The pandemic really did change how we tip

The company provided me with data going back months before the pandemic, on how often restaurant customers were giving tips, and how big those tips were. The numbers show that the Great Pandemic Tipping Boom was real, if perhaps a bit less great than I’d expected. In the innocent times before March 2020, the average tip when cards were swiped at sit-down restaurants never strayed outside a very narrow range of 19.9 to 20.1 percent—corresponding to the tipping norm that, coincidentally or not, is also incredibly easy to calculate. Then, on March 24, as stay-at-home orders began to pile up and Americans clapped and howled and clanged pots in appreciation of essential workers, the average tip did something weird: It started drifting upward. Within a few weeks, the average hit a peak of 21.0 percent. When the first pandemic wave receded, tips fell off a bit, to roughly 20.4 percent over the summer; they came up again, to 20.8 percent, during January’s massive spike in cases. Even now, as fully vaccinated Americans return to their normal lives, tips remain higher than where they were in 2019. In the past few months, the average appears to have settled at 20.6 or 20.7 percent, well above the pre-pandemic norm.

A focus on average tips may hide the full extent of the tipping boom. When shutdowns first went into effect, would-be diners turned to the only options available to them: takeout and delivery. Most people, before the pandemic, tipped 20 percent only for the traditional dine-in experience. They gave less—or nothing at all—when their entrées came plastic-bagged and not plated. Given that pattern, you would expect the huge rise in takeout meals to pull down the average tip. But that doesn’t appear to have happened. “The simple explanation is that there is a greater willingness among some people to tip now as opposed to before the pandemic,” says Michael Lynn, a marketing professor at Cornell University and an expert on tipping.