There's a lot more to selecting a till than most people realize. Today's business owners have to not only choose between a traditional cash register and a digital point-of-sale (POS) system, but also navigate confusing terms and setups that require add-ons for full transaction functionality.
This guide breaks down the types of checkout options available for brick-and-mortar businesses, defines some common terms, and outlines the research process so you can get the best fit for your small business.
You might think cash registers are a pretty cut-and-dried product – and that used to be the case. Today, the term "cash register" is applied to a wide range of products that vary greatly in design, function and price.
When it comes to choosing a cash register, small business owners can go with a register-based system or use point-of-sale (POS) software. If you only need to ring up sales, complete payment transactions, store money and print out receipts, a register system is enough.
If you need all of that plus inventory management, e-commerce, and customer and employee management, a POS system is the better option. Although the pricing disparity between POS systems and cash registers has narrowed, a traditional cash register still tends to be a cheaper option for small businesses just starting out.
What is a cash register?
A cash register is a stand-alone device that comes with a cash box, adding machine and receipt printer. Most cash registers can connect to barcode scanners and credit card terminals to accept card payments. Cash registers offer different capabilities depending on the price point, but most let you calculate tax, tips and discounts. They also let you process returns, track inventory, run daily sales reports and connect to external hardware.
Pros of cash registers
Cash registers have long been an integral part of commerce. POS systems may make checkout easier and have more bells and whistles, but for millions of business owners, traditional cash registers are all that's necessary. Here are some reasons they remain popular:
- They're cheap and easy to purchase. Cash registers can cost as little as $100, and they're easy to buy. A small business owner can pop into Staples and walk out with a cash register.
- They're easy to use. Using a cash register is pretty straightforward. It doesn't require much training to get comfortable using it.
- They're safe and secure. Cash draws on electronic cash registers automatically lock and can only be accessed by authorized users. This reduces the likelihood of someone stealing from your till.
- They're a simple solution for a small, traditional store. A register-based system doesn't have as many features as a POS system, but that's perfectly fine for many business owners. A cash register is ideal if you just want to ring up sales and process payments. Business owners who are wary of technology may feel more comfortable with a traditional cash register.
Cons of cash registers
Electronic cash registers have a lot of benefits, but there's also a reason POS systems are popular. Here are the main cons to consider before you buy a cash register.
- Their capabilities are limited. Cash registers do a good job of ringing up sales, processing payments, printing out receipts, and handling returns and refunds – but that's about it. They have some reporting capabilities, but they don't provide you with a full suite of features or data to help you run your retail shop or restaurant.
- You can lose data. One of the benefits of using a POS system is your data is saved either in the cloud or on a local server. That's not the case with a cash register. If your cash register breaks or there's a power outage, you may lose data.
- They may require a merchant account. When you use a cash register, you have to open a merchant bank account that will hold payments from your customers. With a POS system, that is part of the software.
Cost of cash registers
Inexpensive cash registers cost $100 to $300. Registers in this price range are typically traditional keypad desktop designs with attached cash drawers and built-in thermal receipt printers. These machines offer users a great price point and excellent longevity, but they fall short when it comes to any sort of digital integration or reporting. When registers like these are used in food service, waiters still have to submit tickets the old-school way.
Midrange cash registers are available for $300 to $600. In this price range, you'll see mostly keypad designs and some touchscreen designs, but you'll also find high-speed built-in thermal printers and lots of specialized registers (like ones specifically for food service). If you run a high-volume operation and you're going the traditional cash register route, this should be the minimum price range you aim for.
High-end cash registers blur the line between traditional cash registers and POS systems. In the $700-to-$1,100 price range, you'll find loads of touchscreen cash registers with built-in inventory and reporting software, barcode scanners, credit card scanners, and online integration options. If you're spending this much money on a cash register, you should, at the very least, compare the models you're looking at to similarly priced POS systems, because the interface is generally better in POS systems. It's also easier to combine and track online (e-commerce) processing and brick-and-mortar (in-store) purchases in one place with a POS system.
Across the board, cash registers are generally cheaper than POS systems, even if you go for a high-end cash register. The typical reason for this is that everything is included for basic use when you purchase a cash register, and there are often discounts for bulk purchases. This is less often the case with POS systems, which usually don't last as long and often require add-on products (like external printers and credit card scanners) to reach full functionality.
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When a retailer refers to a POS system or POS terminal, they're describing a traditional POS system, which typically includes a single main terminal (with a full built-in computer) that lives at the main checkout counter or (in a restaurant) order placement area. Such terminals are often accessed and used by multiple employees.
POS terminals nearly always have touchscreen interfaces, built-in reporting and inventory software, cloud storage, admin features (like the option to set different permissions for different employees), integrations with e-commerce stores, and more. The more you spend on these robust machines, the more features you get, and the better the software interface typically is.
Most SMBs should be able to find a POS terminal that suits their needs for between $1,000 and $2,500, but there are specialty models that sell for more, with some retailing at more than $5,000 per unit. One major benefit of a POS system that comes with all the necessary hardware is that the hardware is designed for heavy business use.
There are systems, usually called POS systems, that come with some hardware (like a cash drawer, printer and stand) and software but require the purchaser to buy and use their own tablet (usually an iPad) with it. These POS systems typically need to be replaced far more often than those that come with all the hardware out of the box, because one of the main components of these partial POS systems is a consumer product – in this example an iPad – which is simply not made for heavy use. These tablet-run POS setups are typically much more expensive than those with a built-in computer, but they work for some businesses, which we'll explored in the next section. [In the market for a POS system? Check out our best picks and reviews here.]
An mPOS is a mobile POS system – a software product that can be loaded onto a compatible tablet (which you'll have to purchase separately). Some mPOS systems include card scanners, drawers and printers; in fact, packages that include all these features are often listed under "POS systems" even though they don't include a computer.
More often, though, mPOS systems are offered a la carte – the purchaser buys a tablet stand and software, and then chooses the add-ons that best suit their business. Systems like these typically have easy-to-use interfaces, plenty of customization options and robust reporting. On the flip side, they rely on the daily use of machines that aren't designed for heavy business use, and since an iPad is usually the compatible device, replacement of the screen and computer is expensive.
However, there are numerous benefits to investing in an mPOS rather than a cash register or POS. Some SMBs choose mPOS systems for their size and appearance alone. mPOS machines are much smaller than traditional POS terminals or cash registers, and many entrepreneurs feel that an iPad checkout fits their overall image. People who operate pop-up stores, run food trucks, or sell their wares at changing locations (like street fairs or festivals) opt for mPOS almost exclusively due to the portability and quick setup.
Another reason for going the mPOS route is to decentralize the checkout process. Some brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants are changing the way customers order and pay by having all the waiters or sales associates carry mPOS tablets with credit card scanners attached. The ability to link multiple mPOS devices so they all communicate seamlessly can speed up table service, shorten checkout lines, and improve employee accountability (since each person has their own tablet). A few early adopters on the smart dining scene are taking things one step further and placing tablet terminals at each table so customers can place their own orders.
The main thing to consider if you choose an mPOS is price and replacement. Many SMBs start with one centralized POS or mPOS terminal and then gradually add satellite tablets. If this approach appeals to you, make sure any POS or mPOS system you purchase can be used with other mPOS tablets. Also ask the company if there will be additional fees for additional devices, as is often the case.
Researching your options
Once you've set a budget and chosen the overall type of counter solution you want, it's advisable to compare the features of at least three different models from three well-known manufacturers. These are the features you should focus on:
- Future costs: Are you considering opening another register area, adding handheld tablets to your business, or opening another location? Even if this is not in the works yet, it's always good to find out upfront how much it will cost to add more devices to your lineup. You should also inquire about the costs for additional credit card scanners, barcode scanners or any other external accessories you may require.
- Interface: This goes for keypad cash registers and touchscreen POS systems alike: The interface matters. If possible, get hands-on experience using any checkout machine you're considering. If that's not possible, request a demo. Consider how intuitive the interface is, what the options are for customization, whether it has the security and admin features you need, and, above all, how easy it will be for employees to learn and use. A system that's hard to navigate can lead to misuse by employees, time inefficiency and unnecessary frustration.
- Physical setup: Unless your space is unlimited, measure the exact amount of space you'll have for your checkout counter setup. Envision not only where you'll put the desktop machine but where you'll store scanners, external printers, keyboards, cash boxes or anything else you plan on having. As you browse different register and POS models, check the spec size on each of them.
- Integrations: If you opt for a basic cash register route and aren't worried about integrations, you can skip this altogether, but if you plan on integrating your checkout system with your online store or using it in tandem with other software you use, make sure the product you choose is compatible.
- Reports and exports: If you get a POS or mPOS, the way it reports and exports information is a huge factor to consider. For example, do you want to export inventory data to a third-party system, or pull a specific report about employee behavior? Make sure you fully understand the reporting and exporting options of any POS software you're considering before you commit.
Choosing between a cash register, POS, and mPOS
To choose between a cash register, POS, and mPOS, consider your business as it is now and as it will be in the future. What that looks like will dictate which device is best for you.
A cash register makes the most sense for these cases:
- Businesses that are just starting out and short on capital
- Established businesses that only need to ring up sales, accept payments and print receipts
A POS system makes sense for these cases:
- If you want a system that not only rings up sales, but also tracks and manages inventory, and helps with customer and employee management
- Retailers and restaurant owners with multiple sales channels, both online and offline
- Businesses that have several locations or need more than one register
An mPOS system makes sense for these cases:
- Businesses that want to process payments outside of a physical store, such as at an event or outdoor market
- Retailers and restaurant owners who want to bring the menu and payment processor to the customers online or tableside
Whether you ultimately choose a POS system, an mPOS system, an old-school cash register or some sort of hybrid setup, be aware that there is no standardization across manufacturers for what is included in a register, POS device, or POS software. Make sure you know exactly what is included and what isn't, how much the peripherals cost, and what you can expect in terms of performance and ease of use.
Donna Fuscaldo contributed to the writing and research in this article.