Learn about the differences between a traditional cash register and a POS system.
- A traditional cash register is a basic system used to store cash and record sales transactions.
- In addition to recording sales and storing cash, a point-of-sale (POS) system has features for inventory tracking, employee and customer management, and integrations for other business programs like your accounting software.
- POS systems are available at price points that can fit any business's budget and needs and are the best choice for most small business owners.
Processing sales transactions is an essential part of running a business, and the cash register system you purchase to handle those payments is an important decision. With several register types available, small business owners are often left wondering, "Which is the best cash register system for my business?"
As is the answer with most things in business: It depends.
Whether you own a local retail business or a multilocation restaurant, there is a register system to fit your needs. You can choose from traditional cash registers, point-of-sale (POS) systems and mobile POS systems.
To help you choose the best cash register for your business, we analyzed the different types of cash register systems to determine why you might prefer one option over the other.
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What are the different types of cash registers?
There are several systems available to help you process and manage sales transactions. All cash registers fall into one of three categories: traditional cash registers, POS cash registers or mobile POS cash register systems.
Each option has its own benefits and limitations. The system you should choose depends on your business size, industry, budget, the features you need and your personal preferences.
Traditional cash register
A traditional cash register, also known as an electronic cash register, is a basic system used to manage sales. Ron Mansfield, sales team lead at Flux Shop Manager, a POS system for automotive repair shops, said a traditional cash register typically comprises an adding machine and a cash drawer. Its capabilities are very basic: It essentially just adds up the cost of items, automatically applies sales tax if required, and generates a total. A cash drawer opens when a receipt is printed.
Mansfield said that, with the increase of newer payment types like Apple Pay and Bitcoin, these systems aren't as popular or practical as they used to be. Since this type of system is a bit outdated, it is not ideal for most businesses.
POS cash register
A POS cash register, also known as a computerized register or a POS system, is more advanced than a traditional cash register and commonly used by small businesses. These modernized systems can do a lot more than just tally totals and print receipts.
"A POS cash register is a computerized register that is connected to a wider control system and will usually have multiple individual registers on the network processing sales and accepting payments," said John Moss, CEO of English Blinds. "POS systems also track inventory and stock levels, and report back on these, track sales and sales patterns, and even monitor customer data via loyalty programs."
Depending on which features you need, you can choose a very simple POS system or one that has advanced capabilities and integrates with third-party business applications, like your accounting software and email marketing service. Many small business owners like cloud-based POS systems that run on tablets or from browsers, as they're both affordable and full-featured. A fully integrated point-of-sale system can automate business operations, reduce human error and increase business efficiency.
Mobile POS cash register
Mobile cash registers, also known as mobile POS systems or mobile credit card processing solutions, have many of the same functions as standard POS systems while offering more flexibility in processing and managing payments, since they run on tablets or smartphones.
"Mobile systems are handheld devices, either a mobile phone or tablet, that come with a card reader for payments," said Mansfield. "Bluetooth printers are occasionally used for receipts, but often receipts are emailed to the customer instead."
William Dawsey, vice president of finance and payment solutions at Chetu, a custom software developer that works with payment service platforms, said that mobile POS solutions can be very versatile in the types of payment they accept.
"Developments in payment technology allow transactions to be held on ubiquitous devices, such as mobile phones, that utilize near-field communication (NFC), Quick Response (QR), barcode configurations, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and magnetic secure transmission (MST) technology," said Dawsey. "Additionally, mobile payment systems can utilize cryptocurrencies and digital wallet services."
Although mobile POS systems are designed to accept credit card payments, they must be paired with a cash drawer if you need to accept cash payments. Mobile POS systems are ideal for mobile businesses like food trucks, retail shops that sell at local events, and restaurants that want to accept payments tableside.
What is the difference between a cash register and a POS system?
The primary difference between a traditional cash register and a POS system is the breadth of functionality that POS systems provide. Traditional cash registers are simple devices used to record sales transactions and dispense cash, while POS systems do much more.
"The key feature of traditional cash registers is that they're stand-alone units that aren't connected to any centralized system, or to other registers within the store or company," Moss told business.com. "They don't provide any reporting features and sometimes can only be operated manually by means of inputting pricing data."
Although you can use traditional cash registers to complete business transactions, they are limited in their capabilities, which is inconvenient for business owners. In addition to recording sales and storing cash, POS systems help business owners manage their sales, product catalog or menu, inventory, analytics, customers and employees.
"POS systems are fully functioning payment systems that facilitate digital transactions of currency and, as such, adhere to contemporary consumer protection standards, including Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS), Payment Application Data Security Standard (PA-DSS), EMV, Check 21 and other payment standards," said Dawsey.
As the need to accept digital payments increases, business owners should place high importance on finding a system that complies with current security guidelines to protect their customers' private information.
What are the benefits of a cash register?
Simplicity of design. Most benefits of a cash register stem from the simplicity of design. Many cash registers have no networking capability. This means that they do not store customer data, and they cannot be hacked. The only record in these cases is created with printed receipts, and this makes data security much simpler and easier.
Longevity. Simplicity is also valuable in terms of longevity. Without a computer system, cash registers have far fewer parts. That limits the number of things that can go wrong, and it tends to improve the longevity of the device. Even when problems do occur, non-computerized cash registers are simpler to fix. This is particularly valuable for a business that has a low volume of in-person sales.
- Value. The third major benefit of a cash register is value. Costs for any given cash register or POS system will vary, but there are certainly cases where a business will get more ROI out of a cash register than a POS system. This is generally true when the cash register is available at a lower price and the business doesn’t gain strong benefit from the POS features.
What are the benefits of a POS system?
Since a POS system is computerized, it comes with some clear benefits over the simpler cash register. All of them are related to the features built into the computerization of the POS system.
Inventory management. Inventory is one of the main selling points of a POS. The systems can be integrated into inventory management. This will automatically track stock changes after every sale and make replenishment much easier to manage.
Data analytics. A POS can also digitize sales data. This allows for the integration of optimization software. A business can utilize data analytics without having to invest manpower into typing receipt information into a computer. The potential savings on labor are substantial.
- Time and attendance tracking. A POS can also simplify aspects of administration. A timeclock can be integrated into the POS, making it easier to track employee hours and labor statistics. The POS can also include timers to schedule mandatory breaks, rotations in station or responsibilities and staffing changes to handle sales traffic patterns.
Pricing and where to buy
Cash registers are fairly easy to find. Many office supply stores carry a few models in store, so they can be purchased today. While not every model is available in every store, here are a few examples available at Office Depot and Staples. You can see that prices range from under $100 to over $300, depending on the desired features. Cash registers are also available through online providers like Amazon, where similar price ranges will be found.
POS devices are a little more difficult to find at a local storefront. Comparing the same retailers, very few Office Depot and Staples stores keep POS computers in stock at local stores.
It may be possible to find a local retailer that has POS systems, but there are plenty of business POS systems available online.
Regardless of where the purchase is made, POS systems cost much more, on average, than cash registers. They typically start as high as $300, and they can easily get up into the thousands in price point. In general, the range of features will determine the price of the POS system. More powerful software, networking and security will typically add to the cost.
When would you want a cash register vs. a POS system?
Traditional cash registers are much cheaper than most POS systems, so they may be useful for very small businesses working with a tight budget. Moss said that traditional cash registers are typically only beneficial to business owners who operate one small store with one register and have the time to manually check, monitor, and control things like stock levels.
Additionally, he said, business owners who use a traditional register will also have to know every item's price or have a quick way to determine them. These users will need other ways to determine things like sales trends, popular items and fluctuations.
"As is self-evident, this means that a traditional register is very limited and will only be appropriate for a very narrow demographic of store owners, and aside from the purchase cost saving of a traditional register, they offer few to no advantages and many disadvantages," said Moss.
Dawsey also warns against using traditional cash registers for transactions in a predominantly cashless society, given the shift in fraudulent activity accountability to retailers and small businesses. Even in a business that mainly takes cash, he said, traditional cash registers create data silos, hindering integration with other critical business software.
Conversely, a POS system can be beneficial for businesses of all sizes and will likely be more desirable for your business than a simple cash register. Although the best POS system for your business will depend on your specific needs and budget, several options are available.
If you are working with a tight budget, you may consider starting out with a free POS system, and then switching to a robust paid version when your needs and budget permit it.
"Many small business owners are reluctant to invest in both the purchase cost of a POS system and also the time required to train management and operators in its usage," Moss said. "However, POS systems pay for themselves many times over in a reasonably short period of time when you view the big picture."
Although a POS system may seem like a costly acquisition, it is a worthwhile investment for most businesses. Assess your needs and weigh the pros and cons to determine if a traditional cash register or a POS system is best for your business.