Service charges, politeness tax and unwelcome sausages

Imagine you’re in Asda and you’ve got your little basket with a mega pack of toilet roll, a Twix and a puzzle magazine in it. You pop your goods on the conveyor belt and as the cashier beeps each thing through as you wait patiently at the end with your carrier bag made of ether, you hear a fourth beep. You look down at the things being slid towards you and notice the cashier has scanned a packet of sausages.

“I didn’t put sausages on the conveyor belt”, you say. “Yeah,” they reply, “they’re discretionary sausages. You have to ask me if you want them to be removed from your receipt – and, as I’ve already printed it, I’ll have to shout for my supervisor to come over. They have to enter a special code to remove them. If you decide to keep them, the cost of the sausages will be divided up evenly among all us checkout people as a kind of tip. So, are you sure you want me to ask someone to remove the sausages from your bill?’ You look at your receipt and where you expected to pay £10, you’re now having to pay £11 – £1 for a pack of sausages you don’t want. Unwelcome sausages.

Now imagine you’re in any of the big chain restaurants in 2023. You order your food and drink, it arrives and you smash it into your face with glee. Then you ask for the bill. Said bill arrives and you notice it’s a little more expensive than you expected. On closer inspection, you realise they’ve added a metaphorical packet of sausages – in this case a service charge, albeit discretionary. Ten per cent.

Now I’m aware this challenges your moral code and I’m sure most of us slip the pizza delivery person a couple of quid when they hand you the boxed Shangri-La that is the Pepperoni Passion with extra peppers but that’s because we think it’s nice to be nice – it’s fair to tip someone who probably relies a lot on those tips to make a decent wage and what is an extra couple of quid to the bill? However, I’m sure we’d all feel different if said delivery person demanded a tip and then went as far as to tell you how much they wanted?

Fifty five pound tip please

The discretionary service charge in restaurants is on the rise I’m afraid. I first saw it last year in a branch of Byron Burger. I was confused by it – it’s not a British thing; I’ve only lived in Britain forty or so years, so maybe it is a British thing? Baffled, I just paid the bill including the service charge, then searched my soul to try and understand how I actually felt about it.

Whether I’m right or wrong, cynical or jaded by a world being gripped by money grabbing corporations, I’ve come to the conclusion that the discretionary service charge in this case, is actually a ‘politeness tax’. Let’s say they leave tipping up to the customer (as they used to – the card machine would say ‘press 1 to tip or press 2 to continue’). One in two of us might add a tip. Not that we’re even sure the tips go to the service staff and not straight into the bank account of the chief executive of course.

The discretionary 10% service charge is now added to your bill in order to ensure you feel too awkward to ask for it to be removed. To prey on the politeness of us British ‘don’t look now’ types. We’re all too ‘not now Gerald’ and ‘don’t make a scene’ to ask for the server to go remove the charge. Well, I’m not.

I was in the Botanist a few weeks ago and had a wonderful meal, the service was spot on too. However, when I saw the service charge on the bill, I politely asked the server to remove it. Not because I didn’t want to tip but because whoever manages the Botanist’s policies has realised they can make more money out of people who haven’t got that much to start with by adding a charge they know people are too polite to ask for the removal of. Not me though, I was all like ‘could you please remove the charge’. Turns out the server had to go and speak to a supervisor to get this removed (increasing her disgruntlement further, not only just hating me for judging her service as untippable – which wasn’t what was happening). When she came back, she slammed the receipt on the table, sans service charge but with extra ruining of the experience.

Now, I can’t be the only one who would rather be asked if I want to tip, which is only polite, rather than be forced to? They’re literally adding sausages to the bill that I didn’t want and it’s somehow my fault that they have to log in with a special code and then wander all the way back over to the sausage fridge so they don’t go off. Slamming a receipt on the table, to me, is their way of making sure I just pay it next time and don’t make a fuss.

To me, a service charge isn’t an appropriate method of getting tips out of people in British culture. We’ve adopted many American customs over the years but forcing sausages on people shouldn’t be one of them. It’s actually stopping people tipping if anything and stopping people going into restaurants where they force extra charges on you that you’re kinda convinced the charges don’t go to the service staff. So, next time you’re in a restaurant, check the menu to see if they add a discretionary service charge. If they do – well, you’ll just have to decide if the sausages were worth it.

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