As the holidays approach, Canadians say they’re being tipped over the edge

Business

Cathy Khalil recently tipped five bucks on an $18 box of doughnuts at one Ottawa store — and says she has no regrets.

“I think when people see [the options on the debit machine] they feel obligated, sometimes, to tip,” Khalil said. “[But] I’m not tipping for the sake of tipping. I’m tipping because I want to tip, and it’s coming from me.”

She may be in the minority: As the holidays approach and Canadians shell out money for gifts, food and other festive purchases, some experts say people are recoiling from all those tip requests that come with an increasingly wide variety of debit or credit card purchases.

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“It’s starting to feel more like an obligation, something that you just have to do,” said Cynthia Borja, a psychologist with the Decision Lab, a Montreal-based company that researches people’s behaviour.

“People are starting to feel that it’s no longer that act of giving thanks to that individual that’s serving them.”

Tip fatigue

Borja says Canadians are feeling what’s come to be known as tipping fatigue. According to Decision Lab’s own research, roughly three in five Canadians they surveyed felt pressure to tip more than they’d like to, while more than 80 per cent said tipping culture needs an overhaul.

Those findings echo polling done by the Angus Reid Institute earlier this year, which found roughly two in five Canadians feel the pressure to tip is pushing them over their spending threshold.

As a result, they’re not going out as much as they once were, Angus Reid found.

“Consumers are not only feeling fatigue,” said Bruce McAdams, a professor at the University of Guelph who researches the restaurant industry. “They are also questioning what tipping is. Is it about what it used to be about originally? And no, it isn’t.”

The average gratuity jumped from 16 to 20 per cent between Jan. 1, 2019, and Jan. 1, 2023, according to technology and payment services company Square, which says it counts hundreds of thousands of Canadian businesses as clients.

We expect to tip for food delivery, at restaurants and hair salons. This expectation that we now pay extra in a wider range of situations is a sign of “tip creep,” McAdams said.

“It’s also your dry cleaner, your oil lube person,” he said. “I was at a gift shop the other day and they asked for a tip when I was just paying for some candles.”

According to polling from the Angus Reid Institute, roughly two in five Canadians feel the extra cost of tipping is making them less likely to go out. That sentiment is most common among Canadians under the age of 55. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

‘Creates inequity’

Researchers have also noted that tipping is where one’s biases emerge, with people forking over different amounts based on a server’s age, race, gender or looks.

“It’s been shown to be discriminatory. It creates inequity,” said McAdams. “It can create divisions in restaurants between front-of-house and back-of-house.”

Those divisions, in fact, manifested themselves in Ottawa this year when baristas at the Toronto-owned Bridgehead coffeehouse chain rebelled against a policy change that would have included managers in the tip pool. (That policy, introduced just after Ontario hiked the minimum wage, was later reversed.)

Another finding from Decision Lab’s research was that nearly three in four people they spoke with said that when they were confronted with tipping requests, they took it as a sign the establishment was underpaying their staff.

Many people also told Decision Lab that they would prefer Canada had a no-tipping culture, as exists in other countries like Japan.

Angus Reid polling also found a shift in attitudes after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, with nearly 60 per cent of respondents wanting to go tip-free.

But that sort of systemic change could be hard to bring about: While CBC Ottawa spoke to many people who were against tipping, they didn’t want to admit that on camera — largely because they didn’t want to sound cheap or be judged by friends and colleagues.

“If we start with, maybe, going a little bit back to that [idea that tipping is] actually a process of thanking [a worker], that might be a good first step,” said Borja.

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