The advent of self-checkout machines, designed to replace human cashiers, has taken an unexpected turn as customers find themselves prompted for tips at the end of transactions; this peculiar phenomenon has left many people perplexed and questioning the purpose behind such requests.

Confused consumers, interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, expressed their bewilderment at being asked to tip by self-checkout kiosks. Ishita Jamar, a senior at Washington, DC’s American University, questioned the logic behind these prompts, stating that businesses are cutting labor costs by implementing self-checkout systems, which raises doubts about the necessity of tipping and where the tips are ultimately allocated.

Tips for self-checkout machines are being questioned by confused customers (Image: “Self-Checkout Station” by Jeffrey Beall)

According to some business owners, these prompted tips are typically pooled among the human workers on staff — even so, not everyone is convinced.

A form of emotional manipulation

Garrett Bemiller, a public relations worker in New York City, described the tip prompts as “a form of emotional manipulation”, expressing surprise when encountering a tip request at a convenience store in Newark International Airport; Bemiller and another individual declined to tip at the airport self-checkouts.

Holona Ochs (an assistant professor at Lehigh University and co-author of two books on tipping), highlighted an important distinction: while federal laws require employers to distribute tips to employees, there are no such regulations for machines, consequently, some employers may exploit the widely accepted norm of tipping as a means to generate additional revenue.

This ambiguity raises concerns about the transparency of where the self-checkout-prompted tips actually end up (whether they go to the workers or into the pockets of their bosses). While tipping remains an important practice, the situation becomes increasingly unsettling when machines request tips — creating an uncanny valley-like experience that is all too familiar in today’s technology-driven world.

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