An Interesting Look At Tipping

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As my friends from the Pennsylvania Dutch Country would say, “It wonders me much” whenever they would see or read something that they had seen many times before. I can apply that description to the number of articles I have read that deal with the common act of tipping.

Fred G. Sampson
Fred G. Sampson

Katherine L. Milkman has written an interesting piece for the Washington Post, titled, “A few tips about why you tip what you do.” While much of it addresses restaurant tipping, it also covers situations when you probably never see the recipient again, such as out-of-town bellhops. The following is an example of what behavioral scientists have discovered.

At an upstate New York café, before delivering the check to his table of diners, a waiter stopped in the kitchen to pull a playing card from a deck. “If the card he drew was red, the waiter would give every diner at the table a high-quality chocolate in foil wrapping paper along with their bill. However, if the playing card he drew was black, the bill would come out chocolate-free.” The waiter was willing to participate in this experiment conducted by behavioral scientists to study how a small gift (for example, a chocolate) influenced how much restaurant patrons tipped.

“The standard view in the field of economics is tipping in any service encounter where you don’t expect to be a return customer is a behavioral quirk. Much of that research has been done in restaurants with unsuspecting diners following procedures like the ones in the upstate New York café. There, researchers found the average tip from diners who were offered wrapped chocolates with their check was 18 percent, but it was only 15 percent under normal circumstances. It turns out friendly gestures from your server can have a surprisingly large impact on your tipping decisions, though you may not realize it. Dozens of experiments with similar designs in a variety of restaurants around the country have reinforced just how much small acts affect tips. For instance, tips go up two percentage points if a server writes ‘Thank You’ on the back of a patron’s check, … eight percentage points if a server introduces him or herself by name,” and other procedures also boost tips.

These studies are not limited to restaurants only. There have been and continue to be massive studies done since tipping affects the taxicab business in large cities—which I won’t comment on except to say the list of factors affecting how fares tip is varied. Behavioral scientists found that the rider’s mood matters even when it is beyond the driver’s control. Cloud cover causes tips to drop a percentage point compared to sunny days.

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The studies are not simple little exercises; their first study in New York City covered 13.82 million taxi rides in 2009, and a recent study covered another aspect of the same 13.82 million.

I’m not sure how many servers, after reading this, are going to start wrapping chocolate candies, but it does speak to the fact that if you project a pleasant, positive personality to your guests, you will become a more self-productive person.

To reinforce this, I offer the following. In the last five years, I have viewed at least 25 to 30 studies on dealing with service in general. In almost every instance, the number one complaint in food service, department stores, supermarkets, grocerants, and transportation has been the attitude of the person serving. The service personnel often projected a feeling that they would rather be doing anything else than waiting on you. However, supermarkets, department stores, service stations, and retail outlets are not usually—if ever—surveyed by magazines, newspapers, and in some cases, TV hosts, like restaurants are on their food, service, and prices, and the results of those surveys published.

And have you ever been with a group at a social event when the conversation eventually encompasses comparing one restaurant to another? It becomes even more energetic than discussing a new medical procedure.

We are without question a major player in America’s social life and that is why we probably receive as much attention as we do. As I have said on many occasions, I believe we, as an industry, are more vulnerable because of the amount of time patrons spend dining out: from 45 to 70 minutes plus. This allows for more interaction between server and patron, and the potential for problems to arise. Looking on the bright side, it also allows the server the opportunity to be more attentive and thus increase his or her tip earnings.

Ms. Milkman’s parting comment reads as follows: “If you’re only a patron, my advice is you try to let go of your tipping anxiety and don’t feel too bad about following suggestions from technology (or your heart) about what to tip—everyone else does, too.”

If you will allow me a pun: That’s a great tip.

Fred G. Sampson
Fred G. Sampson is the retired President Emeritus of the New York State Restaurant Association. He began working with NYSRA in 1961. Within the next four years the NYSRA more than tripled its membership and expanded from one regional chapter to eight. Sampson played roles in representing restaurants on issues including paid sick leave, minimum wage, liquor laws, a state-wide alcohol training program and insurance plans. Comments may be sent to fredgsampson@juno.com