XXIV.5 September - October 2017
Page: 22
Digital Citation

Tipping the scale

Jonathan Bean, Melanie Wallendorf

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What's a reasonable tip for a $3 latte? 10 percent? 15 percent? 18 percent? Or should it be a flat figure, say, $1? If you're feeling magnanimous, even $3?

Touchscreen devices running payment technologies such as Square have become ubiquitous in independent cafes. The interaction is swift and slick. The employee spins around an iPad mounted on a shiny white stand; the customer taps a few times to confirm the transaction amount and add a tip. Tipping amounts can be listed as either percentages or in increments of currency. Adding a gratuity is as simple as touching a button; there's no math required. The receipt can arrive in the customer's email inbox before the barista has even started on the latte.

Square, which was started by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, responded to an opportunity in the market to streamline and simplify the process of accepting payment by credit card for small businesses. Square replaced what had been a complicated process of negotiating with a credit card servicer. The company sent merchants a tiny, cheap reader that plugged into a smartphone instead of an expensive, cumbersome terminal and assumed some of the risk associated with chargebacks and fraud. For the merchant, this is an improvement. But it is worth thinking further about how the design and use of Square, and point-of-sale systems like it, have changed what it means to be a consumer.

First, Square facilitates an inversion in the sequence of the service encounter. In restaurants or cafes with table service, payment is collected at the conclusion of the service encounter—after food and drink have been delivered and consumed. In this context, a tip is a way to communicate the consumer's level of appreciation for service rendered. A relatively large tip indicates gratitude for quality service, while a small tip, or none at all, sends a signal to the server (and management) that something was off. Anyone who has been compensated with tips understands the many nuances of social interaction. For example, customers can feel rushed if a bill is dropped too early and mete out punishment with a stingy tip, whereas a penny left on top of a few bills or a signed credit card receipt is a symbolic wink in recognition of good service. Maintaining a steady stream of large tips requires that the server successfully manage many different transactions and procedures. The order must be noted correctly at the table and relayed to the kitchen; food must be collected when it is hot; water glasses must be refilled; plates must be cleared when they are no longer needed; utensils must be checked so that they shine; children and grumpy adults must be cheerfully accommodated. Perfection is not always possible. Marketers call the outcomes of this balancing act service variability.

Long before Square, Panera and other fast-service restaurants—to use industry lingo—along with Starbucks and most cafes, had redesigned the service encounter to displace much of the labor onto the customer. In this business model, the customer orders at a counter, collects utensils and a cup for water, finds an open seat, returns to the counter to pick up the completed order, and clears the table after using it. The labor savings are clear—there is no need to pay a server to do these tasks if they are placed upon the customer—and it may seem that the amount of service variability is reduced, as a thirsty customer is able to refill her own cup. What changes with Square is the ease with which a tip can be added in conjunction with the restricted range of service performed by employees. Whereas in the past, a cafe may have had a tip jar that collected spare change and the occasional dollar bill from a generous customer, it was socially awkward for customers who used credit or debit cards to leave a tip. Either the person working the counter had to verbally ask if the card-using customer wanted to leave a tip, or the customer had to hold up the line to do math on a fiddly paper receipt. In contrast, Square and similar point-of-sale systems make adding a gratuity quick, easy, and, in comparison to the old system, private.

But the big difference with Square is that the customer—in Panera or in the local cafe—is prompted to provide feedback in the form of a tip to the service provider after only one part of the service transaction: the one at the counter. It is possible that repeat customers might consider their expectation of delicious food or drink in calculating the tip, but in this case, it is not the person behind the counter whose labor is being rewarded. So whereas the size of a tip in a restaurant or cafe with table service reflects the quality of the entire experience, the tip at a fast-service restaurant or cafe indicates only the customer's satisfaction with the banal routine of ordering. This is a high-stakes example of the emotional labor performed by service workers [1] and a highly problematic one when tipping practices intersect with sexism and racism [2].


Let's say you have a positive interaction with the employee stationed at the counter; he's cheery and helpful and answers your questions about the menu. You leave a generous tip. But what happens when you get your food and the cup is dirty and the sandwich is stale? What if you can't find a table? It's unlikely you're going to ask for your tip to be returned.

There is a double move happening here. First, customers are required to empathize with the plight of service workers. Most people know that service jobs pay low wages and do not typically offer healthcare, so tips make a big difference. But whereas Uber drivers are expected to empathize with their riders [3], here it is the customer who is expected to empathize with the employee by extending trust. Tipping at the front end of a service encounter indicates an implicit acceptance of the service that is about to follow, regardless of its quality. The interface of Square and similar point-of-sale systems silences the tip's feedback about customer satisfaction. Significantly, it is not the employee that gains power, nor is it the customer. Rather, expecting a tip to be paid in advance requires the customer to make a moral choice: How much does one trust the person behind the counter—and their colleagues—to deliver service worthy of a tip? Concomitant with this is a shift in responsibility for labor. Trusting the employee to perform a quality service is typically the province of the employer, not the customer. Paying a tip before service has been completed means that the customer is paying for the labor that is expected and required of the employee, rather than issuing a reward for quality of service. If you've ever experienced a moment of moral uncertainty when debating whether to tip for a sandwich or latte ordered in advance, this may be what's simmering in the depths of your mind. Should it be the customer's job to pay an employee's wages, especially before even being served by an unknown employee?

back to top  References

1. Hochschild, A.R. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (2012 edition). Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, 2012.

2. Brewster, Z.W. and Lynn, M. Black–white earnings gap among restaurant servers: A replication, extension, and exploration of consumer racial discrimination in tipping. Sociological Inquiry 84, 4 (Nov. 2014), 545–569. DOI:

3. Bean, J. 2016. Experience uber alles? Interactions 23, 3 (May–June 2016), 20. DOI:

back to top  Authors

Jonathan Bean is assistant professor of architecture, sustainable built environments, and marketing at the University of Arizona. He researches domestic consumption, technology, and taste.

Melanie Wallendorf is McClelland professor of marketing and professor of sociology at the University of Arizona. She researches the sociological aspects of consumption.

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