Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Counting pennies

The iced coffee I like best near campus, or anywhere for that matter, used to cost $2.25. Then it went up to $2.26, which was a convenient way to get rid of pennies, or an annoying way to acquire pennies, depending. (The place accepts credit cards even for tiny amounts, which indeed presents a way out of the dilemma I'm about to describe.) Then, all of a sudden, perhaps having noticed that their iced coffee was kind of a bargain compared to everything else they sell, up it leaped to $2.49.

This, I immediately decided, was not a fluke derived from the price-plus-tax, but rather a calculated attempt by the establishment in question to collect mini-tips from customers who otherwise wouldn't tip, or (as is my case) only tip at to-go establishments when ordering something more complicated than coffee poured into a cup. Who would be so crass - or put so little value on their time - as to wait for that penny? Unlike $2.99, $2.49 means you've probably already put in the time to find 50 cents in change, at which point you've already been holding up the line, wasting your time and that of the cashier, for ages.

My time might be 'worth' more than that of the average humanities grad student, thanks to NYU's new funding arrangements, but it's still not worth a whole heck of a lot, so my usual method is to pay with two dollar bills and two quarters, receive the penny, and dream of the day when I'll have accumulated four pennies in time to pay with two bills, a quarter, two dimes, and... you see where I'm going with this. So it was oh just a little bit awkward when, recently, the woman ringing me up asked, "Do you want your penny?" Because, um, I did want my penny, because pennies are currency, not everywhere takes credit cards, and some items do not cost something that's a multiple of 5. And because when I tip (again, fancy-espresso-drinks, along with, obvs, restaurants and bars), I tip more than a penny. So I said yes, that I did want the penny, in a polite yet confident tone. Nevertheless, I may never be able to show my face in that coffee shop again.


Britta said...

Nonsense. If the staff is rude and snotty and make you feel bad for wanting your change, don't feel bad not tipping. I say this as a former barista. It is terrible customer service to ever assume that people are going to pay more than the price, and especially to act entitled to their change. Yes, even if people probably will, even if they think it is a hassle to get the change back, even if 95 out of 100 people do not want their penny, a person working at a cashier should never ever assume people do not want their change.
Also, from the other side of the counter, I never begrudged people who got coffees and didn't tip. Instead, I just tried to be pleasantly surprised when people did tip. (Occasionally people would order food that involved intense preparation, i.e. sandwiches and salads, fancy coffees, and not leave so much as a nickel, which was slightly irritating, but not so much I wasn't fine serving them, or that I minded them coming in on a regular basis)

Britta said...

Addendum: I wonder if it comes in part from barista being a relatively coveted high-status service job mainly filled by middle class people? Minimum wage is really low, and if you are used to a higher standard of living, you can feel a bit, "wait...I worked this hard and all I got was this???" I know that feeling, but I have very little sympathy for this point of view though, because, um, yeah, crappy low-paying service jobs are indeed crappy and low-paying. The problem is the American wage structure, not that entitled hipster X magically should be making more money than his job pays. Instead of feeling like one's wage should magically double because all one's customers should leave $2 tips, maybe disgruntled people working at coffee shops should agitate for a higher minimum wage for EVERYONE. I mean, janitors have worse jobs, and make the same amount of money, same with people working at Subway, or poor people working at uncool coffee shops hipsters don't want to work at, etc, but in my experience, most of the attitude comes from people who want the cache of working at a coffee shop, but the income of an engineer. Poor people know that you can work really hard and not make much in America, and that if they take it out on their customers, they will get fired.

Final interesting observation--it seems like it's mainly entitled, rude hipsters who can make you feel guilty for not giving them more money. I mean, if someone at McDonald's is rude to you, you are more likely to shrug it off, or maybe get huffy or even tell the manager. But if someone (who is more than likely to be of your class, and since you are a grad student, possibly wealthier than you) gets annoyed that you overfilled the "bus it yourself" bin, or asked for your change, then you are more likely to feel guilty or shamed or like a bad person.

Phoebe said...

"it seems like it's mainly entitled, rude hipsters who can make you feel guilty for not giving them more money."

Judging this cashier purely on dress, that would seem about right. Of course, had she been judging me on dress (as was probably the case), she'd have probably gone with something far yuppier than 'French TA trying to look older and more professional than is truly the case."

As for the customer response, I tend to take things personally if I'm in that mood to begin with, and not to do so if I'm not, and can easily think up times in McDonalds-equivalent situations when I've left an interaction thinking I'm probably a bad person. Such is equal-opportunity neurosis.

But I do think there's something socioeconomic going on (see second footnote) in these interactions. Coffee-bar customers probably do, on average, throw away more hours wondering what the recent-college-grad barista thinks of them than they do wondering the same regarding the busboy with only a few words of English at their regular dinner spot.

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