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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