There’s much more to selecting a till than most people realize. Today’s business owners must choose between traditional cash registers and digital point-of-sale (POS) systems while navigating confusing terms and setups that require add-ons for full transaction functionality.
This guide breaks down popular checkout options available for brick-and-mortar businesses, defines standard terms and shares tips and considerations for determining the best fit for your operation.
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What is a cash register?
A cash register is a stand-alone device with a cash box, adding machine and receipt printer. Most cash registers can connect to barcode scanners and credit card terminals to accept credit card payments.
Cash registers offer various capabilities depending on their price point, but most let you calculate tax, tips and discounts. They can also process returns, track inventory, run daily sales reports and connect to external hardware.
If your needs are limited to ringing up sales, completing payment transactions, storing money and printing receipts, a register system may be enough for your business.
How do cash registers work?
Cash registers usually are electronic. They record daily sales and calculate change for individual transactions for customers paying with cash. Here’s how they work:
- Customers bring items to the checkout stand.
- A cashier enters the price of each item into the machine.
- The cash register totals each item’s price and calculates the sales tax.
- The cash register displays the total amount the customer owes for the purchase.
- If the customer uses cash, the cashier will choose “cash” on the register and enter the amount tendered. The cash register will calculate the change due and signal the cash drawer to open.
- With other payment forms, the customer will use an attached credit card reader to complete the transaction.
- When the transaction is complete, the cash register or an attached receipt printer will print a receipt.
Cash register features
Cash registers are relatively basic machines that have been around for a long time. They typically have the following:
- A numeric keypad for entering prices
- Keys to indicate the general type of product being purchased
- A tax-exempt key
- Keys for payment type
- A total key
- An attached or integrated cash drawer
- An attached or integrated credit card reader
- An attached or integrated receipt printer
Costs of cash registers
Cash register costs vary widely depending on their features and functionality:
- Low-end cash register costs: Inexpensive cash registers cost between $100 and $300. Registers in this price range typically are traditional keypad desktop designs with attached cash drawers and built-in thermal receipt printers. These machines have excellent longevity but fall short when it comes to digital integration or reporting. When registers like these are used in food service, servers must submit tickets the old-school way.
- Midrange cash register costs: Midrange cash registers are available for $300 to $600. In this price range, you’ll see mostly keypad designs and some touchscreen options. You’ll also find high-speed, built-in thermal printers and specialized registers, such as ones specifically for food service. If you run a high-volume operation and go the traditional cash register route, this should be your minimum price range.
- High-end cash register costs: High-end cash registers blur the line between traditional cash registers and POS systems. In the $700-$1,100 price range, you’ll find touchscreen cash registers with built-in inventory and reporting software, barcode scanners, credit card scanners and online integration options. If this is your budget, consider looking at similarly priced POS systems. You’ll likely find more intuitive interfaces and valuable features.
If you’re spending money on a high-end cash register, consider similarly priced POS systems that can combine and track brick-and-mortar and e-commerce purchases in one place.
If you’re spending money on a high-end cash register, consider similarly priced POS systems that can combine and track brick-and-mortar and e-commerce purchases in one place.
Pros of cash registers
- Cash registers are cheap and easy to purchase: Cash registers can cost as little as $100 and are easy to buy. A small business owner can pop into Staples and walk out with a cash register. Although the pricing disparity between POS systems and cash registers has narrowed, a traditional cash register still tends to be a cheaper option for new small businesses.
- Cash registers are easy to use: Using a cash register is straightforward and doesn’t require much training.
- Cash registers are safe and secure: Cash drawers on electronic cash registers lock automatically and can be accessed only by authorized users, reducing the likelihood of someone stealing from your till.
- Cash registers have excellent longevity: Cash registers last a long time. POS systems usually don’t last as long as cash registers and often require add-on products, such as external printers and credit card scanners, to reach full functionality.
- Cash registers are a simple solution for small, traditional stores: 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
- Cash register 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 lack a full suite of features or data to help you run your retail shop or restaurant.
- You can lose data with cash registers: One of the benefits of using a POS system is that your data is saved 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.
- Cash registers may require a merchant account: When you use a cash register, you have to open a merchant account that will hold payments from your customers. With a POS system, that’s part of the software.
What is a POS system?
A POS system, sometimes called a POS cash register, includes hardware and software that processes customer payments, records sales data, manages inventory and more. POS systems can integrate numerous features to help your business run smoothly, including sales reporting and customer loyalty programs.
When a retailer refers to a POS system, they’re usually describing a traditional POS system permanently installed in a fixed checkout location. It can include a single primary terminal with a built-in computer at the main checkout counter. Sometimes, retailers place POS systems in multiple checkout lines. In specific industries like restaurants, multiple employees can access the POS system in an order placement area.
POS systems are becoming even more popular as retailers strive to meet customer needs and preferences, including trends like “buy online, pick up in-store.”
How do POS systems work?
POS systems have two primary components: hardware and software. The hardware is a specialized computer with a built-in screen (the POS terminal) and the POS software generally comes preloaded on the system.
The POS system is connected to the internet or a local server. In addition to the POS system basics, most businesses also use other connected devices, such as credit card readers, handheld scanners, receipt printers and cash drawers.
POS system features
POS terminals nearly always include touchscreen interfaces, built-in reporting, inventory management, cloud storage, permissions and e-commerce integrations. Spending more on these robust machines generally brings more features and better interfaces.
There are various types of POS systems with wide-ranging features ― your industry and specific needs will dictate what’s best for your business. However, some essential POS system features include the following:
- Hardware: POS systems usually have a touchscreen and often come with an integrated or external credit card reader. Some systems include a cash drawer, printer and stand but require the merchant to buy and use their own tablet (usually an iPad).
- Software: POS system software typically supports customer purchase histories, loyalty management, coupons, discounts and promotions management. The software will help you run POS sales reports by product, location and salesperson. You’ll also be able to run financial and business intelligence reports to determine the busiest times of the day and week, the most effective promotions, the hottest-selling products and the most efficient employees.
- Employee scheduling and management: POS systems make it easy to schedule and manage your employees and their time-off requests.
- Integration with your accounting system: POS systems can mesh seamlessly with your accounting software, sharing information automatically, so you don’t have to upload and download reports manually.
Specialized POS systems and their features include the following:
- Retail POS software systems: The best POS systems for retail stores allow you to manage inventory by size, color and item. You can also calculate shipping costs, manage barcodes, look up products quickly and perform returns, refunds and exchanges efficiently.
- Restaurant POS systems: The best POS systems for restaurants let you allocate orders to the appropriate prep stations in the kitchen and feature open-table management. You can also manage reservations, waitlists, online ordering and delivery options and preauthorize bar tabs.
POS system costs
While POS system costs will vary, most small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) should be able to find a POS terminal that suits their needs for between $1,000 and $2,500. However, specialty models can run as high as $5,000 per unit and more.
Tablet-based POS setups may be more expensive than those with a built-in computer but they work well for many businesses. (We’ll explain more about tablet-based POS systems in the following section on mobile POS systems.)
Pros of POS systems
- POS systems can provide detailed sales reports: POS systems have powerful software that tracks sales by item, category, feature, employee or time period, helping you improve your buying and maximize sales revenue.
- POS systems help you manage inventory: Stockouts and overstocks can be significantly reduced using a POS system with inventory controls. The system will alert you when your stock drops below a preset level so you can reorder before selling out. Some POS systems even connect to your suppliers for automatic reordering.
- POS systems can help you manage customer records for improved marketing: Tying purchases to customer accounts creates detailed purchase histories. This data can help you craft effective marketing communications, including personalized emails.
- POS systems provide improved employee tracking and security: Since employees must sign in with a unique employee number when they start their shift, tracking employee hours, theft and mistakes is easy.
- POS systems are durable: One significant benefit of a POS system with all the necessary hardware is that it’s highly durable and designed for heavy business use.
Cons of POS systems
- POS equipment (and sometimes software) can be expensive: The more cashiers and locations you have, the more the costs of individual POS stations can add up.
- POS systems require some employee training: Although most POS systems are relatively easy to operate, you must implement a training process so employees know how to use all the features.
- POS systems may have a steep learning curve: It may take some time for managers, owners and employees to fully utilize POS system reporting functions and apply their insights to better manage the business.
Read our reviews of the best POS systems to learn about various features and pricing models to narrow down your options.
What are mPOS systems?
mPOS systems are mobile POS systems. They describe a software product that can be loaded onto a compatible mobile device, usually a 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.
However, most mPOS systems are typically offered à la carte. The purchaser buys a tablet stand and software and then chooses the add-ons that best suit their business. These systems typically have easy-to-use interfaces, plenty of customization options and robust reporting capabilities.
How do mPOS systems work?
Software is central to mPOS systems. The setup is considered software as a service. The software is compatible with mobile devices like tablets and smartphones. Sometimes, mPOS software isn’t as robust as regular POS software, so it’s crucial to ensure the system has the features you need.
mPOS systems can accept payment by manually keying in customers’ card information; however, connecting the mPOS system to a mobile credit card reader is cheaper and more efficient. Mobile card readers usually connect to the tablet or phone via Bluetooth but some plug into the headphone jack (Android) or charging port (iOS).
mPOS system features
Typically, with mPOS systems, you’ll find many of the same features as traditional POS systems, including the following:
- Primary hardware: mPOS systems usually require a tablet, such as an iPad or proprietary tablet or a mobile phone.
- Stand: An optional hardware feature is a stand integrated with the screen or used with a tablet.
- External hardware: Some mPOS systems also include an external mobile credit card reader and an external receipt printer.
- Software: mPOS system software will let you enter credit card information manually. While functionality varies, at a minimum, you should have access to customer data, reporting and product information. mPOS systems may integrate with more robust POS software if your business has such a system.
mPOS system costs
When choosing an mPOS system, your primary concerns will be hardware and software prices and replacement costs.
Use frequency dictates mPOS system hardware costs:
- If you need receipt printers only: For example, if you’re a solopreneur conducting business at farmers’ markets or craft shows, you can probably get away with using your existing smartphone loaded with mPOS software from your payment provider. You may decide to keep it simple and send customers digital receipts by text or email or you may have an external receipt printer. A receipt printer may cost as little as $25 or as much as $399.
- If you need mobile card readers: You could enter credit card numbers into the mPOS software manually or use an external mobile reader connected via Bluetooth. Some credit card processors, including Square, offer new merchants a free mobile card reader. Otherwise, these devices run between $29 for the PayPal Zettle and $129 for SumUp.
- If you need multiple devices: Alternatively, you may want to use mPOS hardware to speed up the checkout lines at your fixed-location business. For example, Chick-fil-A uses this setup in its drive-thru lines. In this case, your hardware cost will be multiplied.
Here’s what you should know about software costs:
- Software costs vary by processor: Prices vary widely by payment processor. Processors like Square, PayPal Zettle and Helcim offer merchants POS software for free. Others, like Shopify, charge as much as $89 per month. Meanwhile, on the lower end, Clover charges $14.95. (For more information, see our detailed Square review, PayPal review, review of Helcim, review of Shopify and Clover review.)
Many SMBs start with one centralized POS or mPOS terminal and gradually add satellite tablets. If this approach appeals to you, ensure any system you purchase can be used with other mPOS tablets. Also, ask the company if it charges additional fees for more devices, which is often the case.
Pros of mPOS systems
- mPOS systems are small: Some SMBs choose mPOS systems for their size and appearance alone. mPOS machines are much smaller than traditional POS terminals or cash registers. Many entrepreneurs feel an iPad checkout fits their image.
- mPOS systems are mobile: Entrepreneurs with pop-up stores or food trucks or who travel to multiple locations opt for mPOS systems almost exclusively due to their portability and quick setup.
- mPOS systems provide speedy checkout: Many restaurants and some retailers have servers or sales associates carrying mPOS tablets with credit card scanners attached to check out customers quickly. This technology helps speed up table service, shorten checkout lines and improve employee accountability.
- mPOS systems support self-service options: Some early adopters in the smart dining scene are taking things a step further and placing tablet terminals at each table so customers can place their own orders.
Cons of mPOS systems
- mPOS systems are vulnerable to wear and tear: mPOS systems rely on the daily use of machines that aren’t designed for heavy business use. Employees transporting mPOS devices may accidentally drop them, cracking screens or otherwise damaging them. Replacing devices like iPads can get expensive.
- mPOS systems need reliable internet: If your location has spotty connectivity, payment processing or customer assistance can be delayed.
- mPOS systems have cybersecurity risks: If you’re on a public Wi-Fi network, you’re more vulnerable to having your device infiltrated by would-be cybercriminals.
- mPOS systems aren’t great for cash payments: Without a cash drawer for security and to make change, it’s harder to accept cash payments for purchases.
What to consider when choosing a cash register, POS or mPOS
Once you’ve set a budget and chosen your checkout device system type, compare a few top contenders. Focus on the following factors:
- Future costs: Are you considering opening another register area, adding handheld tablets to your business or opening another business location? Inquire about costs for additional credit card scanners, barcode scanners or other external accessories you may require.
- Interface: Try to 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, customization options, security and administrative features and the learning curve. A hard-to-navigate system can cause employee misuse, time inefficiency and unnecessary frustration.
- Physical setup: Unless your space is unlimited, measure the exact space you’ll have for a checkout counter setup. Envision where you’ll put a desktop machine and store scanners, external printers, keyboards, cash boxes and other peripherals. As you browse different register and POS models, check their sizes.
- Integrations: If you opt for a basic cash register and aren’t worried about integrations, you can skip this step. However, if you plan to integrate your checkout system with your online store or use it with other software, ensure compatibility.
- Reports and exports: If you get a POS or mPOS, how it reports and exports information is a significant consideration. For example, do you want to export inventory data to a third-party system or pull a specific report about employee behavior?
Determine any potential POS or mPOS system’s POS reporting functions. You should be able to run employee reports, inventory reports, cost and profit analysis reports and store comparison reports.
Should you use a cash register, POS or mPOS?
When choosing a checkout system, consider your current business requirements and future needs.
A cash register makes the most sense for these cases:
- Businesses that are starting out and short on capital
- Established businesses that need to ring up sales, accept payments and print receipts only
A POS system makes sense for these cases:
- Businesses that want a system that rings up sales, tracks and manages inventory and helps with customer and employee management
- Retailers and restaurant owners with multiple sales channels, both online and offline
- Businesses with several locations or that need more than one register
An mPOS system makes sense for these cases:
- Businesses that want to process payments outside a physical store, such as at an event or outdoor market
- Retailers and restaurant owners who want to offer immediate or tableside payment processing
Whether you ultimately choose a POS system, an mPOS system, an old-school cash register or some hybrid setup, be aware that these systems aren’t standardized. Ensure you know precisely what’s included in your setup, understand all costs and know what to expect in terms of performance and ease of use.