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Gratuity Examples on Receipts Net Bigger Tips

• February 24, 2011 • 5:39 PM

Dining customers tended to leave bigger tips when their bills spell out what 15 or 20 percent of their total amounts to.

Restaurants are providing their customers with more and more information, much of which — such as calorie count, or fat and sodium content — comes in the form of numbers.

But when they’re presented with the check, mathematically challenged diners are on their own, staring at a blank tip box and wondering how much they should leave. Fifteen percent? Twenty? And how much is 18 percent of $36.47, anyway?

Newly published research suggests ending this confusion can pay dividends for the wait staff. A Utah State University research team led by John Seiter finds the simple act of calculating sample tip amounts results in significantly higher gratuities.

Writing in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Seiter and his colleagues describe an experiment conducted by two female students. Both worked part time as waitresses in a “casual dining establishment in the mid-price range” located in northern Utah.

The students served 113 parties (a total of 258 customers). Approximately half were chosen at random to receive special checks, in which figures representing both 15 and 20 percent of the bill were printed near the bottom. Next to the numbers were the words “Gratuity Example.”

When they added up their receipts, the waitresses found they received “a little over a 2 percent increase in tips” from the customers presented with the calculated gratuity amounts.

While not huge, this difference “is clearly nontrivial,” the researchers write. “An additional few hundred hours per shift over a 40-hour work week could translate into hundreds of dollars per year for each food server, and millions of dollars annually if you consider the nearly 1.4 million food servers in the U.S. collectively.”

Seiter and his colleagues argue providing such calculations would likely be more effective than adding blanket statements to checks, such as “quality service is customarily recognized with a gratuity of 20 percent.”  They believe such pronouncements lead some customers “to begin thinking more carefully and critically” about the service they received, presumably reducing the tip with each glitch or perceived slight that comes to mind.

“In contrast,” they write, “because the calculation-assistance format implies norms for tipping behavior but does not provide evaluative standards, it may not prompt the same level of critical thought.”

Indeed, many customers may be grateful for the information, since it gives them one less thing they have to think about. Perhaps some even round up from the baseline that has been helpfully provided.

“The implications are clear: Restaurant owners are who interested in helping their servers earn higher tips should consider the use of gratuity guidelines,” Seiter and his colleagues conclude. As tips go, that’s an unusually good one.

 

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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