Asking for a tip is increasingly part of the customer experience.
Partly because of the ubiquitous touch screens now at most points of purchase, tipping has crept to just about every type of transaction — from takeout to self-service frozen yogurt to propane refills to buying a t-shirt at a concert. Service tips of 15-30% are commonly requested before service or even when there’s no service at all.
Home goods retailer Homrest even asks for a tip during online shopping (which one bewildered customer shared in a TikTok video that went viral a few months ago).
Some of this tip creep relates to what Saahil Desai described in the Atlantic as the “Great Pandemic Tipping Boom of 2020,” when tipping exploded and expanded as an easy way to help frontline service workers.
But much of the trend comes from what psychologists refer to as “tip nudging” — the social cues of how a tip is requested. A Harvard report studied tipping behavior and found that anchoring customers at higher “default tipping amounts” generally increased overall tipping levels, but also caused “whiplash effects” from “negative downstream effects and feelings.”
Harry Brignull is a UI expert who started a campaign against “dark patterns” in 2010. On tip nudging, he observed:
“It’s easy to cross the line from honest persuasion to harmful manipulation…
“Touchscreens tend to emphasize the buttons to give big tips, and de-emphasize the button to give no tip at all.
“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. When that happens, it doesn’t really feel like a consumer has made a choice. It feels like they’ve been forced.”
Tip creep is now bumping up against inflation and tip fatigue is on the rise. A study from PlayUSA found that 17% of Americans are tipping less due to inflation. And because tipping has become a de facto way to compensate service workers without raising wages, tip fatigue could take a toll on some of those most impacted by inflation.
As we navigate these social changes in tip etiquette, it’s important to remember that everything is ultimately part of the customer experience — including that awkward moment of deciding whether and how much to tip.
Here are a few related cartoons I’ve drawn over the years: