Digital Tipping: Why Is It Confusing Us?

digital tipping customer using touchscreen

While we are all living in the new digital economy, our most valuable personal commodity remains the same: time. Everyone has a finite and the same amount of it to spend.  Many of us are embracing technologies and apps that seemingly make transactions and experiences faster and easier.

We are just on the leading edge of another digitally driven paradigm, thanks to those smartphones that are always in our pocket. Our acceptance of, and dependence on, these devices is driving us to continually desire convenience and speed. We’ve begun to wonder, why shouldn’t our transactions always be digital? Many of us first began participating in the cashless society by using our credit or debit card for common daily transactions such as buying groceries, gas and even a $4 cup of coffee. With no extra change or cash in our pocket, the tipping part of a transaction can be clunky and take multiple steps with a credit card reader, which then becomes the anti-thesis of speed and efficiency. 

Michael Lynn, a psychologist at Cornell University found in his research that generally people do tip more when using a credit card than cash. So there is potential that these new digital tip screen interfaces could produce even greater results for those hard-working ice-cream scoopers. Dr. Lynn also noted that simple actions like smiling and using a name can up those tip amounts. Could it be that our friends behind the counter at Starbucks discovered this long ago?

The idea of a tip is commonly believed to come from old English pubs, the acronym arising as TInsure Promptness. It’s the insurance policy for the customer that service will be polite, food and drink will be delicious and arrive with relative speed. It’s also the unspoken language that for many service and counter jobs, it is the much-needed income supplement to often below-minimum wage jobs.

Fast-forward from the 18th century pub to today’s food and drink choices. What to do now, should you give that extra $1 or $2 for your coffee and bagel or for the food truck street taco order you just placed, but haven’t yet received?  The challenge in our digital age is that we consumers are faced with the decision of how much, if any to tip before we ever receive what we’re paying for at the counter, or, in addition to a delivery or convenience fee. It’s difficult to judge if we should give $1, $5 or 18% when nothing has occurred but order-placement. Making this experience even more perplexing are those flat tablet screens facing us – which box is appropriate, or correct to choose? Most customers aren’t aware that the software that enables these devices, from companies such as Square, put all the control in the hands of the establishment to decide what is presented to customers on the screens. Store-owners choose the options allowed, such as No Tip, flat dollar amounts and pre-calculated percentages. The discomfort can happen for the customer, as they process that the server in front of them will see which selection they choose, as the device is turned back around to the server. What was previously a private decision on a credit card receipt or $5 bill slipped into the folder is no longer discreet.

In my opinion, the bottom line is that tipping in our new digital age can really come down to etiquette, treating others how you would want to be treated if you were the minimum-wage person behind the counter.  I believe you have to have trust that most people are going to give the best food and service possible and you just have to take a flyer in that belief, tipping as you would if you already had experienced the service.  And maybe there’s just a factor of awareness of the ‘system’ of service workers and even your belief in good karma. Generous tippers often don’t need a mental ‘trade’ for their tip – they have empathy for the hard work of someone behind the counter and just believe without experiencing it that their extra $3 will be well spent for great food and service.

Photo credit: The Wall Street Journal

Posted by Linda Mihalick on: 
Jan 29 2019