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Pushy checkout screens are fueling 'tipflation'

Pushy checkout screens are fueling 'tipflation'

Tipping is an age-old American debate. How much do you pay and when? Is it an option or an obligation? In general, technology has made this easier, at least in the last few years. Smartphones have made it easier to use calculators to find tips for friends and split the bill. And now, buttons designed to make it easier for you to tip have been added to checkout screens everywhere from in-person stores to delivery apps.

It's convenient, until it isn't. Tipping culture in America has seen a shift in recent years, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center. Seventy-two percent of Americans say tipping is expected in more places than five years ago. This isn't all tech related, but it's hard to deny the role of checkout screens in tip inflation. Even Pew Research reports that the practice of tipping is "undergoing significant structural and technological changes," including "the expansion of digital payment platforms and devices that encourage tipping."

On days when I go to the office, I sometimes enjoy a latte at a local coffee shop. As long as I'm not paying, everything is fine. Part of me is offended by the fact that a small latte in Manhattan now costs about $9. The anxiety hits home when, after tapping my card on the terminal, it asks me how much I want to tip — 20 percent, 25 percent, and a higher number I've blocked from my memory. There are options to not tip or enter a custom tip, but they're tiny, and pressing those buttons makes me worry that I'm a bad person.

Recently, a finance bro sitting behind me sighed because it was taking me so long to figure out the custom tip interface. In a panic induced by social anxiety, I pressed the 25 percent button. Or $11.25. At that price, I regretted the latte, and in my mind, I heard the ghost of Suze Orman haunting me for my millennium feast.

Self-service kiosks sometimes ask me if I want to tip, too. Even the courage to ask is surprising. And even if most people choose "no tip" in that scenario, muscle memory and social programming may mean that someone accidentally tips.

The screen makes all this easier partly because it eliminates the math. You simply press a button that automatically adds a percentage or, sometimes, a dollar amount. It's all included in the regular flow of checking, and you don't have to make a dent in your wallet to add to the tip jar. Thinking – whether it's about how much you can afford or how it affects your total – means going out the window. It's the same as online or in-app shopping – just press the button and go.

It's common knowledge that service employees generally prefer direct tips – either given to them or sent via Venmo. But where does it fit in now that cashless payment options and checkout tip prompts have become more common? It is very easy for a business to add these checkout screens to their system and set the minimum "easy" option at a price that may be higher than you are willing to pay. They also often make it difficult for you to choose preset options. On these screens, the "No Tip" or custom options are either smaller or further down on the menu. And while no one is forcing you to do anything, there is a gentle persuasion taking place that doesn't always feel right. With DoorDash, if you don't pre-tip, you'll now get a warning that your meal may be delayed. This makes sense if you view tipping as an obligation rather than an option – but for those who view tipping as a reward for good service, it may even seem like extortion.

I still try to tip cash whenever possible. At my local ice cream shop last summer, my heart swelled when I placed my dollars in a jar that read, "Help me raise money for my studies abroad in Italy." This felt much better than the digital prompt.

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