Customers Furious as Self-Checkout Machines Ask for Tip

By: James | Last updated: Jun 20, 2024

Tipping at the checkout is nothing new for American shoppers. If you see a touch-screen device at checkout, you can pretty much bet money on being asked if you’d like to leave a tip.

But customers are now being prompted to tip, even if they have had zero interaction with an employee.

Self-Checkouts and Tipping Prompts

It appears that shoppers aren’t free from tipping pressures, even if they’ve done all the work themselves. Tipping screens are becoming a common part of using self-checkout machines.

A black kiosk with a touch screen and a card payment machine next to the screen. On the screen is the image of a bottle of Coca-Cola with the message “Order here” above it. The message “Order Here” is also written in white on the kiosk stand below the screen.

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An article from the Wall Street Journal noted that customers who ring themselves up, bag their own goods and pay without ever interacting with a human staff member are encountering on-screen prompts to tip.


These Prompts Are Everywhere

Self-checkout machines are everywhere. Whether you’re at a grocery store, coffee shop, airport, movie theater, or stadium, you’ll probably see an unstaffed self-service machine you can use to complete your purchase and pay for your goods.

A person in a black jacket using a touchscreen point-of-sale system at a cafe counter.

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Per the Wall Street Journal article, many consumers are being inundated with prompts to leave a 20% tip when using these machines. These prompts leave people feeling emotionally blackmailed.

Tipping Defeats the Purpose of Self-Checkout

To many, the idea of leaving a tip at a self-checkout machine is completely contrary to the reasons for having these machines in the first place. These automated checkouts serve to replace service staff.

A green line graph on a computer screen, with the line spiking up and down with peaks and troughs as it moves horizontally across the screen.

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By having them, businesses cut labor costs. The question then becomes, what is the point of asking for a tip and, more importantly, where is this tip going?

People Feel Pressured to Tip

Tipping screens at checkouts leave people feeling pressured to tip when they normally wouldn’t have, even if an employee has done little to nothing to assist a customer.

A person pulls a small stack of U.S. banknotes out of a black leather wallet.

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According to a survey by PlayUSA, 51% of people had given a tip when an iPad asked them to, and 54% feel pressured to tip when the employee turns the iPad away.

Digital Payment Is Driving More Tipping

There has been a proliferation of tipping screens recently and a fast acceleration of prompts for people to leave a tip.

At a payment counter, one person holds their phone up displaying a QR code. Another person holds their phone above this, scanning the code on their device.

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The adoption of digital payment systems across virtually every sector has made it extremely easy for businesses to include a tip request screen as a standard part of a transaction process. 45% of respondents to the PlayUSA survey said they feel they’ve been tipping more over the last few years due to more businesses asking for a tip during checkout.


The Pandemic May Have Shifted Tipping Behaviors

Tipping screens pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic, but experts believe tipping behaviors during the pandemic may have contributed to this widespread growth of tipping screens.

Two yellow post-it notes on the glass door of a local business. Written on black ink on the top not is “Sorry We Are Closed”, with a note below it reading “COVID-19”.

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During the pandemic, consumers tipped generously to show their support for businesses and employees impacted and to express sympathy for those who worked in environments that increased their chances of contracting the virus.


It Makes Sense for Businesses

Tipping screens and prompting customers to tip when using self-checkouts present an opportunity that businesses obviously wish to exploit. Why would businesses not wish to exploit a potential avenue to get extra money for practically no cost?

A pair of hands holds a fan of $100 bills.

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For their part, business owners claim that automated tipping cues benefit employees. They say that using them significantly increases gratuities and boosts staff pay.


Customers Are Happy to Tip the Right Workers

Tipping a person for goods and services rendered is a direct expression of appreciation for the work they have done. This is probably why in the PlayUSA survey, 83% of respondents always tip at a sit-down restaurant.

A cheerful male waiter wearing an apron is presenting a tray of burgers and fries to a group of happy customers seated at a wooden table in a cozy restaurant with a bar in the background

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People want tips to go straight to workers, something that is required by law in the state of California. The law prohibits employers from sharing in or keeping any amount of a gratuity left for a given employee or employees.


Consumers Are Concerned About Transparency

If you put some money in a tip jar or tell someone to keep the change, you can directly see the person you are tipping get the money you’re giving. But when you tip through a screen, it’s far less transparent as to where that money goes.

A person in a red and blue plaid shirt holds open an empty black leather wallet.

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Press a button on a screen, and you have no assurance the employee who served you is getting that tip. Follow a prompt on a self-checkout, and you may not even see an employee near you to hypothetically get this tip. Many consumers likely wouldn’t be happy giving a tip that could theoretically be kept by the business and not passed on to staff.


Automated Tipping Seems to Be Proliferating

Tipping is becoming more common among other employee-free shopping experiences, including apps. In some cases, a gratuity is included in such transactions.

A person in a white shirt holds a white smartphone out in front of them in their left hand, while the use their right index finger to tap the screen.

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An investigation into the travel app Hopper revealed that it automatically adds a tip at checkout. Customers have to opt-out if they do not wish to pay this gratuity for what is an automated transaction with no contact with an employee to receive the tip.


Ultimately, It’s the Customer’s Choice

When you’re the one bagging up your own groceries or rendering your own service through an app, being met with a prompt to leave a tip is understandably frustrating. What exactly are you tipping for? Who are you paying? Ultimately, you’re well within your rights to not leave a tip — even if you feel pressured to do so by an employee hovering in the self-checkout area.

A pair of hands organizes coins into thacks. There are two stacks of equal size, one smaller stack, as a stack of pennies in the person’s hand about to be set down.

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Where consumers need to pay attention is if any online or self-directed commerce processes include a tip as standard. Here, it’s important to know you need to opt out, especially if you’re uncomfortable with not knowing exactly who your tip is going to.