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Some restaurants have raised suggested tip options to start at 18% or higher. This is more than many were used to tipping before the pandemic, as 15% used to be the minimum standard.SOL STOCK LTD/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Picture a scenario in which you drop into a convenience store to pick up some chips or a drink, and before you can tap your credit card to pay, there’s a question: “Would you like to tip $1, $2 or $5?”

Chances are that you’ve been caught off guard by an unexpected tip prompt in the past couple of years. They used to be limited to debit machines at venues such as restaurants and hair salons, where consumers have always tipped. But now they pop up anywhere: fast-food joints, liquor stores, auto-services stores and even some grocery shops.

Meanwhile, some restaurants have raised suggested tip options to start at 18 per cent or higher. This is more than many were used to tipping before the COVID-19 pandemic, as 15 per cent used to be the minimum standard. Square, a payment services company, said the average tip on its platform went from 16 per cent before the pandemic to 17 per cent in the summer of 2020 and 2021. In January, the average tip rose even higher to 20 per cent.

Academics who study tipping and its place in Canadian society say tip prompts are becoming increasingly common and can make consumers feel uncomfortable. Customers are unsure if they should be tipping more, or if they should have always been tipping for certain services but haven’t until prompted.

Daniel Bender, a University of Toronto professor specializing in food studies and labour history, said tip prompts at the counter are essentially replacing a tip jar, since fewer people use cash these days. He said consumers should therefore treat those prompts as they would a tip jar, and only pay extra if they really want to.

Opinion: Too many tip prompts? Blame business owners and unfair wages

The same advice holds true for rising tip options at some full-serve restaurants. Ian Tostenson, president and chief executive officer of the BC Restaurant and Foodservices Association, said consumers should stick to what they’re comfortable with, even if they’re given higher prompts than they expect.

“We kind of have to draw our lines and push back a little bit,” said Mr. Tostenson, who advocates for people to tip less or not at all if they received bad service – adding that they should give constructive feedback to the restaurant so it can improve.

“Don’t worry about what the machine says, go about your normal tipping process. … If you tip, tip well, but don’t tip because you’re being guilted into it or because a machine prompted you 25 per cent.”

Mike von Massow, a professor at the University of Guelph who has studied our relationship with food and tipping, said the reason consumers feel so uncomfortable is because we’re moving from opting in to a tip (throwing change in a jar in the corner), to opting out and explicitly denying a request for a tip.

“Getting asked for tips at all these other places also makes me uncomfortable because I’m never sure what I’m supposed to be doing,” Dr. von Massow said.

Experts such as Prof. Bender say the discomfort and pressure people are feeling to tip higher is another reason why Canadian culture should join non-tipping models such as those in Britain and Australia.

“I don’t know about you, but I don’t like being in the position of rewarding someone for giving good service,” he said. “How many of us really want to be supervisors in our daily life? That’s what tipping culture demands of us.”

Some restaurants are abandoning tipping in favour of paying their staff higher wages

Mr. Tostenson disagreed, arguing tipping is an entrenched part of North American culture and that diners want to feel some sense of control.

He added that tipped workers can make between $30 and $50 an hour, a wage that is difficult for restaurants to match in a non-tipping environment. He says this is especially important because restaurants are struggling more than ever, and taking away tips essentially lowers the incentive to work in them.

“In North America, we have a tipping culture, and when we’ve tried to go to a non-tipping culture, it hasn’t worked,” Mr. Tostenson said, adding that some restaurants that tried to change the model in Vancouver nearly went out of business before switching back.

He said customers should instead try to feel empowered by tipping and exercise their right to choose.

“We as the consumer should be in control, and we should tip based on some sense of principle.”

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