Tip Creep in the Technology Age

engadget.com
engadget.com

You’ve probably seen them. Perhaps you’ve even purchased an item by swiping your credit card through one. If you’ve bought something from an Apple store, you definitely know what I’m talking about: those apps and accessories that turn smartphones and tablet computers into credit card payment terminals.

When the technology first came out, I thought it was genius. Suddenly, an owner of a small business – such as an artist at a craft fair – could play with the big guys. For a pretty low start-up cost, they were easily able to accept and process credit card purchases. As a customer, I liked the convenience: just swipe and sign. My credit card was never out of my sight and the receipt would instantly show up in my email.

At least I thought it was genius until the terminals began to appear at the sales counters of ice cream parlors, delis, bakeries, and coffee shops. All of a sudden, what first seemed like a convenience now feels like extortion. Technology-aided tip creep has arrived.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a grab-and-go deli to get lunch. Making my way through the line, I picked up a couple of pre-made sandwiches from the refrigerated case. At the sales counter, I showed the cashier the sandwiches, asked him to add two ice teas to my order, and gave him my credit card. He handed me two cups (the sodas and tea were self-serve) and, after entering my order on his tablet/terminal, he swiveled the screen around to face me. There, right in the middle of the screen, I was “conveniently” given the opportunity add a tip to the transaction. I was even given a choice: I could click on 15%, 20%, or, if I was feeling especially generous, 25%. There was also a button labeled Custom Tip if I wanted to calculate another tip amount. Of course, I had the option of clicking the No Tip button, but with the cashier standing right there watching me, that choice felt very uncomfortable. Wimp that I am, I clicked 15%, signed the screen with my finger, and moved on.

Yes, of course I think ringing up two sandwiches and two ice teas is worth a 25% tip!
Yes, of course I think ringing up two sandwiches and two ice teas is worth a 25% tip!

I usually am a pretty good tipper. I spent time in the trenches working in restaurants as I made my way through school, and a large part of my marketing career was in the food service business. The person who waits on my husband and me at a sit-down restaurant will usually find a good tip when we leave. In the type of establishment where there are tip jars present, I sometimes leave something and sometimes not. If I feel a tip is warranted, though, I’m fairly generous. I am happy to reward good service and I am grateful to be financially able to do so. What I don’t like is the expectation of tips for providing a simple service. And, I don’t like businesses relying on their customers to subsidize their employees’ salaries. Most of all, I don’t like being guilted into leaving a tip.

I did put a tip in this jar (you parents and grandparents can thank me).
I did put a tip in this jar (you parents and grandparents can thank me).

Apparently these new payment systems are having a huge impact on tips received, especially in venues where tipping has never been common. When faced with the three tip percentages, customers often just tap the middle one (20%, in most cases). Tapping the No Tip option is not easy when the employee is watching you and there are people in line behind you. No one wants to feel cheap.

I’m not sure if this train has already left the station and tipping someone for scooping ice cream, ringing up a couple of sodas, or putting a bagel in a bag is now considered “normal” but I know I’m not on it. When I see that one of those devices will be used to ring up my simple transaction, I immediately start to feel uncomfortable. Do I resign myself to this new paradigm and add a tip? Do I take the easy way out and pay with cash (assuming I have enough)? Do I tap Custom Tip and enter what I might have placed in the now-vanished tip jar? Or, do I grow a spine and tap No Tip if that’s the option I would have chosen before?

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think I’ll start carrying more cash just in case.