Inflated “Suggested” Gratuity Amounts on Receipts

This rant was inspired by noticing the other day that Starbucks, that bastion of big box retail coffee, includes “suggested” gratuity amounts on their receipts. You know what I’m talking about – that helpful little 3 part table for what constitutes 15, 20, and 25% of the “bill” in order that you may add the line item to your submission? And my rant is twofold: one, Starbucks?!? You’re kidding, right?; and two, those are post tax suggested amounts. Post! (I would also suggest that their table is not useful as any standard metric either; a 10-25-33 range would be more human in any real sense, but the numbers should be modified based on your customer’s socioeconomic situation (e.g. college shop – 5-7.5-10, etc.)… but that would be admitting the legitimacy of the practice, which I’m not yet prepared to do)

The rule is, or should be, that if the service is good, you tip what that service was worth. If the service was excellent, give them an excellent tip. Neither this rule nor the math required to determine what a good tip should be are difficult to determine or remember.

But the fact that these … suggested gratuities … are on a Starmcbucks receipt is simply galling. Those workers are not baristas. They are not providing service any more than drive-through window Taco Hell cashier is. A McBucks barista simply squeezes the ground pump twice and press the button on the espresso machine so the machines deliver their precisely-measured water through precisely-measured coffee grinds, so you get a corporate-approved and completely inoffensive consistent taste experience. The person at Subway does more to determine the quality of my meal than the Chardonalds barristas do, and by FSM if you don’t tip the former, you shouldn’t tip the latter. Airline steward/esses offer more personalized service and we don’t tip them either.1

Where was I? Oh yes, we are talking about the underhanded “suggested gratuities” here. It’s bad enough that people can’t do simple math on their own these days and need help, but a post tax gratuity suggestion feels like an underhanded way to trick people into overtipping, bordering chicanery.

I also do not like the idea of tipping based on meal cost as it has the added impact of being a regressive measure that punishes the workers in less upscale eateries. Think about it: why should my tip for the same service be greater simply because I’m currently eating in a state with sales tax? Just think of all those poor, downtrodden Oregonian waitpeople! They get no love from the “suggested gratuity” post-sales tax printout! Will no one think of the children? Similarly, why should my tip for identical-in-quality service be different simply because I happen to be in a pub for one meal and Chez Fanci for another? Wouldn’t a flat rate per person served be more fair here?2 And if you’re looking for a more progressive suggested tip amount, couldn’t you create numbers that more accurately reflect the cardholder’s ability to pay (it’s not like your bank or credit card companies don’t know your limits, spending history, income, and credit scores).

Everyone works hard for their money3 and if their hard work should be rewarded, then reward it! But the corporate practice of using such methods to inflate your servers’ tips in nonapparent ways smacks of dishonesty; the very least they could do is print the real service tax rate4, if for nothing else than to avoid my ire, which is really what’s important here, no?

So, fine, pander to the braindead hooked-on-calculator generations and suggest a gratuity for the servicepeople and all, but don’t be sleazy about it.

1. Local coffee shops with hand made custom drinks can, of course be considered within the realm of artisanship and you should use your discretion as to your standard tipping practices.

2. It’s not like a plate of mac and cheese is 75% easier to carry than a filet mignon, no? This argument does not apply to the national income tax, which should be progressive. There are two ways to look at this – benefit to the server and cost to the servee. I’m an equal opportunity benefit to the server kind of guy. This probably limits my upper bound gratuity amounts at fancy restaurants, but the cost to me is purely correlated to the quality of service. As a cost to the servee basis, undifferentiated suggestion amounts are regressive in that they disproportionately cost more to the less affluent. Free marketers will try and argue that the higher tips attract the best servers to the more expensive places, but we all know this is posh. It attracts those who can get the higher tips to the expensive places (namely: young hotties), the service is almost entirely secondary. To the extent that those working in swankier joints have higher expenditures to maintain appropriate attire for those establishments, they do indeed deserve higher tips.

3. Right wing think tank superfund babies excepted.

4. $100 meal in a locale with 10% sales tax. A 15-20-25% “suggested” gratuity pre-tax is $15-$20-$25. A “suggested” post-sales tax gratuity, the one you see on your bill slips, is $16.50-$22-$27.50 for a real “gratuity tax rate” of 16.5%-22%-27.5%. If I’m giving a 27.5% gratuity, the meal better have come with a foot massage, british accents, and a wax job for my car.