Cash registers were invented in the late 19th century, with the first patent issued in 1878 to James Ritty, a saloon owner from Dayton, Ohio. The first commercial model was named “Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier” and was operated by a crank that turned gears inside the machine to record the sale. The primary purpose of the earliest cash registers was to control employee theft: hence the ringing bell, which would warn the proprietor the cash drawer had been opened.
Fast forward to today, and modern cash registers have vastly expanded their role in business.. They can scan and process UPC bar codes, track sales and promotions, allow you to offer loyalty programs, and, of course, accept payments in cash, credit, and debit. Some even accept mobile payments via smartphones and watches.
With these advances comes an abundance of choices between various cash register options. Here’s what today’s cash registers can do, and how to choose the right one for your small business.
What is a cash register?
A cash register is a mechanical or electronic machine that, at minimum, records and processes sales transactions and produces proof of transactions (i.e., receipts). Many small business cash registers also include a lockable cash drawer to store bills and coins.
More advanced cash register functions range from totaling daily sales and cash balances to exporting sales data to providing inventory systems and automatically calculating tips. Modern cash registers are often referred to as point-of-sale (POS) systems.
Essential features of a small business cash register
Among the plethora of features modern POS systems can offer, here are the most critical to consider when looking for a cash register for your small business:
- Sales registration. The cash register should be able to calculate the total price of each item sold, add the sales tax, and provide the total amount owed to complete the transaction.
- Payment processing. Your register should be able to process different payment types, such as cash payment, debit and credit card payment, contactless payment, and gift cards. It should calculate the change owed if a customer pays in cash.
- Receipt printing. Your register should have a receipt printer to provide a receipt to customers upon request, as required by local laws. Alternatively, most POS systems also let you send receipts via email.
- Cash storage. Your cash register POS should be able to connect to a secure cash drawer to organize and store paper bills and coins needed to process cash transactions.
- Reporting. The cash register POS should be able to generate reports, including sales data and cash flow for the day. Advanced POS systems can provide more detailed reports to help monitor business performance.
What are the types of small business cash registers?
As a customer, you’ve likely experienced various payment methods—clunky machines, sleek tablets, or tiny card slots on phones. Here are the three main types of small business cash registers on the market:
1. Electronic cash register (ECR)
An electronic cash register (ECR)—the closest to a mechanical, traditional cash register—is a simple countertop device you use to collect cash and credit card payments, calculate tax, print receipts, and record daily sales. More advanced ECR models can support a bar code reader so you can automatically enter pricing information.
2. Point-of-sale system (POS)
A point-of-sale (POS) system is a digital system that helps you accept and keep track of cash, card, or mobile payments. A POS cash register can help track inventory and collect customer information. It can also perform fiscal and business functions such as transferring money to your bank, tracking cash flow, generating sales reports, visualizing customer data, and managing employees.
A POS system can be entirely digital. Modern systems like Shopify POS keep your business data safely stored on the cloud, so you can log in and access it from any device.
The best part of a POS cash register is that it can be customized to suit your business’s specific needs. For example, if you run a brick-and-mortar store and an ecommerce website, you can set up in-store pickup to let shoppers browse and buy a product online, then pick it up at your store to save on shipping costs.
3. Mobile POS system
A mobile POS system is essentially the same as a POS system, but is built for accepting payments and serving customers anywhere they are. Some options, like Tap to Pay on iPhone for Shopify POS, eliminate the need for hardware altogether. You can accept all contactless card payments with just your iPhone.
With NFC mobile payments growing in popularity, many customers are opting to pay with a simple tap of their card or mobile wallet. If you want to accept cash, you’ll need a cash register or a cash drawer to be able to provide change.
Mobile POS systems are best for small business owners who don’t have a fixed location, like a jewelry maker at a local art fair.
💡 TIP: Want to start selling your products in person? Use Tap to Pay on iPhone for Shopify POS to accept all contactless payments using just your iPhone—no extra hardware required. Connect with your customers at farmers markets, pop-up events and meetups, craft fairs, and anywhere in between.
8 things to consider when choosing a cash register
Considering the following factors can help you make the right choice for your operation:
- Business size
- Business type
- Form factor
- Integrations and compatibility
- Ease of use
1. Business size
The size of your business and its cash flow are the main determining factors for the kind of cash register you need. If you run a small ceramics business with a dozen products, a cash register POS with basic functions to help you accept in-person payments, manage orders, and create customer profiles is sufficient. If you have a retail store and need to manage staff and inventory, you’ll want a POS system with more robust features.
Consider not only your business’s current size but also its growth potential. Choose a cash register POS that supports your needs now and as your business grows and its needs change.
2. Business type
Your payment processing requirements depend on the specific nature of your operation. Are you selling goods and need to deal with inventory? Or are you providing a service and simply need to accept payments for specific work performed? You may have elements of both.
The more complex your operation, the more complex the cash register it necessitates. In most cases, a POS system will have different plans that include different features. Choose a system that has features that support your business type.
3. Form factor
Consider your need for mobility. Does your business have a single point of sale allowing you to have a counter-based cash register? Or do you need to be able to accept payments on the go? Most POS systems have stands for a countertop checkout setup. Other hardware like Shopify POS Go is handheld, and includes a built-in card reader and bar code scanner to give you the flexibility to serve and transact anywhere your customers are.
Consider all the features you could use in addition to accepting payments. A fully functional POS system allows you to manage customer information, loyalty programs, inventory, and sales. Consider a POS system if you think you could benefit from some or all of these features.
A cash register handles a precious company asset—money—so considering security is a must. For instance, Shopify POS lets you control which staff can open the cash register, and also lets you track which staff process cash transactions or balance your cash drawer.
6. Integrations and compatibility
Smart POS systems can deliver even more value and convenience if they’re integrated with other software like your ecommerce platform, accounting software, or bank or payment processor.
In terms of hardware compatibility, some cash registers come with helpful devices such as a bar code scanner, card reader, receipt printer, and customer-facing display. Some cash registers are compatible with all of these, and others can’t use them at all, so figure out what POS hardware you’ll need to ensure you choose the right system.
Cash registers and POS systems combine hardware and software, and the cost of purchasing both ranges. Most POS providers let you pay either monthly or annually for a subscription. That said, the total expenditure will vary depending on the number of stores you have, the features you need, and the hardware you buy.
8. Ease of use
Even though modern cash registers and POS systems are designed with ease of use in mind, more advanced systems can get quite complex to learn to use, operate, and maintain. Consider how tech-savvy your staff is as well.
Best small business cash registers
Here are the best cash register POS options for a small business:
- Shopify. Shopify POS is the best solution for businesses that have both a brick-and-mortar and ecommerce store. It’s flexible, easy to set up, and helps you manage every aspect of your business in one place—inventory, customers, sales, products, and more. It’s included in your Shopify plan, so you can sell online and in-person and pay just $39 per month.
- Royal POS 1500. The Royal POS 1500 is a cash register that ranges from $700 to $900 and can process cash and digital payments. It can also support bar code scanners, RFID payments, and receipt printers.
- Square. Square Register is most known for its mobile POS system for small businesses and its Bluetooth card reader that connects to a smartphone or tablet.
- Vend. Vend POS is another option that offers tablet POS systems for retail. Its monthly subscription model starts at $69 per month.
- Clover. Clover is another POS provider for retail businesses. Expect to pay payment processing fees starting at 2.6% + 10¢ per transaction, in addition to the compatible hardware.
Small business cash registers FAQ
How much does a small business cash register typically cost?
The cost of a POS system varies greatly. There are free options with basic features, and options that can cost several hundred dollars per month. Generally, the more robust a POS system’s features are, the more it costs. You may also pay a processing fee per transaction.
Can a small business cash register be integrated with other business systems, such as inventory management or accounting software?
Yes. More advanced point-of-sale (POS) systems can integrate with ecommerce platforms like Shopify, Squarespace, Wix, Square, BigCommerce, and WooCommerce, as well as accounting software like QuickBooks or Xero—even banks and payment processors. Ensure the POS cash register you’re considering supports the software you already use or want to onboard.
Are there any legal requirements for using a cash register in my small business?
Tracking sales is necessary for all companies for tax reporting purposes, and using a cash register is one of the best ways to do this. Specific rules for using small business cash registers depend on your jurisdiction. Check your local laws to find out what’s required in your location.
Can a small business cash register process payments by card?
Yes, but not all. Some basic cash registers—including electronic ones—only take cash and require additional equipment (and connectivity) to process card payments.