My friend B called me the other day with a beauty question. She had booked a haircut with a salon owner and she wanted to know if she was expected to tip.
"Yes," I told her. "If you like the service and the job he or she does, these days a 15-20 percent tip is customary."
This hasn't always been the case. Many years ago you were not expected to tip the owner of a salon, a spa or a barbershop. In fact, offering a tip could be considered an insult. But times have changed, according to etiquette coach Peggy Post of the Emily Post Institute. Post told O the Oprah Magazine that the practice of not tipping the owner is "an old tradition that's dying out."
Post's response proves how confounding and downright uncomfortable tipping in the United States can be. If the tradition is "dying out" does this mean you can get away with not tipping the owner of some salons? What if your stylist does your hair in her kitchen? Will it seem weird to tack on an extra bit in such an intimate setting? What if the cost of the cut and color alone is already straining your wallet and you simply cannot afford an extra 15 to 20 percent?
In this article, I'll put all these situations to the test and help you figure out when and how much to tip.
Big City Salons vs. Small Town Ones
My 94-year-old grandmother "Meemaw" has been getting her hair cut at Sedalia's in Burton, Texas, for 4 decades. It's all very "Steel Magnolias": Sedalia's clients sit in rows under hair dryers and they leave the salon with hair that's been teased and sprayed into the most amazing cotton candy-like confections.
No question about it, my grandmother has never tipped Sedalia. It has probably never crossed her mind to. And Sedalia doesn't expect tips. I found out recently when I visited the salon for the first time in 30 years that nothing much has changed in those years. The place smells the same, looks the same, works the same. The hairstyles are even the same, as are expectations of tipping.
But big city salons? As Bob Dylan sang, the times they are a-changin'. They actually long ago changed. I called 24 salons across the country and talked to receptionists and a few owners in San Francisco, New York, Atlanta and Miami. I asked them if the owners who did hair accepted tips. Every one of them told me the same thing: "Yes."
"I personally have never expected a tip," said Keith James, owner of San Francisco's Keith James Salon. "But as an employee of a salon, it's always accepted."
Not all clients tip the owners, I'm told. If you were to call ahead and ask if tipping the owner is expected, the receptionist would likely tell you, "tipping is not expected but is appreciated." There exists this polite-yet-confusing idea that owners don't expect a tip, but in talking to salon owners, I realized that they actually do. As one owner told me, clients who tip get better service. And if tipped really well, a salon owner "will bend over backwards for you."
The Myth of the Wealthy Salon Owner
In a reality television era where it's common knowledge that some celebrity stylists charge upwards of $500 for a haircut and $3,000 for extensions (read about author Joyce Maynard's $800 haircut), it may seem as if anyone with his or her name on a salon is raking in a fortune.
This simply isn't true, salon owners tell me. There's a big difference between Oribe, Sally Hershberger and Garren and the average salon owner at a mid-size suburban shop who has to pay a staff and the rent on the building as well as stock the place with product. And then there's taxes. While some owners are so successful they can actually quit cutting hair (I talked to a handful of Miami salons who have owners who don't work with hair), the average salon owner is not getting rich off of his/her salon.
As one salon owner wrote to me, "I own a booth rent salon and I work about 60 hours a week behind the chair and spend hours, after hours, cleaning, doing bookwork, maintenance, and dealing with petty problems. The only way I get paid is by the person sitting in my chair. My back hurts. My shoulders hurt. Oh and my fingers are going numb. My family is growing up without me. I get no vacation, no Christmas bonus, no sick days, and no money at all when clients don’t bother to even show up after 2 reminder emails and text."
America's Strange & Uncomfortable Tipping Culture
Here in New York, tipping is so customary yet so confusing, I've heard of people who carry tipping etiquette cards in their wallets to help remind them how much to tip the taxi driver (15%) versus the Thai food delivery guy (10%) versus the assistant who washes your hair at the salon ($5). And don't even ask me who to tip and how much during the holidays. That's the most confounding tip situation I've yet to come across. In fact, I dedicated an entire article to that topic.
The expectation of gratuities seems to be a particularly American problem, as any European will remind you. In fact, the expectation to tip is so low in other countries that I've been told the very trendy Ace Hotel in NYC adds on a tip at the bar because the international tourists who frequent it weren't leaving the customary 20% American tip. Ouch.
As Miss Manners wrote about tipping, "It's a dreadful custom that brings out the worst in everyone - self-importance, miserliness, or social nervousness in customers, and anxiety or blatantly displayed greed in employees, for whom this is, after all, part of their expected wages."
So how to deal with the discomfort? As I see it you have a few options:
- Do what you're comfortable with and tip if you like the service or don't tip if you feel tipping an owner is ridiculous.
- Switch stylists to someone who doesn't own the salon.
- Accept that tipping is customary and add it into the cost of the service. If you can't afford the tip, switch to a less expensive stylist.
- Cut and color your own hair. Ha!
How Much to Tip at the Salon
Here's the expected tipping breakdown at salons. And remember: no one expects a tip if the service was pointed out to be unsatisfactory.
The stylist Excellent service is usually 20 percent, good service about 15 percent.
The shampoo person Subtract from the main stylist's tip about $5 for the person who washes your hair and another $5-$10 for the person who dried it. Some stylists tell me they tip their assistants from their tip money at the end of the day. You can ask your stylist the protocol if you are confused.
Facials, manicures and makeup applications These are considered a separate service and it's protocol to tip 15-20 percent for each service separately.
And For Your Entertainment ValueI end this article with a link to a blog post I wrote back in May, 2008. The owner of a salon wrote asking how she can politely let her clients know that now that she's the owner she still will happily accept tips. I wrote the blog post asking my readers to weigh in with suggestions.
And weigh in they did. What ensued was a debate (139 comments long as of this writing) about tipping between irate readers, salon owners and stylists who work in salons. I anticipate that the comments will continue as long as this site is on the Internet.
Check it out: Weigh In: I'm a Salon Owner & My Clients Don't Tip.
In the end, even the salon owners tell me that the secret to good business is keeping your customers happy. And if this means they don't always tip or they can't afford to tip but they still want to come to you and even refer their friends to you, then that's worth the stylist's time on your hair. As one owner told me, "You don't really make money off the tip. You make money on the return."