Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Our winter delivery tip habits revealed.
On a horribly snowy afternoon this month, I ordered a cookie pizza from Papa John's using the online form, which offers the option to enter in a credit card tip for the delivery person. I put in $2.50, about 20 percent of the total.
But when I rushed downstairs to retrieve my order, I saw that I'd set my tip too low considering the conditions outside. Parked in front of my office, the PJ's guy struggled to pull the sweet pie out of his car—icy gales kept blowing his door shut. He nearly slipped jogging up to top of the steps where I stood, and breathlessly insisted on opening the door for me while as he presented my order. I thanked him profusely, but with no cash on me or upstairs, I was ashamed to present him nothing more in person.
I'm not alone in my desire to compensate food-delivery heroes in the midst of awful weather. During the winter season, online tips for food delivery do increase nationwide, as a data set from GrubHub and Seamless reveals. (Papa John's did not reply to repeated requests for data.) And tips increase especially during the worst storms.
For example, when a blizzard (sort of) hit the New York City metro area on January 26, 2015, delivery tips on Seamless spiked 9 percent higher than the area's year-round average of 13.1 percent (so a tip on a $100 order that would have been $13 went up to about $14). During Chicago's February 1, 2015, blizzard, the city's average GrubHub gratuity bumped up 12 percent from its year-round 13.4 percent average. Boston's February 2 blizzard pushed the city's tipping average up a more modest 6 percent, also from the average 13.4 percent (maybe the bad-weather-induced generosity had worn off by then).
And during the last full winter season (2013 to 2014), Denver, Dallas, and Charlottesville, Virginia were most generous cities, tipping their GrubHub deliverypeople a respective 15.7, 15.1, and 15 percent of the total order, as compared to the year-round national average tip of 13.9 percent. (And what are we ordering as a cold, slightly more magnanimous nation? Soup! And specifically, tom yum soup, orders of which spiked more than any other item during the 2013-2014 winter. It was 23 percent more common on orders during the winter than any other time of year, and more common than even chicken noodle soup.)
However, it's very possible this data would look a little different if we were looking at cash-in-hand tips. Grubhub and Seamless tell me they aren't able to track cash tips, but from what a number of restaurants told me, customers tend to tip more online than they do in the flesh.
"If the top delivery charge is $13.50, people tend to just round up to $15, if it's in person," says George Ruiz, owner of Cafe Mayo in Washington D.C., which works with GrubHub. "But they might tip $4 or $5 on the app."
That's consistent with the "digital tip trap" theory—that the relative ease of tipping online tends to draw more dollars from our pockets.
Except, of course, in the case of my snowy cookie pizzas. And in case you've ever wondered, restaurants are required by law to give the full online tip amount to their delivery drivers, which GrubHub says they enforce. I'll pay it forward, Papa John's guy, I'll pay it forward.