Is iPad Tipping Awkward?

As many of you know, a Playa Bowls was recently opened across from BC’s campus. Every weekend lines of Boston College students wrap around the block just to pay $12 (or more) for one of Playa’s famous smoothie bowls. As a huge fan of acai bowls, I had to go and check it out for myself. After waiting in line for around 20 minutes, I handed the cashier my card. They flipped the screen of the iPad towards me to sign the check, and a window popped up asking me whether or not I wanted to add a tip. I never usually tip at this kind of grab-and-go restaurant, so I clicked the “No Tip” option, grabbed my acai bowl, and went on my way. My roommate went to Playa Bowls later that same week, and when she came back, she mentioned how she felt weird being asked to tip in front of the cashier. I wondered whether or not other people felt the same way, and sure enough, after a quick Google search, I found that this new version of tipping using the iPad has been debated for the past few years.

Example of what a tip screen looks like using the Square software

Most small, local chains across industries now use tablet credit card readers instead of a traditional cash register. The most popular option is Square, which offers both POS software and hardware to its customers. In addition to a full register, the hardware options include a mag stripe system, a chip reader, and a credit card terminal.

Square tablet device

The Square software offers a few options for tipping depending on the amount of the transaction. For purchases under $10, the options are “no tip”, $1, $2, or $3. For purchases greater than $10, the options are “no tip”, 15%, 20%, and 25%. The customer always has the option to enter in their own tip amount. The servicer has the option to turn on and off this tip function as they please.

This popular software has been extremely successful for small businesses. A study done in 2013 showed that Square merchant partners generated $70 million in tips in the last quarter of the year and that nearly half of the tippable transactions resulted in a gratuity. This was a 37% increase from the same time in 2012, and, while no updated numbers have been released, I would assume that this number has continued to grow.

The controversy lies not in the software, but in the environment in which the transactions occur. Consumers feel forced to leave a tip even though the cashier most of the time provides little to no service. These feelings are expressed best in one customer’s tweet: “Why can’t Square have a tip option that says `it’s nothing personal, but I just can’t give you 20% for handing me a pre-made sandwich.’” Cashiers have also reported feeling uncomfortable watching the customers leave them tips. Many cashiers worry that the customers feel forced to leave tips, even though in this grab-and-go setting, they may not necessarily be expected to leave anything at all. Square has responded to this debate, saying “just choose “‘No Tip’” if, as a customer, you really don’t want to leave a tip. If you are a merchant, simply turn off the tipping function (although with the extra income it generates, I don’t know why you would).

I personally see nothing wrong with this new tipping option. I don’t feel bad not leaving a tip for someone who hands me a muffin from a bakery box. But I can understand why many consumers and merchants feel uncomfortable. Do you guys feel uncomfortable using this new tipping function? Have you ever felt like you are forced to leave a tip when using one of Square’s registers? Do you think that Square is taking advantage of some internal bias that all consumers have, making them feel guilty if they do not leave a tip? If they are doing so, is it morally right for them to take advantage of consumers in this way?

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  1. dilillomelissa · ·

    I’m so glad you brought up this topic! When these tablets for tipping at quick-service restaurants started to be in use, I felt that I was somehow obligated to tip. At the time, I only remember seeing 15%, 20%, etc. so I would always use the option to customize tip and leave $1 or so. I don’t know when I stopped doing this completely, but I can tell you I currently feel no obligation to tip. I’ve read other articles as well where the cashier feels even more akward than the customer on this matter. Many employees know that if they were in our shoes as the customer, they wouldn’t be tipping either. If we’re tipping cahsiers on performing a simple transaction, should we be tipping cashiers at the grocery store as well? The list could go on and on. Because it’s an option, that’s all it should be looked at as.

  2. Thank you for highlighting this situation. I think Square itself is a fantastic company that makes credit card payments accessible to small businesses. I often intend to click “no tip,” but end up tipping in the moment. I think that one positive is that iPad tipping supports service workers. In the bay area, I know a lot of people in service industries are fighting for a living wage (“Fight for $15”). Overall, I think tipping comes down to cultural trends that are exacerbated by the product’s transparency. I recently read an article about this and different news companies have come up with funny names for it: the New York Times coined the term “tip creep” and Fast Company calls it “guilt tipping.” In some European countries, no one feels bad or thinks twice about not tipping, as there is no expectation. In contrast, in American culture, tipping is expected and with this software there is no where to hide when you choose no tip. I would love to see the data behind this trend as well as if and how many more tips are collected.

  3. This was a really interesting post and a topic that I’m glad was brought up. I feel like the use of these tablets is becoming more and more common, and while I’m definitely all for tipping someone when they put in some form of effort (like a delivery driver, waitress or bartender), I don’t think the person handing you your food in a quick service restaurant requires one. Before these tablets were being used, if you paid with a credit card at this type of restaurant you were asked to sign a receipt that more often than not had a space to leave a tip if you chose to do so. So in all honesty, I don’t think that this has changed all that much, other than the fact that now the tipping option is on a screen and not on a physical receipt.

  4. Honestly, yes I feel guilty every time I click No Tip and try to click the no receipt button at the same time while the iPad is flipped just so they can’t see what I selected. Honestly I think the tipping at these registers Is very different from any restaurant because you are face to face with the employee who will be handing you your food and they are requesting you tip them in advance while they stare you down. On the other hand, in restaurants, I feel more comfortable tipping because the waiter isn’t hovering over me waiting to complete the transaction. However, I definitely think there is a reason behind the increased revenue caused by allowing tipping on the registers. It’s a very non-aggressive impersonal part of the transaction at these square registers. You recognized them almost immediately and know they’re gonna flip the register where you have to select the tip and receipt options which is less aggress than them shaking a tip jar in your face I guess. But just imagine CVS adding a tipping question to their credit card readers, would you be upset then? I think the whole purpose of tipping is an optional show of appreciation for a server’s hospitality and I shouldn’t even have to be asked if I’d like to tip, because if I wanted to I would. Great controversial post! Really think this is an interesting topic and I’m sure Prof. Kane has something to say for the psychology behind this.

  5. Jaclin Murphy · ·

    I worked in the service industry for multiple years. And nothing, and I mean nothing, was worse than receiving a bad tip or no tip at all. This is because servers, bussers, etc. get bad way below minimum wage, and rely instead on said tips. For this reason I always tip 20% at restaurants, and call my friends out for not doing the same. Part of going out to eat is assuming the responsibility of paying, and just like how you can’t opt out of paying the tax, you should not be able to opt out of paying the tip. However, iPad tipping is a whole other ballpark! If you are working a service counter, you most likely do not depend on tips to make your paycheck worthwhile, also your service time with the customer is insignificant compared to a sit-down meal. It’s like a virtual tip jar, with a whole lot more force. Instead of willingly putting in my change or spare dollar, I feel this awkward obligation. Maybe instead of no-tip there should be a round up feature. If I spend $11.19, happily take my $0.81. I think many people would like this, and it would still add up!

  6. debhan10 · ·

    I oftentimes find myself feeling incredibly uncomfortable when I come across the tipping page when making a transaction. It’s just weird because I can literally feel the cashier’s eyes staring at me as I have the option to tip or not tip. I always try to click the “no tip” option as fast as possible to get to the next page of signing the digital receipt. I don’t necessarily feel the need to tip at grab-and-go places because I don’t think their service particularly warrants a tip. I don’t feel guilty about it either, but I feel awkward. Nonetheless, I don’t think these small shops should get rid of the tipping function because it’s a great way to make some extra cash. I’m sure there are others who may not agree with me and may want to tip these workers, and I believe it’s entirely up to the customer to do what they want to do and give as much as they want to give.

  7. licarima · ·

    This is something I have a thought a lot about, the coffee place I visit on a regular basis uses the same system and I do get that awkward feeling around tipping. We live in a society where carrying cash has become less common, and we are charging the smallest amount on the cards. It is a behavior change that I was not used to when the cashier first started flipping the screen towards me, it took me a second. Most of the time I will tip $1 or so, but like you send depends on the type of place, in my case the coffee place does tend to make some hand crafted thing that I feel like are more work so I will tip, but I can also see the argument for not tipping. Given that the percentages are already calculated on the screen as well I feel like this sometime incentives people to feel like they must tip. I am always a little weary of system such as these cause I question how much of my tip actually ends up in the person’s pocket rather than eaten by service fees. I feel much more comfortable throwing a dollar in the tip jar, especially if they use fun language and slang like tips to get tipsy or something like that.

  8. This is always the most uncomfortable part of any over the counter ordering experience. As Deb said, I try to click no tip, sign and walk away as fast as I can without meeting the eye of the cashier. While I always make sure to tip nicely at sit down restaurants, I personally do not think in this instance tipping is necessary. Our interaction probably lasted under 30 seconds, consisting only of you clicking a few buttons and swiping my card. To me this does not result in a tip as it is something I could’ve done at a self order kiosk that places like Panera have installed. I checked out at one restaurant who has the tip scale backwards from what I was used to (i.e. 25%, 18%, 15%, No tip as opposed to the other way around) so I ended up tipping much higher than I had expected to and didn’t realize until I was already signing and couldn’t awkwardly bring up. However, I do feel more comfortable clicking a “no tip” option on a screen than writing a dashed line in the tip section of a printed receipt (sorry elPelon!).

  9. kgcorrigan · ·

    This is such an interesting question to pose, and I liked how you pointed out how the controversy lies in the environment in which the transactions are happening. There is a coffee shop in my neighborhood that uses the Square terminals, and I personally never feel guilty about choosing “no tip,” whereas my husband always opts to leave a small amount, and it has to do with the awkwardness about saying no. Thankfully in my experience, the cashier usually flips the screen right as they turn around to prep my iced coffee, so they rarely are right there when I opt out of giving a tip which alleviates some awkwardness. From the store’s perspective, it seems like a great way to earn “free money,” but on the surface I think it’s somewhat taking advantage of consumers’ feelings. I personally would feel more inclined to leave a tip (usually my change) for excellent service in this setting if there was a physical tip jar.

  10. MiriamPBourke · ·

    Oh my gosh I loved this topic because YES, I think it’s so awkward! This might be a cultural thing but in Ireland tipping for a coffee is weird – like tipping is usually reserved for sit down meals and prolonged services like that. The person taking your order though in mind mind hasn’t really done anything to warrant a significant tip. The I pad tipping process forces you to make that decision right in front of the person who just served you ! It feels so weird and awkward to me ! Great post !

  11. adurney1 · ·

    Great blog! I find it extremely awkward. Although very convenient, I think it does almost force the customer to give a tip. As someone who has worked for years at a deli, when I prepare a simple sandwich or coffee I don’t expect a tip. Often times if I receive a small tip, it is just change from the customer. This new IPad feature is interesting as it makes leaving no tip such an awkward issue.

  12. This concept drives me crazy as well. Like you, I never tip for take out grab and go type food…but the option there makes me feel guilty every time. Tonight, as always, I swung by my favorite cafe to pick up a salad and club soda….14 dollars later I’m out the door. 14 Dollars! to add a tip to that I’m looking at a 16-17 dollar dinner, far too much for a guy in grad school looking for a job. However, it looks like it has been very beneficial for small businesses, and for that I am glad. The reason I shop at these small businesses is that I want to support them, and if leaving an extra dollar made the difference needed to keep them in business I might consider it, however for the time being this just feels like cheap tactics on the vendors part.

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