What Happened to Tips at This Café When It Switched to a Payment App

A service fee may make customers uncomfortable, but this tipping model leaves customers with little choice.

By Joy DiazNovember 15, 2015 8:19 pm

The morning routine of Kai Alterman includes a stop at a café and a cab ride. When it comes time for her to pay,  the server slides her credit card, then hands her a screen similar to an iPad to sign – complete with choices of how much to tip. Alterman hits the middle option, leaving a 20 percent tip.

“I think this makes people tip more often, because you feel more guilty not to tip with those,” Alterman says.

Sarah Castro is a barista at the same café. She says the screen with tipping options does make people tip more often. “I think we are like almost double what we were making before [in tips],” she says.

Tipping for counter service is a relatively new development in the U.S. and some people, like Nicole Burns, resent those screens. “I feel like it’s frustrating,” she says. “Why should I tip you for giving me a cup of coffee? You did your job! I don’t get tipped when I do my job.”

When faced with the screen, most people do tip.

“You are shamed into doing a lot of that stuff – you’re paying to not feel like a jerk,” she says.

So why do we do it? Do we feel shamed into tipping? Embarrassed? Bob Duke, a researcher on human behavior and co-host of the KUT program “Two Guys on your Head,” says it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“This sort of capitalizes on the inherent laziness of human beings,” he says. “There are two things that are happening when the tipping is governed by a screen when you are paying on your credit card. First of all, there is a suggestion that is made to you that you are gonna give a tip, right? Of course you could opt out of it, but you’d have to opt out. You’d have to decide ‘No, I’m not going to give this person a tip.'”

That decision to leave off the tip requires an action on our part, Duke says. It’s an action that people are more likely to overlook. Duke says studies have proven that. It’s not a motivation thing like guilt or shame, it’s a human behavior thing, he says. More specifically, it’s about the predictability of human behavior.

Duke says we also have to decide how much to tip. Most people will often choose the middle option, he says, whether it’s 10 percent or 25 percent.

Studies done by the Center for Decision Sciences at Columbia University in New York confirm it: if people are automatically enrolled in a program, whether it’s a pension program or an organ donation program, they rarely opt out.

“The choice to have to move to another place is more effortful than to stay where we are,” Duke says.

When people are given the choice to opt-in, we rarely take it. That’s why we tip when we see that screen.

At the end of the day at the café, Caitlyn Feeney is tallying up all the tips. “We did pretty good today – not bad,” she says.

Next time you’re faced with a tip screen, don’t feel mad, or ashamed. Feel empowered. After all, you don’t have to tip, but you will have to decide not to.