Cash Register Buying Guide: POS vs. Cash Registers vs. Tablet mPOS

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Do you want to go mobile, digital or old-school?

There’s a lot more to selecting a till than most people realize. Today’s business owners not only have to choose between a traditional cash register and a digital point of sale (POS) system, they also have to navigate confusing terms and setups that require extra add-ons for full transaction functionality. This guide outlines the types of checkout options available for brick-and-mortar businesses, defines some commonly used terms, and outlines the research process so you can get the best fit product for your small business.

Cash registers

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, functionality and price.

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, and when registers like these are used in food service, waiters still have to submit their tickets the old-school way.

Mid-range cash registers are available for anywhere from $300 to $600. In this price range, you’ll see primarily keypad designs and some touchscreen designs, but you’ll also find high-speed thermal printers built-in and lots of specialized registers (like those created specifically for food service). If you operate 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 cash register and POS system. 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, in general, the interface is better in POS systems. And it’s easier to combine and track online (ecommerce) processing and brick-and-mortar (in-store) purchases in one place.

Across the board, cash registers are generally cheaper than POS systems, and the major reason this is true (even if you go for a high-end cash register) is that typically 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 typically 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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POS terminals

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 computer built-in) that lives at the main checkout counter or order placement area (if it’s in a restaurant). Such terminals are often accessed and used by multiple employees, and they nearly always sport touchscreen interfaces, have built-in reporting and inventory software, cloud storage, allow for admin features (like different permissions for different employees), can integrate with ecommerce stores and more. When it comes to these robust machines, the more you spend, 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 high-end specialty models that sell for more, with some retailing at more than $5,000 per unit. One major benefit to a POS system that comes with all the hardware included is that the hardware is designed for heavy business use.

There are systems out there called POS systems that come with some hardware (like a cash drawer, printer and stand) and available software but require the purchaser to buy and use their own tablet (most frequently an iPad) with it. These types of 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 being used in 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 are an option that works for some businesses, which will be explored in the next section.

mPOS systems

An mPOS is a mobile POS system, and usually it describes a software product that can be loaded on 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, where the purchaser buys a tablet stand and software, and then chooses the add-ons that best suit their business. Systems like these typically have very modern easy-to-use interfaces, plenty of customization options and robust reporting. On the flip side, they rely on the daily use of non-business machines, and since iPad is usually the compatible device, replacement of the screen/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 based on size and appearance alone. mPOS machines are much smaller than traditional POS or cash registers, and many entrepreneurs feel that having 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 ease of 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 had 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 place their own orders.

The main thing to consider if you go the mPOS route 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, and be sure to ask the company if there will be additional fees for additional devices, because that 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 it’s not in the works yet, it’s always good to find out upfront how much it will cost to add additional devices to your lineup. You should also inquire about the costs related to getting 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: interface matters. If at all possible, get hands-on experience on any checkout machine you’re considering. If that’s not possible, request a demo. Think about how intuitive the interface is, what the options are for customization, whether or not there are security and admin features you need, and, above all else, how easy it will be for employees to learn and use. A terrible system that’s hard to navigate can lead to misuse by employees, time inefficiency and unnecessary frustration.

Physical Setup. Unless your space is unlimited, make sure you 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’re going the basic cash register route and you’re not worried about integrations, you can skip this altogether, but if you plan on integrating your checkout system with your ecommerce site, or using it in tandem with other software, you’re already using, make sure the product you choose is compatible.

Reports and Exports. If you’re choosing a POS or mPOS, reporting and exporting information is a huge factor to consider. 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.  

Bottom Line

Whether you ultimately choose a POS system, a mPOS system, an old-school cash register, or some sort of hybrid setup, the most important detail you need to be aware of as you shop is that there is no standardization across manufacturers when it comes to what is or isn’t included in a register, POS device, or POS software. Make sure you know exactly what is included and what isn’t, how much peripherals cost, and what you can expect in terms of performance and ease of use.

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