Business Types Supported
The Best POS Systems for Small Businesses: Our Verdict & Recommendations
If your business offers goods or services from a physical location, a point-of-sale (POS) system is a worthwhile investment that saves you time and money. It can help you manage the checkout process, record sales data and track inventory. You can also use these systems to capture customer contact information for your marketing programs and generate reports that help you analyze your business's performance.
Our POS systems review can help you find options that offer core features, favorable terms and reasonable pricing. The top three POS companies in our review offer systems with an impressive array of features, including add-ons and integrations that allow you to customize the systems. They provide service on a month-to-month or pay-as-you-go basis so you aren't required to sign a lengthy contract. They're transparent with their pricing and allow you to purchase your hardware outright so you aren't tied to expensive equipment leases.
Here we've listed our top three recommendations along with some of their best features. Read on to learn more about what you should look for in POS systems and to see our recommendations for specific business types.
- Online store integration
- Supports unlimited number of SKUs
- Compatible with third-party hardware
- No long-term contract
- Supports unlimited number of SKUs
- Offers merchant seminars and courses
- Month-to-month service
- Compatible with most processors
- Both service plans support multiple locations
What Is a Point-of-Sale System?
A POS system is the software and hardware that integrates with, or is used alongside, a payment processing terminal or card reader. The software records the details of each sale and has inventory tools and customer management features that help you run your store. It can also generate a variety of reports that help you analyze your sales data. Typical POS hardware for a countertop setup includes a tablet and stand, a cash drawer, and a receipt printer. It may also include a barcode scanner and other peripheral equipment.
Most POS systems are designed for either retail or restaurant businesses, though some systems can be configured for either type or for service-based businesses such as spas and salons. Some systems cater to a specific type of retail business, such as fashion boutiques or jewelry stores. For this review, we looked at retail systems, though we've indicated on the comparative chart above if the system is also suitable for other types of businesses. Check out our restaurant POS review if you need recommendations for that type of system. If you need to find a credit card processor to use with your POS system, we've got a review for that as well.
Why Is It Tricky to Choose a POS System?
Every POS company is looking to diversify its services, and each offers a different combination of software, hardware and payment processing. Some companies sell POS software only. Some offer software and hardware. Some provide software, hardware and payment processing. Some have software and payment processing. Because of this, comparing value and overall costs can be challenging. You want to make sure you include the costs for all three components in your calculations when you're evaluating your options.
Additionally, each POS system has a different mix of features, which may also vary by service tier. Many systems can be customized with peripherals on the hardware side and add-on programs or integrations on the software side, though often at an additional cost. As you evaluate systems, you need to know which features you require so you can calculate the total cost, including add-ons or integrations.
What We Tested, What We Found
We started our evaluation of POS systems with a list of 24 companies. From this list, we looked for cloud-based POS systems designed for small businesses, specifically those in the retail industry. We eliminated from our list POS systems that are specific to restaurants, as well as ones designed for retail niches such as jewelry stores, flower shops and apparel boutiques. We also eliminated systems geared toward large and enterprise-level businesses, taking our list to 17.
We then eliminated systems that require equipment lease or rental, as industry experts recommend POS hardware you can purchase upfront, and systems with starting plans that are more expensive than most, bringing our list down to 13. From these finalists, we selected the 10 POS systems that performed best in our testing.
We evaluated each POS system using the following guidelines:
- Contractual terms
- Transparency of pricing
- Monthly subscription fees
- Option to choose payment processor
- Option to purchase hardware upfront
- Inclusion of key feature sets
- Availability of customer support
POS System Formats: What Do the Best POS Systems Include?
The best POS systems are those that give you the most flexibility with contractual terms and setup configuration, offer a comprehensive suite of features, and provide reliable support. They also integrate with a variety of payment processing companies and core business management programs. The best POS systems . . .
- Have cloud-based SaaS software. Cloud-based systems offer convenience, allowing you to access back-office features from any browser, which means that you can view your store's sales performance and run reports wherever you are. Although you usually pay a monthly fee for this type of software, these systems have ongoing upgrades that are included in the subscription price rather than annual upgrades that you have to buy. However, they do require you to have reliable internet access; if this is an issue in your area, you may need to consider a downloadable program that runs offline.
- Allow you to purchase hardware outright. Although "free POS systems" or "free placement programs" are enticing, you'll save money and avoid frustration by purchasing your equipment rather than entering a contract or lease that locks you into a three- to five-year term – especially since most contracts automatically renew for additional two-year terms with only a 30-day window in which you can cancel without penalty.
If the contract is tied to the processing service, early cancellation fees may be a few hundred dollars. In many cases, you're also charged liquidated damages, the amount the company expected to earn from your account for the remainder of the term.
If you accepted equipment, there may be additional costs involved to return or buy out the equipment, or the contract may be noncancelable. If this is the case, you must continue making payments, even if your business closes.
- Offer unlocked hardware. Purchasing unlocked hardware can save you money in the long term, because if you decide to switch POS systems or payment processing companies, you may be able to continue using your equipment. If hardware is locked, you can only use it with the company you purchased it from.
- Can grow with your business. You want a system that can expand along with your business. You can add extra POS stations to all the systems in our review. Many provide POS apps for mobile devices that your staff can use to speed up checkout lines and integrations that you can add to the system as your business grows, such as accounting and marketing apps that streamline your tasks. Several support multiple locations under a single account as well.
- Provide reliable support. A POS company that has responsive customer support will give you peace of mind. Should you encounter an issue with your system, you want to know that you'll be able to contact the company immediately. If you keep normal business hours, a company with extended hours may work well for you, but if you keep irregular hours or complete back-office tasks after hours, a company with 24/7 support may be a better choice.
- Work with third-party payment processing companies. This option gives you the flexibility to shop around for the best pricing and service. Also, if you're currently under contract with a processor, choosing a compatible POS system allows you to ride out your contract rather than pay early cancellation fees. While some systems are compatible with nearly any U.S.-based processor, others give you a handful of preferred providers to choose from. Some lower-priced POS software applications don't actually integrate with the processing service, but instead are used alongside it. This isn't as convenient, but it may be an option if cost is your top consideration or if you're locked into a processing contract with a company that isn't compatible with the POS system of your choice.
Features to Look for in POS Systems
Our comparative chart (above) indicates which key feature sets each POS system has. Keep in mind that specific capabilities within each feature set vary greatly. Some are basic, others advanced; some are built into the system, while others are add-on programs or integrations. Before you select a system, it's important to verify that the specific abilities you need are present.
- Inventory management: Every POS system in our review includes at least a basic inventory management system. Specific features and capabilities vary greatly, so you need to know your inventory management needs before you select a system. You should also have an estimate of how many SKUs you need it to support, since there's a wide range between systems. For example, Clover supports 15,000 items, which may be plenty for specialty retailers or counter-serve food shops. Others, such as Shopify and PayPal Here, support an unlimited number. Several of the POS systems in our review offer advanced inventory tools, either in a premium plan or as an integration, though these options usually cost extra.
- Customer management and loyalty programs: All the systems in our review have tools for collecting customer contact data, though they range from a basic customer database to built-in customer relationship management applications that include loyalty programs, such as Epos Now and Bindo provide. Several companies, like Square, Shopify and Clover, offer add-on programs or integrations for marketing and loyalty programs, though there's often an additional cost.
- User profile management: If your employees use your POS system, you want the ability to control the data and functions they can access. For example, maybe you only want your store managers to handle refunds, or you want all your cashiers to have this ability. Perhaps you want your accounting clerk to run most of your reports, but you want to be the only one who can view certain reports. All the POS systems we reviewed have this feature. Some POS systems have built-in employee management features, such as time clocks and shift scheduling, though most offer them as add-ons or integrations.
- Online store integration: If you sell goods or services both online and at a brick-and-mortar store, a POS system that integrates with your eCommerce platform or website can help you manage your inventory in real time, saving you the hassle of running separate inventory programs. If you already have an online store, you want to make sure that the POS system integrates with your eCommerce platform or has an eCommerce API, such as the one offered by Square, that you can plug into your website. If you don't have an online store but plan to open one, Shopify and Bindo are worthy of consideration, as they offer web store services.
POS Contract Terms & Conditions: What to Watch For
No matter which POS system you choose, you need to read the contract carefully to make sure you understand what terms, fees and responsibilities you're agreeing to. Make sure you have the complete contract in front of you and that you read it before you sign it. If the POS system includes a merchant account, the contract likely has three parts: the application, the terms of service and the program guide. Unless you specifically request all three parts, you may not receive the program guide until you receive your equipment (which, you'll notice, is after you've already agreed to its contents when you signed the application and ordered hardware).
Check the length of the term and make sure you understand the cancellation policy and procedure. The best POS companies provide service on a month-to-month or pay-as-you-go basis. They don't require you to sign a multi-year contract or charge you fees if you decide to cancel your account.
While it's best to purchase equipment outright, if you decide to accept free POS equipment, you want to find out if you'll own the equipment at the end of the term or if you're required to return it. If you're required to return it, ask about restocking fees, wear-and-tear penalties, and how much it would cost to purchase it. You also want to find out if the contract is noncancelable for the initial term, how long you have at the end of the term before the contract automatically renews, and what procedure you follow to close your account. In most cases, you only have 30 days, and you're required to submit written notice.
POS Systems: More Recommendations
Our top recommendations –Shopify, Vend and Talech – are good choices for most retail businesses. These are our recommendations for several specific situations:
- Do you already have POS equipment and want a system that may be compatible? Consider Epos Now, PayPal Here and Vend.
- Want a system that's compatible with Android tablets? Choose Square, Epos Now or PayPal Here.
- Prefer not to use a tablet for your monitor? Clover and uAccept hardware have built-in screens.
- Want a built-in loyalty program? Check out Bindo, Epos Now and uAccept.
- Need a POS system that integrates with your accounting software? Most of the programs in our review integrate with QuickBooks, and several also integrate with Xero. Additionally, Shopify and Epos Now have Sage integrations, and Square integrates with Zoho Books, OneUp and Kashoo.