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Tipping Well Because of Good Service? Study Shows There’s More to it Than That

By Keith Morelli

Dipayan Biswas

Dipyan Biswas

TAMPA (Nov. 30, 2016) -- Tipping in restaurants always has been a cause for discussion. How much should you tip? Fifteen, 20 percent or higher? What if the service was bad? Should tipping depend on the quality of food, or the fast and friendly service?

According to a recently published article co-authored by a University of South Florida professor, the little billfold that contains your tab at the end of your meal may have more to do with how much you plunk down in a gratuity than you ever realized.

"Hey Big Spender: A Golden (color) Atmospheric Effect on Tipping Behavior?" is the title of the article outlining the extensive research conducted by Na Young Lee and Stephanie M. Noble, both researchers at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville; and Dipayan Biswas, a marketing professor in the Muma College of Business.

"This is a perfect example," said Muma College of Business Dean Moez Limayem, "of how business research can be applied seamlessly to the real world and yield positive results for the business, its workers and the grateful customers whose notion of offering up bigger tips is reinforced by a simple change in color scheme."

"It is a great illustration," he said, "of the strategic emphasis we place on our impactful and relevant business research"

The article, published on Nov. 15 in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, suggests color may have a greater influence on tipping than service. And the outcome could be sizeable, as Americans plunk down an estimated $40 billion a year in tips.

"A series of five experiments within the study shows that the color gold (as opposed to other colors) in a service atmosphere positively influences consumer tipping," the study concluded. Key among the findings is the color of the billfold that is delivered to diners at the end of the meal.

A field experiment demonstrated that restaurant patrons handed a gold-colored billfold, rather than a traditional black one, tended to leave larger tips, more than 2 percent more than those who got the bill in a black billfold.

"We conducted a two-week field experiment at an independently owned restaurant during lunch hours," the study said. "During these two weeks, a total of 252 customers had lunch at the restaurant, and these customers' payment amounts were recorded.

"During the first week of the field experiment, only gold bill folders were presented to 119 customers. In the second week, only black bill folders were presented to 116 customers. This method ensured that the day of the week was not an influencing factor.

"We collected data from the merchant copy of each customer's receipt, including the price of the meal, tip amount in dollars, payment method and server name."

The results of the study consistently show that the gold bill folds influenced tipping behavior positively.

And that's not all. Other segments of the experiment showed that a splash of gold to the tablecloth and other eatery surroundings leaves the subconscious impression that the restaurant may be more status oriented than it is and that in turn makes patrons feel more status conscious which translates into bigger tips.

Tipping is widely accepted as a voluntary payment that demonstrates consumers' appreciation for servers, but, surprisingly, research has revealed that tip amounts don't have much do with the server's efforts or the restaurant's food. For example, multiple studies dating back to 1986 have shown the tip amount may be more related to weather conditions or even specific characteristics of the servers themselves.

So, if tipping vacillates with the wind, there may be other, unknown factors, such as colors, that can sway bigger tips for servers as well.

Marketers have used colors to convey messages for some time. Color is a big part of corporate images, attracting consumers and shaping consumer perceptions. Recently, businesses have seized on the research and more and more are using color to influence consumer behavior.

"Across industries, a wide range of color options are available for mobile phones, laptops, and even home appliances," the study said. "In accordance with these industry trends, academic researchers have recognized the role of color and have provided empirical support for its importance in marketing, including the impact of color on branding, purchase intention, choice likelihood and shopping behavior."

Still, there are a lot of unknowns about colors and their impact on consumers, the study said, but the color gold has its own aura.

"The color gold is often associated with status concepts," the study said. "Gold trophies, gold medals; gold is one of the most widely used color hues to convey the meaning of wealth and status in marketing practices; gold labels in loyalty programs, symbolize high status and exclusive benefits for loyal customers.

"The findings of this research," the study said, "have implications for strategic use of color in service-scape design and atmospherics in general."