Consumers are tired: Research shows that they are tired of paying more as a result of inflated menu prices, and they’re tired of paying unexpected fees—whether through delivery app service charges or unexpected surcharges tagged onto a bill at a restaurant. New data from Pew Research Center shows that the public’s “fee fatigue” may extend to gratuity as well.
According to the Pew Research data released in November that surveyed 12,000 U.S. adults, seven out of 10 Americans agree that tipping is now expected in more places than ever before, including at coffee shops, limited-service restaurants, and other services. More foodservice companies than ever before are adding suggested tipping options to the checkout line, like Starbucks, which rolled out a universal tipping and employee recognition platform across its store portfolio at the end of 2022.
But just because it has become more common, doesn’t mean it’s easy for consumers to know exactly how to navigate the changing landscape of expected gratuity. Pew Research Center data shows that two-thirds of consumers are not confident in knowing exactly how or when to tip for different types of services. Customers are also split on how pressured they feel to leave a tip: Around one-fifth of Americans surveyed say they still feel tipping is a choice, whereas 29% of those surveyed feel obligated to leave a tip. The majority, however, say that it is situation-dependent.
The pressure might be mounting even more when expediency or quality of service depends on whether you choose to leave a tip. DoorDash recently ignited debate by testing out a warning screen for customers that choose to place an order for food delivery without adding a tip.
Even if Americans are largely split on how exactly to approach tipping and whether they feel obligated to leave a tip, the majority appear to be feeling frustrated with a growing sense of pressure from foodservice and retail companies. According to the data, more Americans oppose rather than support suggested tip amounts.
One thing they agree on is surprise fees: the vast majority of Americans surveyed (72%) said that they oppose automatic service charges, where unlike a suggested tipping screen, you don’t get a choice in paying for the unexpected extra charges. This summer, a Los Angeles-based Reddit community went viral for creating a spreadsheet of local restaurants that charge unexpected fees, often with taglines like healthcare surcharges, wellness charges, or inflation fees. As of November, there were more than 280 Los Angeles County restaurants added to the consistently updated list.
“I'm sick of going to restaurants where there is a service charge that isn't a gratuity and just goes to the owners,” the original poster said. “It's misleading when your bill ends up 3% to 18% more from this bulls**t charge that should be baked into the prices or go to the servers.”
Another commenter pointed out that they worked at a restaurant that charged a 5% fee on every check for increased cost of wages and benefits, but revealed that while they worked there, no employee ever had health insurance.
While it’s unsurprising that the top retail/foodservice category where customers were most likely to tip is a sit-down restaurant, where 81% of customers said they always leave a tip (as opposed to 12% of customers who always leave a tip at a coffee shop), there were a surprising number of respondents who tip less than the standard 20%. According to Pew Research data, 57% of respondents would tip 15% or less for an average meal at a sit-down restaurant, while only one-quarter of respondents say that they regularly tip 20% or more at full-service restaurants.
The majority of the nearly 12,000 Americans surveyed agree that gratuity is about added value based on quality of service and is not an assumed surcharge every time they dine out or get a haircut or go on a morning Starbucks run. Whether this is an extension of fee fatigue or simply people chafing against a changing gratuity culture, foodservice operators could very well be affected by an increasingly frustrated consumer public.