Are mobile payment apps making us big tippers? Ask a barista!

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By Kimberly Leoffler

Smartphones get a bum rap in restaurants and coffee shops -- mostly because they're attached to loud talkers. But waitstaff might be a little more welcoming of mobile devices which include apps that that encourage bigger tips.

Mobile payment apps like Square and LevelUp allow customers to tip their servers directly from their smartphone. Starbucks recently updated its own app, which now offers a tipping option, too. Customers can choose from a selection of tipping amounts, or press “no tip” if they don’t want to leave one -- either way, they must choose before they pay. 

Being forced to press a button or slide a bar to pick a percentage (or not) may be causing people to leave a tip when they normally wouldn’t. Lori Waddell, a barista at Inman Park Coffee in Atlanta, says mobile tipping can make customers feel obligated into gratuity. “They kind of feel like the should,” she told TODAY.

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And for some in the food service industry, mobile payments are making a big difference in their take-home pay. According to Waddell's manager, Jamie Saye, there's been a 12 percent increase in tips since the coffee shop started accepting LevelUp payments. 

“The tipping has become less of a math problem for customers to figure out,” he told TODAY. “Customers are more likely to tip us slightly more because all of the calculations are figured out instantly.”

Electronic tipping also makes it easy for customers who don’t normally carry cash to show their appreciation to their baristas. But that doesn’t mean cash tips are gone for good. Saye still keeps a tip jar right next to the coffee shop's LevelUp payment station for people who prefer to use "real" money to show their appreciation. “You just get an upgrade with the new system for convenience, ” he said.

Customers will normally choose a tipping amount towards the middle of the percentages suggested by a mobile payment app -- though it can become a way to flash virtual cash, by paying more than the typical 20 percent. “You could potentially be kind of fly -- you know, showing off to the people behind you in line,” he said. 

But what is the appropriate amount to tip?

Mark Egerman, the creator of the Cover, a mobile payment app for New York City restaurants, says mobile payment is increasing tipping standards. 

“The New York City-wide tipping averages tend to fall between 18 and 20 percent of the check,” he told TODAY. “And for us having the average tip be over 22 percent means that there is a noticeable difference.”

But etiquette expert Barbara Hickey thinks tipping 15 percent is appropriate. “If you really like your servers and you've enjoyed that evening, 20 percent,” she added. 

She also believes the servers shouldn't expect tips. “They should just work very hard and make this a pleasant experience for the customers. And if they do I think they'll be rewarded. If they don't they won't be,” she explained.

But for baristas like Waddell, those tips mean everything. “You live off your tips,” she said. And mobile tipping has made a difference. “Its like night and day in the way people tip.”