Dry Cleaners, Delis Reach Tipping Point

Among all the crates and containers at a market stand in New York City’s Union Square, one clay jar looked different.  Instead of flowing with wheatgrass, it sprouted another kind of green — dollar bills.

Stewart Borowsky, owner of Greener Pastures and the Union Square Grassman stand, first put out the tip jar last fall. When customers ask about it, he tells them simply that he needs the money.  Some days he gets no tips; other times, though, they add up to a decent wage.  “It makes a small, but measurable impact,” he said.  Customers tipped long before the tip jar was implemented — but the jar makes it easier for  a customer to tell an employee to keep the change.

The Union Square Grassman stand is one of an increasing number of businesses that now offer tip boxes for customers to place coins and bills.  Once, tipping was associated with restaurants’ serving and delivering food to customers. But tip boxes now often appear at delis, coffee shops, food carts, car washes, and even dry cleaners.  And while they may stir annoyance or guilt in some customers, others now routinely toss their change in the jars. Society may have reached a tipping point — where tips have evolved from simply a reward for good service to an expected part of the payment process.

The shift didn’t happen overnight.  Bartenders have collected tips in containers for years, and the clear plastic boxes on Starbucks counters actually emerged more than two decades ago.  “We’ve had tip jars at our U.S. company-owned stores for more than 20 years,” a Starbucks spokesperson said in an email, using the company’s argot for employees by calling them partners, “as we believe our customers should have the option to reward our partners  for providing great service.”

In a struggling economy, the shift makes sense. For employees, tip jars can supplement lower wages or boost a struggling business  For customers, it dispels the awkwardness of showing appreciation. It works by signaling to consumers. who enter a store with their own notions of whom to tip, that a tip is expected.

“The idea is to try to encourage the consumer to believe that this is someone who is supposed to earn a tip,” said Michael McCall, visiting scholar and research fellow at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Management.

J.P. Taormina of North Salem, N.Y., is one customer who noticed tip jars appearing at fast-food restaurants more than a year ago and will now generally drop his change in the jars, if he is paying with cash. The 27-year-old, who works in information technology, said he always tips, unless the service is awful. For him, the tip boxes are convenient, and he doesn’t feel pressured to use them.

“I never feel obligated to give,” he said. Taormina also said he sees the jars at drive-through restaurants, but he won’t tip there.  He feels uncomfortable handing the money to the employee who then has to place it in the tip box.  “It’s just an awkward interaction,” he said.

Some customers still don’t notice the tip cup in unexpected places.  Michael Cohen, visiting assistant professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, recently was walking away from a cheese counter when his friend mentioned a tip cup on the counter.  His friend believed the employee behind the counter, who had let them sample different cheeses, was bothered that he’d left no tip.

“People may feel put off by this,” said Cohen, “and a lot of them do.”

Some annoyed by tip boxes wait until they get home, and then moan about them on websites.  On Yelp.com, several customers complained about Fette Sau, a take-out barbeque restaurant in Brooklyn with a tip jar. Amid glowing reviews of the restaurant’s barbeque specialties, one customer recounted how an employee “pointed expectantly” to a tip box.

While tips jars may appear almost anywhere, they probably won’t pop up at upscale locales anytime soon.  Cohen gave the example of valet service, where tipping may be customary, but a tip jar would be unlikely.  “You don’t want to have that appearance at a fancy restaurant that you’re expecting people to pay tolls all over the place,” he said.

Some people  who have been both the tipper and the tipped note that money from the jars can supplement wages.  But because of the nature of their jobs, the employees may have little opportunity to demonstrate how exceptional their service is, unlike a waiter or waitress.  When Stephen Dobson worked at an ice cream shop in North Carolina as a college freshman, his manager presented the tip jar as part of his salary, by telling him when he interviewed that he would earn a wage plus tips.

Now a 29-year-old lawyer who recently moved from New York to San Francisco, Dobson said he has seen tip jars in bagel shops, coffee shops and fast food restaurants in both cities.  “I definitely have seen them more recently pop up,” he said.  He drops his change in the tip jars, because he thinks the employees may not make a lot of money and may have “thankless jobs,” since customers can be particular about how they order drinks or food.  He also doesn’t want to carry around change, and so he tips only when paying with cash.

Dobson said he might throw in 99 cents or five cents to the tip jar, depending on what change he gets from the cashier.  “It’s really totally arbitrary, whether you’re paying in cash or how much change you get,” he said.  One exception, though, is that he always tips — either through the tip jar or by adding on a tip to the receipt — a personable employee who helps out with his daughter when he has bagels with his family on the weekends.

While the recession has made him more sensitive that service personnel may be low paid, Dobson says he is also less likely to be in situations where he would tip, such as in fancy restaurants.  And while he knows people oppose tip boxes, many others may feel that they can just give if they have the change or not give if they don’t want to and “tend not to overthink it.”