Monday, July 27, 2009

Drop a quarter in the jar if you like this post

Maybe I wasn’t in an especially charitable mood, but I thought I had seen it all when I recently spotted a styrofoam cup duct taped to the delivery window of a Dunkin’ Donuts, a sight which gave off the weird vibe that drive-through customers should offer a reward to a forearm for handing them a bag.

There are a few topics that are guaranteed to generate heated arguments on the internet. Is it rude ask people to take their shoes off in your house? Is it tacky to have a cash bar at your wedding? And today’s subject, should behind-the-counter employees solicit tips in a jar next to the register? Anywhere you see counter service, you’re likely to see a jar or cup filled with dollar bills and coins. Cold Stone Creamery has raised the tip jar to an art form – workers break out into loud goofy songs when you drop a bill into the jar. Even teachers have gotten in on the act – one instructor conducted an informal experiment by setting a tip jar on his desk, and found that a few of his students threw in some (promptly refunded) change. Nowhere is the tip jar more ubiquitous than the coffee shop, whether it’s the indie rock dive around the corner or corporate behemoth Starbucks. There’s a certain logic behind the coffee shop tip jar; after all, say baristas, bartenders get tips, and making a latte is at least as complicated as pouring a draft beer.

Tip jars have their supporters. Counter service employees are delighted to get a few extra dollars for their efforts. Store owners and managers are happy to have their employees rewarded without having to raise prices or wages. And some customers don’t mind the jars, or even find some of the more creative hand written signs amusing. But other customers are angered by the creeping spread of tip jars. According to internet tipping guru James G. Lewis, “most people hate” the jars, and “tip jars are out of place at any food-service establishment that does not actually bring the food to your table and keep your drinks refilled.” According to a study by the Emily Post Institute, only 30% of respondents feel obligated to deposit money in a tip jar.

There’s been plenty of research on tipping – we know that younger people tip more than older Americans, people in the Northeast tip more than Southerners, and that people tip more when it’s sunnier outside. But the tip jar is a bit of a black hole. We have some anecdotal observations -- according to business psychologist Larina Kase, “Patrons can feel uncomfortable when there is a tip jar for services they feel do not deserve a tip.” But does the tip jar’s potential customer discomfort outweigh the morale boost for employees? It may be time for a well-designed study on tip jars that could determine whether they help or hurt the top and bottom line.
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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The not-so-gullible consumer

Imagine a patient who goes to the doctor for help with sleeplessness. If the doctor were to prescribe a medication saying, “this may or may not do any good, it’s not especially strong, but let’s give it a try to start out with and see if it helps,” it’s not very likely that the patient’s sleeplessness will be remedied. But if the doctor were to prescribe the same medication with the admonishment, “This is very powerful, so make sure you don’t leave the bottle on your nightstand. You can’t take the chance you might take an extra one while you’re half-asleep. Keep it well inside your medicine cabinet” -- it’s much more likely the patient will get to dreamland.

The power of suggestion can be surprisingly effective. For example, research on placebos has found that they can alleviate pain, depression, and anxiety, lessen the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and have even shrunk tumors. John Tierney's recent New York Times article ”Calculating Consumer Happiness at Any Price” explores the power of suggestion in the consumer realm: do we place a higher value on items that we’re told are more costly? According to social psychologists’ and behavioral economists’ research, it depends.

In the lab, there’s evidence consumers respond better to items they’re told are more expensive. If you tell participants the wine they’re tasting costs $90 a bottle, the reward centers of their brains will light up more than if you tell them it’s a $10 bottle. But when customers are spending their own money rather than the hypothetical dollars in a laboratory, it turns out to be difficult to sway people from following their own tastes. Two behavioral economists in Tel Aviv monitored the choices of people who ordered from a prix fixe menu where the actual cost of each entrée was noted next to the items. After three months of testing various combinations of prices, the researchers found they couldn’t sway the customers. They were no more likely to select the entrée with the highest perceived value than any other entree. As one of the behavioral economists said, “Maybe when it comes to food, people do have reasonably stable preferences. Some people like shrimp and some don’t, even if it’s worth a lot of money.” (The fact that Israeli researchers were testing pork shank and shrimp gnocchi as part of the menu experiment is another story…..)

Despite the mountain of laboratory evidence that variations in sticker prices sway consumers, the effect fell apart in the real world test at the restaurant. That should serve as a warning to those of us who study customer behavior. While techniques such as focus groups and virtual reality shopping may provide some insights, it’s vital to watch how consumers actually behave when they’re spending their own money in the store, not just in the lab.
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