Tipping used to be cut and dry. You tipped people who helped you: servers, hairdressers, cab drivers, etc. They deserve it, and it's an easy way to show more personal appreciation for a necessary job well done. As inflation has skyrocketed and income has remained stagnant, though, tipping has become trickier. It's tougher to help someone else struggling when you're barely staying afloat. And in the latest twist to the tipping saga, even self-checkout lanes at supermarkets now prompt for 20%+ tips. "Tipping fatigue" is, well, at a tipping point — but is it wrong not to tip?
"Tipping fatigue" set in especially hard over the last few years. You understood the risk service industry workers were taking during the pandemic and were grateful. It may seem like a small thing, but that occasional latte restored some much-needed normalcy and, tbh, just made you feel better when the world seemed incredibly bleak.
However, the splurge on a $6 latte at the drive-thru suddenly becomes even more expensive when you're handed a tablet and asked to leave a sizable tip. You don't want to be a lousy tipper, so you do it... but you're not sure why. Who does it go to when you tip at a drive-thru? Or a self-checkout lane at the grocery store?
Tipping Prompts From Computers
Tipping prompts have begun showing up in places you previously wouldn't expect: the self-checkout lane in airports, stadiums, grab-and-go cookie shops... the list goes on. Sure, someone baked your cookies. And no, they're probably not making as much as they deserve. But shouldn't that be the company's problem?
According to a September 2022 survey by PlayUSA of more than 1,000 consumers, 54% admitted feeling pressure to tip during iPad checkouts. Over half polled also said they tipped when they usually wouldn't have because the iPad screen prompted them to.
Tipflation or "tip creep" is the name you're looking for when you notice those tip prompts are almost twice as much as you used to see. For decades, tipping was a standard 15% in restaurants. It was easy enough math to do and felt manageable.
Now, many tip prompts start at 18%, followed by options to tip 20%, 25%, and even 30% on every bill. "Research shows the more you ask for, the more you are going to get," Cornell University professor Michael Lynn told CBS News in January, noting that merchants are setting the baseline tip request higher to generate more revenue.
New Tipping in Action
"Just the prompt in general is a bit of emotional blackmail," said 26-year-old Garrett Bemiller to The Wall Street Journal in their piece about the new world of tipping and tipping fatigue.
Metmiller was in Newark airport, buying a simple bottle of water. He chose self-checkout to save time. No attendants or cashiers were in sight, leaving him to wonder where exactly his tip was going. And yet the prompt alone made him feel like he needed to leave a tip. Any empathetic person would — it's gotta be going somewhere, to someone, right?
But in an airport where you've already paid too much to fly, were forced to pay more to (god forbid) take a bag with you, and are now paying around $10 for a 16-ounce bottle of water that you picked out, scanned, and bagged yourself? The whole thing doesn't just seem like emotional blackmail but highway robbery.
The Mystery of Who Gets What
Most of us want to help other people. We understand times are tough because we've been there — or are there — ourselves. No one wants anyone to suffer or not be compensated for a job well done. (If you've ever held a job in the service industry, you're no stranger to the crummy pay, long hours, and backbreaking work required in those positions.) But when you're asked to tip a faceless person for a job you did yourself, where does the money go? Add in the global wallet pinch we're all facing, and you're suddenly left wondering, "Do I really need to tip here?"
Traditionally, tips have gone to service workers earning the "tipped minimum wage," which is set federally at $2.13 an hour. This often includes bartenders, waitstaff, hosts, etc. Clearly, with digital tip prompts popping up everywhere, this isn't necessarily the case anymore.
As Wall Street Journal reporter Rachel Wolfe points out, where these digital tips go is somewhat murky. While employers legally must give tips to workers, there's not as much oversight when tipping on machines. "Machines don't have the same protections as tipping human employees, so while the law requires that something called a ‘tip’ has to go to employees, when you're tipping a machine, you can't be quite so sure," she writes, later noting, "Researchers are worried that companies are using tips as a way to put the onus on consumers for paying their employees rather than raising wages themselves."
Still, several companies have gone on record saying that any tips received from self-checkout lanes are pooled and split between the workers on shift.
To Tip or Not to Tip, That Is the Question
So, TL;DR, do you have to tip when prompted by a screen in a self-service lane?
"We really do want to do the right thing. We want to tip, and tip appropriately, but sometimes we just don't know," etiquette expert Diane Gottsman told CBS News. How does she, and other industry experts, handle tipping in today's tip-prompt-happy society? You should tip when you genuinely want to and feel the service was exceptional — but you shouldn't feel obligated to tip for quick service or self-checkout.