Point-of-View: Under Pressure

I was reminded by a recent poll conducted by the Mass Brew Bros. that consumers continue to have mixed feelings about tipping retail workers who hand them a 4-pack of 16 oz. cans with a friendly smile. I mean, it’s rude not to tip if the POS (by that I mean Point-of-Sale) system suggests it before I add my signature to the payment screen, right?

Here’s the problem: retail positions are not typically gratuity-based. Meaning, while I am sure the hourly wage the average retail worker makes does not afford him/her a lavish lifestyle, my naive take on wages is that, at least in Massachusetts, the person is being properly compensated within the scope of the job description and the expected pay for like-positions in similar job markets. All of this is to say: retail workers are paid adequately by their employer, and I don’t need to tip them. Does that make me sound cheap? Let’s examine a bit further.

I won’t attempt to go into a verbatim rendition of the opening scene from Reservoir Dogs, when the doomed bank robbers dive into a lengthy Tarantino-branded diatribe against the injustice of society mandating that you, the consumer, tip one type of hard-working employee while totally neglecting the other. Suffice to say, Mr. Pink might be onto something. 

However it has been mandated, some employees are relegated to make minimum or sub-minimum wage with the idea that the gracious customer will bolster those wages with a few extra dollars for service that goes above-and-beyond. It’s a model of compensation that we’ve grown accustomed to in the U.S. for decades. 

Within the scope of craft beer, the issue has come into the forefront for many folks following a situation last year involving famed Boston-based brewery Trillium Brewing Company, which cast some light onto wages and tips in the craft beer industry. The takeaway for many from that particular scenario, which Trillium has since recovered from, was this: pay your employees a fair wage, and don’t rely on the generosity of customers to bolster their take-home pay. 

Assumed generosity is not a reliable payment model, and until the wage structure of retail employees is remodeled accordingly, the POS systems that ask for a tip can be disconcerting to consumers. ‘Should I tip?’ ‘Am I cheap if I don’t tip?’ ‘Does this person make enough money?’ ‘Does grabbing a few cases of beer qualify as exemplary service?’ 

In the end, it relies entirely on a roll of the dice as far as the employer is concerned. It adds incremental revenue every single time a person adds 10-20% tip atop a purchase, and they risk little by asking it except for some feelings of uncertainty around conscientious consumers. 

Many of us want to ‘do the right thing,’ and that means we’ll add a buck or two when we cash out, because we can afford it, and we don’t want to be perceived as stingy. But do we even know the tips go to those specific employees? Do we feel the tip is warranted, meaning that the employee demonstrated an above average level of service (the basis for the tip model far and wide)? I’ve been served beer by plenty of gruff twenty-something’s that cared not a lick for my adoration of the beer they were casually pushing across the counter to me. Why does that person, or rather the entity it serves, get a few extra dollars for an interaction that lasts, in some cases, less than two minutes?

Uncertainty abounds, as evidenced by the survey I referenced earlier. One easy compromise could be lowering the suggested tip amounts to 3-5% vs. the service industry standards of 10-20%. That would probably lead to an uptick in overall people tipping (just a guess), but it doesn’t deal with the greater issue behind the curtains: am I tipping because this person doesn’t make enough money, or because I’m just trying to be a nice guy?