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How much will you hand them?

Understanding the art of the tip amid a boom in personal services.

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At Boston's Union Oyster House, patrons sit in mahogany booths dining on clam chowder and fresh scrod as waitresses scurry past.

But as meals end and checks arrive, confusion grows. How much should they leave on the table?

"You'll have people tipping 15 percent half the time and 20 percent the other half ... then in between you'll get nothing," says Susan Gray, who has worked 15 years at the Oyster House.

Americans face the question of how much to tip almost every day, whether they're leaving restaurants, stepping out of cabs, or opening their doors to a Web grocery deliverer.

As a busy populace farms out more and more tasks, a wide range of services have, not surprisingly, stepped in and stuck out their collective hand. More than 35 professions expect tips, and the practice has become a $28 billion industry.

Etiquette experts say a 15 percent gratuity is still the norm in most cities, regardless of whether you're paying for a buzz cut or an anchovy pizza.

But with consumers spending freely in today's booming economy, the average tip has hit 20 percent for some high-end services and could eventually filter into others. Any amount below 20 percent in large cities like New York or Los Angeles can draw scornful looks from service people, regardless of whether you dine at Tavern on the Green or somewhere less elegant.

The confusion over tipping has been amplified by the growing range of Web-delivery services, many of which have conflicting policies. Some, like Peapod, an online grocery, allow tips (usually 15 to 17 percent). Others, such as Urbanfetch, a cyber Wal-Mart of sorts, forbid it. Yet some customers override those policies because of the guilt they feel when deliverers haul groceries - even air conditioners or CD players - right to their door in less than an hour.

Better service, bigger bucks

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