaving an amount that the business “suggests.” Businesses can set those suggested amounts, which is why one place might go with something like 10 percent, 15 percent, and 20 percent, while another might do 20 percent, 25 percent, and 30 percent. They can also request dollar amounts instead of percentages or enable “smart tipping,” which switches from percentages to dollar amounts if a purchase is under a certain threshold. That’s how you might get a suggestion to leave an extra $3 for a $3.75 chocolate croissant, which is effectively an 80 percent tip.
Custom and no-tip buttons are smaller and harder to find on some interfaces than the suggested amounts. Making a tip choice to complete an order forces the customer to opt-out of a process that used to opt-in.
It’s hard to resist tipping when your server is standing in front of you, waiting and watching.
“It’s easy to cross the line from honest persuasion to harmful manipulation,” said Harry Brignull, an expert in how design manipulates people into making certain choices, also known as “dark patterns.” Touchscreens, he added, “tend to emphasize the buttons to give big tips and de-emphasize the button to give no tip at all.” And if there’s a line behind the customer, they might feel pressure to move as quickly as possible. No one wants to be the 21st-century equivalent of that person who holds up the line to write a check.
“Some people will be so flustered they might end up hitting the most prominent button not because they want to, but because they can’t find the option that they’re looking for,” Brignull explained. “When that happens, it doesn’t really feel like a consumer has made a choice. It feels like they’ve been forced.”
One provider, QikServe, even has a blog post about how sellers can use its digital payment system to get more tips from customers. Those include a suggested tip that’s slightly higher than the average tip as the middle suggested option, which is the one customers are most likely to tap.
“As opposed to the traditional tip jar method, having a ‘no tip’ button on a payment interface exploits a sense of guilt that the guest may not have otherwise felt and made them more likely to leave a tip,” QikServe, which did not respond to a request for comment, wrote. “All the more reason to push digital payments.”
Of course, someone is profiting off of your guilt. And it may not just be your server.
Who Benefits From Tipflation
Digital POS systems are ubiquitous these days for a few reasons. For one, they’re easy to use and relatively cheap compared to the options that came before. The pandemic led to staffing shortages, and a desire to minimize personal interactions only accelerated the transition.
Co-founded by Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and launched in 2009, Square allowed any small business to take and process credit card payments through a small and simple credit card reader they could attach to a phone or tablet. The hardware and software were inexpensive or free, and Square took a small processing fee from every transaction. Tablet-based POS systems were a natural progression and, again, very attractive to smaller businesses that were used to being charged thousands of dollars for traditional POS systems. Square started to offer a “Business in a Box” that included everything needed for a POS except the tablet itself. The company now makes its own tablets, too.
Toast, the food service POS company, said its products make its clients’ operations more efficient, which means servers can spend more time serving diners and give them a better guest experience. According to Kelly Esten, Toast’s senior vice president of product marketing, market insights, and pricing, that better experience could translate into higher tips from happier customers, who appreciate being able to leave them so easily. That’s probably more true for Toast’s clients — food service establishments where most customers expect to be asked to tip — than it is for Square’s retail clients.
Either way, these payment services get a percentage fee for transactions made through them. So it’s in their best interests if people spend more: An extra 20 percent tip to a business means a bigger processing fee to them.
These tablets were gaining in popularity before the pandemic, but Covid created a new, pressing need for fast, relatively contact-free payment options. People ordered and paid for more items and services digitally to avoid stepping into physical businesses entirely. Where you once went into a grocery store and selected, paid for, and brought home your items yourself, you might now be relying on the store’s worker to do that for you. Historically, that’s the kind of service you can and should tip for. During the pandemic, people were also more willing to tip for services they didn’t tip for before or tip more than they used to, like carryout orders at restaurants, food deliveries, or quick service restaurants. And tips are, legally, supposed to go to the employees only — not their managers and not the business itself.
Tips may also be a way for some businesses, already struggling with pandemic-related expenses, difficulty finding staff, and now inflation, to keep their costs down and attract more workers. With tips, workers effectively get a pay raise even if their base pay stays the same. Jung, the Boston University professor, said he’s seen hotels use things like QR codes to make it easier for customers to leave tips.
“They don’t have the budget to actually increase wages. And for that reason, they’re asking more on the side of the consumer by increasing the accessibility of being able to pay tips electronically,” he said.
Even if a business doesn’t want to enable tips, it might feel forced to do so if a competitor does before it loses employees to the business that pays them more, with that extra pay coming from the customers.
Mama & Hapa’s, the Portland zero-waste store that asked Schreiner for a tip, told Recode that it does so because its unique business model means that employees are often educating customers about how the store works, so it gives them the option to ask for tips to reward that service. And they don’t always do so. Schreiner noted that the last time he went to the store, he wasn’t prompted to tip.
“We don’t have any plans to stop allowing it because we have had some customers say they are happy to tip at an establishment like ours,” Mama & Hapa’s said.
You may not be so happy to tip, but you should probably get used to it. Once it becomes a social norm to start tipping for a certain service, it doesn’t revert even if the conditions created it do. And the percentage we’re expected to tip typically increases, too. Toast says that the average tips for on- and off-premises purchases spiked during the pandemic. They’ve since gone down slightly but remain well above the pre-pandemic numbers, even as inflation rose.
Feeling The Tip Guilt
Barring a nationwide rebuke of tipping culture or laws forbidding the practice — both of which are highly unlikely considering how ingrained in American culture tipping is and how some high-profile attempts to end restaurant tipping have failed — you can probably expect to be asked to tip at more places for higher amounts. But should you comply?
Recode asked an etiquette expert what customers should do when the tablet asks them to tip. Lizzie Post is the co-president of the Emily Post Institute and the author of several etiquette books. She said that if you’re asked to tip for a service that doesn’t traditionally ask for tips, there’s nothing wrong with saying no.
“I think it’s really important not to give into the guilt,” Post said. “I tend to personally say if it’s not a traditional tipping situation and nobody’s gone above, and beyond to create some kind of amazing experience or be extraordinarily helpful, I’m hitting ‘no tip’ in those moments and not feeling terribly bad about it.”
For services that are traditionally tipped, Post says people should leave at least what’s considered an appropriate amount. They can leave more if they can afford it, but shouldn’t feel guilty if they can’t. And, she added, businesses should practice good etiquette, too. That means making customers feel welcome and comfortable, not guilting them into leaving surprise tips.
But what’s polite in theory isn’t always what a customer (or a business) ends up doing in practice. Zhu, the marketing and consumer behavior expert, said she knows all the tricks businesses use to push people to tip and tip well. She still leaves a tip because she can afford it, which makes her happy.
“I think, in the end, it’s really, are you happy with what you did?” Zhu said. “If you don’t have significant financial constraints because of the additional tipping, if the service is actually good, and you expect to have better service in the longer term from the same person, why don’t you make yourself happy?”
When it comes to tips that you feel guilted into begrudgingly leaving, it might be more about what makes you the least uncomfortable than what makes you the happiest. And that, too, may change as inflation chips away at your budget and recession looms. Lynn, the tip expert, says he doesn’t know of any studies into how inflation affects tipping, and there isn’t much out there about the impact of economic conditions on tipping, either. His guess is that it won’t change how much we tip, but it could change how often we patronize the places that ask us to tip.
As for me, all those restaurants who decided to add a “COVID-19 System Charge — whatever that is — all you did is reduce the amount of tip I’ll give to my server. It’s a meal! Don’t try to knock a home run at my expense. I’ll cut my tip amount significantly from the levels I’ve always tipped.
Don’t forget: I lived through COVID-19 lockdowns. I lost a lot of personal income during that period. I can’t add any costs to my invoices: they’re locked-in contract controlled. Why should I be forced to pay for yours while trying to recoup my lost COVID dollars?
“Will It go round in circles, uh-huh!” (Billy Preston song)
Quid pro quo seldom serves everyone involved to identical degrees.