As an American consumer, I could not help notice that with the ubiquitous use of credit cards and digital ordering for home food delivery, that “overpaying” for service is becoming less transparent. By “service”, I am referring to the custom of gratuities, or “tipping,” for restaurant wait employees or delivery persons. While the practice of “tipping” varies by culture, in the U.S. it is not legally required and the amount of the “tip” is at the discretion of the customer. In the U.S., it is also customary to calculate tips prior to any state and local tax levied on the bill, as the added tax to the restaurant bill is not a component of the service provided by the employee. For example, an average tip for a food server is 15 percent of the bill; above-average service would be 20 percent.

Recently, when paying the bill using my debit card at a restaurant, the electronic payment system (EPS) device “asked me” whether I wanted to include a gratuity. Curiously, I observed that the suggested tip amounts for 15 percent, 20 percent, etc., included both the charge for my food and the state sales tax – in this case 6 percent of the food and beverage charge. There was no notification provided on the EPS device that its gratuity calculator also included the state sales tax. When this lack of customer transparency regarding how the “non-customary” tip is calculated by the EPS device was brought to the attention of a restaurant employee, the waiter looked genuinely bewildered – not knowing how to respond to my query.

Another example of failure to transparently inform the consumer of the financial transaction involves the convenience offered by the digital ordering of “take-out” food. Recently, I was doing a favor for friends by watching their ill son while they had a pressing family matter to attend. Graciously, this friend digitally ordered (via her cell phone) pizzas to be delivered for her son and I; she also digitally paid for the pizzas using her credit card and included a gratuity (prompted by the EPS) for the delivery person. When the delivery person arrived at the door with the pizzas, I was asked by him to sign the purchase receipt for the pizza delivery. On the receipt, I noticed the charge for the pizzas and a “blank” area for a gratuity. I placed an appropriate gratuity on the receipt, totaled the bill, and scribbled a signature at the bottom of the receipt.

Later, I learned from my friend that a gratuity had been included in her credit card charge. I, in turn, notified my friend that this gratuity amount did not appear on the receipt. I doubt that the delivery person had any idea that a gratuity had been previously charged against the customer’s credit card – although the double tip was surely appreciated by him! Again, this is another example of EPS software programming not providing a complete, transparent representation of the customer’s transaction.

Yet, these two instances concerning food service “over tipping” begs a more basic question about EPS technology: What other examples of a disconnect between the EPS process and the actual consumer bill (including the gratuity) are still not widely known by most restaurant patrons? While there are mandatory legal requirements that regulate electronic payment transactions, the issues discussed here fall into the realm of ethical and transparent business practices. These ethical business practices involve important business and consumer customs or consumer information that not only have to be assiduously designed into the software programming by the EPS manufacturers, but also to be reviewed and approved by the retail restaurant industry, which is responsible for operating ethically as it pertains to pricing transparency practices with their customers. Ultimately, however, it is the responsibility of the individual restaurant owner to ensure that their customers clearly understand “what” they are paying for when it comes to food and service, especially if they are seeking repeat patronage from customers who value ethical business behavior.