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Service Industry Experts Discuss When to Tip

By Sarana Schell, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Apr. 16, 2004 - Pop quiz: Do massage therapists expect tips? Your hair stylist? A barrista? A cashier for a to-go order? If so, how much? What if you order at a counter, but your food is delivered to your table?

Not sure?

You're not alone, said Mike Lynn, associate professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration.

The Internal Revenue Service expects $16 billion in tips to be reported by businesses in 2003, mainly restaurants, the gaming industry and cosmetology. That's up from about $8 billion in 1993.

As tip jars proliferate and the normal tip creeps up in size, so do questions about when and how to tip.

Lynn and Southcentral business owners and servers laid out a few general rules:

-- A tip is appropriate if someone serves you personally.

-- A big tip makes sense if a server does an exceptional job.

-- It's OK not to tip if tips aren't a large part of a person's salary.

-- Customers aren't expected to be mind readers or gratuity experts, so don't be afraid to ask if tipping is customary.

Lynn, a former server and bartender who has watched tipping for more than 20 years, commissioned a national survey on restaurant tipping, the widest known tipping situation.

"I was shocked," Lynn said of the results. One-third of the population did not know the going rate. "I thought everybody knows you tip 15 to 20 percent."

If a third of the country doesn't know what to do in the most familiar tipping zone, he said, it's no wonder people are uncertain in other situations.

"Don't feel too bad if you don't know it all," he advised. "Lots of people don't."

Massage therapist Gabriella Aldebot agreed, and said she tries not to let it trouble her if customers don't tip.

"I don't know if they know to tip or not," said Aldebot, who works at an Anchorage clinic during the week and the Alaska Club on Saturdays.

For the record, Aldebot and a clinic co-worker said they don't expect a tip for a medical massage, but that it is customary to tip in a spa environment such as the Alaska Club.

A standard tip for a $65-an-hour relaxation massage runs $10 to $20, Aldebot said. She added she prefers someone come for a massage and not tip than stay away because of the worry or expense of tipping.

The distinction Aldebot makes between medical and relaxation massages supports the theory that tipping is tied to whether a server or customer is in the more desirable position ... like you tip your manicurist, but not your dentist.

The psychologist's position is that people tip to buy social approval, Lynn said, of oneself as well as from others. That would explain a nagging feeling of doubt and guilt if customers fear they badly miscalculated a tip.

The economist's position, said Lynn, is that when customers best know whether a server is doing a good job, it makes more sense for an employer to pay a fairly low wage and let the customer make up the difference based on quality of service.

Sipping a cappuccino is the true test of whether its foam is light and airy and has a uniformly velvet texture. A manager can hardly test drinks before handing them over, though.

In that case, a tip is a customer's call, Anchorage barrista Grace Sponholz said.

"If your drink's bad, don't tip," Sponholz said. And don't feel pressured to tip repeatedly if you get a couple drinks a day, or a simple cup of coffee.

But if it is good, or if you order five drinks at espresso rush hour, tip away.

In a barrista's wages, said Sponholz, single mother of 3-year-old Olive, tips make all the difference: up to 50 percent of her earnings.

"That's the reason I took this job," Sponholz said. "With tips, I make OK money."

Some customers get creative in their tipping.

One woman buys $100 worth of coffee cards at a pop and throws a $20 bill in the tip jar, Sponholz said. She doesn't tip again until she's used all 10 cards, then repeats the procedure.

Katie Neill, owner of Intuitions Day Spa & Salon in Anchorage, said a 15 to 20 percent tip is standard in the beauty industry. But tips are only 10 percent of an esthetician's earnings, she said. Not all customers tip, and not all tip in cash.

Neill recalled admiring the perfume worn by a client who wasn't a regular tipper. One day the client appeared with an extravagantly wrapped bottle of the scent.

"I'll never forget that," Neill said. "I just thought that was wonderful."

When servers don't interact much with customers, customers don't need to tip much.

Picking up a growler jug of beer? No need to tip.

You ordered a meal at the counter of the Bear Tooth Theatre Pub, then had it delivered to your table by an anonymous food runner in the dark of the movie theater? Drop a buck or two in the tip jar by the register and you're covered, said Bear Tooth co-owner Rod Hancock.

Hancock and Cornell researcher Lynn have both noticed a proliferation of tip jars and more money going to tipping.

Hancock worked in Seattle Starbucks coffee shops a decade ago and said a lot more falls into tip jars these days.

"I get a dollar drink and I find I just throw in a dollar," Hancock said.

As some customers aim to be big tippers, winning big social approval, said Cornell researcher Lynn, that raises the stakes for people who just want to tip a normal amount.

Trying to meet tipping expectations at the restaurant, the coffee shop and the hair salon can add up.

"That's why I just shave my head," said Hancock.


-- Tip if someone serves you personally.

-- Tips go up according to circumstance, such as a delivery in bad weather, or if a customer sits for a long time at a table, preventing a server from seating another diner and getting a second tip.

-- A tip may be warranted in what's normally a no-tip situation if a job is extra tough and done well, such as a snowplower who has carefully cleared a long, steep, curvy driveway.

-- If you don't want a service, don't be afraid to say so: "Thanks, I'll get my own bag."

-- If you do use a service, tip.

-- It's OK not to tip if tips aren't a large part of a person's earnings; coming back is tip enough.

-- Traditionally, business owners aren't tipped, but it's OK to offer a tip if they wait on you personally; they can refuse. Small gifts are an alternative.

-- If you are unsure whether to tip, speak up; it's OK to ask what's customary.


Taxi drivers: 10 percent to 15 percent

Beauty professionals: 15 percent to 20 percent

Restaurant servers: 15 percent to 20 percent

Pizza deliverers: $2 a pie is generous

A concierge: $5 for special service

A room-service waiter: 15 percent

Housekeeping: $2 to $4 per night. Leave the tip on the pillow, in a labeled envelope or at the front desk.

You don't have to tip in a free shuttle, but tip the driver $1 per bag if he or she helps you with your luggage.

If you plan to enter unfamiliar tipping territory, check resources such as Fodor's guide "How to Tip." You may be surprised to learn U.S. scuba instructors are not usually tipped, but those in the Caribbean are.

For tipping insight online, try You can find more international tipping rates at

Sources: Cornell Hotel School researcher Mike Lynn, Anchorage business owners, Detroit Free Press

-----To see more of the Anchorage Daily News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to

(c) 2004, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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