Customers Question Ethics of Self-Checkout Tipping

The Covid-19 pandemic ushered in a new era of zero-contact transactions, with self-checkout terminals becoming ubiquitous in American grocery stores, big box retailers, sports stadiums, and many other businesses. While these stations can be convenient for customers and cost-effective for companies, there’s one feature that some people are not too happy about: prompts to leave a tip. “They’re cutting labor costs by doing self-checkout. So what’s the point of asking for a tip? And where is it going?” said Ishita Jamar, a senior at American University in Washington, D.C.

According to tipping researchers and labor advocates, the gratuity prompts offered by self-checkout kiosks could be an example of “tip creep.” This occurs when employers choose not to raise wages and instead rely on consumers to pass extra cash to employees. Companies dispute this claim and say that tipping is an optional indication of a job well done, although some experts don’t think that’s entirely the case. When it comes to self-checkout terminals, businesses “are taking advantage of an opportunity,” said William Michael Lynn, a professor at Cornell University’s Nolan School of Hotel Administration specializing in consumer behavior and tip culture. “Who wouldn’t want to get extra money at very little cost if you could?”

Consumers seem to be especially opposed to tipping prompts at airports, where restaurants and retailers kick up prices on most items by at least a few dollars. This was the case for public relations worker Garrett Bemiller, who was caught off guard by a self-checkout message at Newark Airport that encouraged him to leave a tip for a $6 bottle of water. “Just the prompt in general is a bit of emotional blackmail,” said Bemiller, who opted not to leave any gratuity. That wasn’t the case for Corey Gary, a cybersecurity specialist who tipped 20 percent on a purchase at San Diego’s Petco Park where he grabbed a beer from a fridge and completed the transaction on his own. While Gary claimed that he was “confused, because it wasn’t entirely clear who I was tipping,” a spokesperson for Petco Park said that all tips go to employees. 


  1. What is “tip creep,” and how does it relate to self-checkout stations that have become common at businesses around the country?
  2. Do you agree with the claim that tipping prompts at self-checkout kiosks could be considered “emotional blackmail?” Why or why not?

Source: Rachel Wolfe, “Tipping at Self-Checkout Has Customers Crying ‘Emotional Blackmail,’” The Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2023. Photo by Kreg Steppe.