How Starbucks’ new mobile payments feature gets around the guilt-tipping problem

Who knows, you might even tip more when you’re relaxing in an easy chair.
Who knows, you might even tip more when you’re relaxing in an easy chair.
Image: Reuters/Andrew Winning
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Remarkably, though paying with your mobile phone has been possible for years at Starbucks, tipping with it hasn’t. The coffee giant is finally rectifying that, with an update to its mobile payment service that includes the ability to add a tip; it will roll out on iPhones in the US next week.

The change, says Linda Mills, a company spokeswoman, will apply to Starbucks’ own mobile app, which lets customers pay using the balance on a Starbucks loyalty card, but not to the wallet app from online-payments firm Square, which handles credit and debit-card payments for various retailers, Starbucks among them.

In some ways, the tipping feature will work like it does on other payment services, like Square: Users will be prompted to tip either nothing, $0.50, $1, or $2, at the push of a button. But Starbucks is also doing things a bit differently. Rather than prompting for a tip when you pay, it will instead nudge you with a mobile notification after the fact. “Once you leave, you’ll receive a push notification—or not, if you’ve already disabled that feature,” company spokeswoman Linda Mills told Quartz. There’ll be a two-hour window for adding a tip to the transaction. (Square Wallet already offers a similar window at other retailers.)

Starbucks tipping

This dodges some of the manipulative subtleties inherent in many other services—namely, it doesn’t guilt customers into tipping in front of a server or cashier. That could make tipping more merit-based. It also helps speed things up; customers won’t linger at the counter while contemplating whether to tip or not to tip.

If there’s any worry, it’s that this could lead to a drop-off in tipping. Customers will be able to put off forking over an extra dollar or two until the two-hour window is up, and it’s no longer an option.

Unlike many restaurants, however Starbucks pays its employees more than the minimum wage, which means they aren’t as dependent on tips. That gives Starbucks the leeway to experiment. “This is new for us. It will be interesting to see how customers respond,” Mills said. And Starbucks will, at the very least, have a hefty sample size to cull from. More than 10 million people use its mobile app, which accounts for over 11% of its weekly transactions.