How much will you hand them?
Understanding the art of the tip amid a boom in personal services.
At Boston's Union Oyster House, patrons sit in mahogany booths dining on clam chowder and fresh scrod as waitresses scurry past.Skip to next paragraph
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But as meals end and checks arrive, confusion grows. How much should they leave on the table?
"You'll have people tipping 15 percent half the time and 20 percent the other half ... then in between you'll get nothing," says Susan Gray, who has worked 15 years at the Oyster House.
Americans face the question of how much to tip almost every day, whether they're leaving restaurants, stepping out of cabs, or opening their doors to a Web grocery deliverer.
As a busy populace farms out more and more tasks, a wide range of services have, not surprisingly, stepped in and stuck out their collective hand. More than 35 professions expect tips, and the practice has become a $28 billion industry.
Etiquette experts say a 15 percent gratuity is still the norm in most cities, regardless of whether you're paying for a buzz cut or an anchovy pizza.
But with consumers spending freely in today's booming economy, the average tip has hit 20 percent for some high-end services and could eventually filter into others. Any amount below 20 percent in large cities like New York or Los Angeles can draw scornful looks from service people, regardless of whether you dine at Tavern on the Green or somewhere less elegant.
The confusion over tipping has been amplified by the growing range of Web-delivery services, many of which have conflicting policies. Some, like Peapod, an online grocery, allow tips (usually 15 to 17 percent). Others, such as Urbanfetch, a cyber Wal-Mart of sorts, forbid it. Yet some customers override those policies because of the guilt they feel when deliverers haul groceries - even air conditioners or CD players - right to their door in less than an hour.
Better service, bigger bucks
As Americans come to expect and demand speedy service, says Karen Cure, editorial director at Fodor's travel publications, the service industry is facing increased pressure to rev up quality. Companies that do so are more likely to have their employees rewarded with higher tips. Even now, a 30 percent tip from a highly satisfied customer is not unheard of.
"In the next 10 years, 20 or 22 percent will be the norm," says Michael Lynn, an associate professor of consumer behavior at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration in New York. "But ultimately it wouldn't surprise me if it went higher, if people started tipping 30 percent."
Mr. Lynn says another key reason why tips will rise is Americans' competitive nature. "If everyone is giving 15 percent and I want to show off or express generosity and gratitude, then I have to give a little more. Everyone is doing well now, so it creates a pressure to go higher."
But many consumers probably won't enjoy doing it. A recent survey shows that 40 percent of Americans "loathe" tipping, though the gesture is still widely seen as a status symbol. People say the size of a gratuity mostly depends on bill size, but they feel good about rewarding top service and "sharing the wealth" with workers who, ostensibly, don't earn that much, says Richard Laermer of New York, who is writing a book on business trends.
For Gil Smith that means occasionally tossing out $100 extra on a lunch bill. "I don't care about money as much as I should," says Mr. Smith, a student living in Boston who asked that his real name not be used.
Eugene "Gino" Bly is familiar with such pleasant surprises. He's polished thousands of shoes over 18 years and recalls getting $100 tips on $3 shines from a handful of businessmen.
"My main objective is to make them feel good about themselves," he says, sitting on a busy Boston street corner. "They [leave with] a smile on their face and a shine on their shoes." Even regular customers tip him about 50 percent per shoeshine, he says with a grin.