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Our View: No-service tipping tough to negotiate

Have you noticed tip jars in establishments where previously we didn’t leave gratuities? Liquor and retail stores, and small groceries. No-service tipping has left us confused. Is this a new social norm? When and how much are we expected to tip when a service isn’t provided?

This came to light recently in a liquor store, when – with no assistance from a person behind a counter – we scaled the bottom shelf of a commercial fridge to reach a single can of beer, high on the top shelf, in the far back. Then at checkout, a tip jar stood prominently on a counter.

Another instance. We purchased a gift for $80 and – because we didn’t budget for it – skipped the tip on the screen. That look on the salesperson’s face told us we did something wrong. Was that friendly banter worthy of a gratuity?

We’re just asking in case we missed a social cue. Or social tsunami.

Maybe customers are expected to help fund workers or make up for pricier, delayed global supply chain issues. The news came as fast as a bakery worker flipping a touchscreen with tip percentages, sometimes starting at 20%. Again, more and more businesses have a tip request of some sort.

In the beginning, we fumbled. How to compute and monetize the reach of 3 feet for a loaf of bread? But this was our mistake. It’s not about service. Of course, we tipped but were confused about the proper percent if we were to measure a gratuity with a level of service – no longer the case. We’re a bit lost on how to calculate.

We get, too, that whatever wage that employee is making isn’t likely a livable one. Most everything – in particular, housing – is stratospherically expensive in the Southwest. Workers need those gratuities to live on. But we’re not talking about jobs under Colorado’s tipped employee minimum wage, which is $9.54. It’s good that restaurant workers are making more per hour these days, not being as tip dependent. Having worked in the service industry, way back when, we are doomed to overtip for life. We are easy marks, knowing that nice customers make up for the jerks.

The new tip jar for minimum-wage workers – making $12.56 an hour – implies they need gratuities to stay in those jobs, too. We’re glad to see employers recruiting entry-level staffers at $15 an hour, at least. They can’t go much lower.

We tip when a service is performed from workers with specific skills – barbers, nail technicians. This isn’t new.

But retail tipping is. Maybe this is because in-person shopping could all go away. We’ve already lost brick-and-mortar stores to online shopping. Do we pay more for the in-person shopping experience, which beats purchasing online? (Unless, you’d prefer to shop while wearing a robe.) We interact with another person and use soft social skills – lubricants in these exchanges. There’s value here. But is it worth a 25% gratuity? That’s to each consumer to figure out, which isn’t easy.

How to negotiate this new world of tipping? Does the act of putting out a tip jar make the request legit?

To the liquor-store worker on your phone behind the counter. We weren’t supposed to stand on that cold bottom shelf to reach for that beer. You didn’t notice us, probably a good thing. Not all workers equate tips with excellent service. We stuffed dollars into the jar because it was an awkward moment and you could probably use a few extra bucks.

Something has to give. Correlating generosity with pricing is inevitable, which we’re reluctant to admit in this new world of no-service tipping. With inflation, we should probably buy that less expensive beer anyway.