Starting a new small business can be an expensive affair – and the costs are almost always higher than expected. That’s why free POS software solutions are so appealing, and rightfully so.

When you first start a business, money seems to fly out of your pockets at a much faster rate than it’s coming in – especially if you haven’t opened your doors yet. As such, when you see an advertisement for free point of sale (POS) software, you’re bound to take notice.

In today’s restaurant and retail landscapes, a reliable point of sale system is table stakes when it comes to operating a brick-and-mortar business. Thanks to cloud computing and consumer tablets, POS systems have had a dramatic makeover in the last decade.

Gone are the days of owning a clunky electronic cash register (ECR) or expensive point of sale systems that require a dedicated in-house network and an IT team to implement and maintain. Nowadays, you can access free POS software for download on iPad cash registers and tablet-based POS systems that operate on cloud technology, in real-time.

Not only has technology helped to drive this change, but so has the demand. The demand from entrepreneurs and small business owners like you who needed a POS solution like the mega-retailers use, but without the hefty price tag. You have been a charging force in this shift, especially here at ShopKeep, so take a minute and pat yourself on the back for that.

free pos software shopkeep merchant

This transformation of the industry has led many POS providers to offer free POS software. We know what you’re thinking, “there must be a catch, right?” While you’re not entirely wrong, you’re not entirely right either. There is such a thing as free pos software. It’s not a mythical unicorn or bigfoot hiding in the woods. It’s an actual thing, and it does exist. However, the level of functionality and available features will be limited.

What is Free POS Software, Really?

While the best things in life may be free, your POS software may or may not be. As mentioned, free POS software does exist, but there’s going to be limitations.

A good comparison would be a free streaming music service like Pandora. For example, the free version of their service allows you to create customized stations, but every two or three songs you’re interrupted by an advertisement. You also don’t get all the cool features of the premium version like offline listening and unlimited skips and replays. Similarly, while most free POS software providers won’t interrupt your transaction with an advertisement, you may not get all the features you want or need to run an efficient business.

However, that doesn’t mean free POS software can’t work for your business. The great thing about free is that it gives you a way to test drive the service. If a company offers a free version of something, there are typically premium offers waiting in the wing.

The free version is intended to familiarize you with the product and entice you to upgrade to a premium version at a later time. As such, if you like the free version, you can always opt for an upgrade to access the features you need.

For instance, a free version of POS software may only allow inventory management for up to a limited number of SKUs or limit the number of employees that can use the product. Alternatively, if you upgrade to a paid version, this typically includes access to more robust software features such as unlimited inventory management, mobile insights, ecommerce, advanced reporting and more.

When you’re just starting out, you may not know all the features and functionality you need your POS to have, and that’s okay. Even veteran businesses have needs that change over time. What worked 20 years ago, may not work today, and that’s okay too. In these scenarios, free POS software is a great way to experiment with different systems and service providers to help ensure you find the best solution for your unique business needs.

SEE ALSO: Small Business Basics: What is POS Software

How To Find The Best Free POS Software

Free POS software can do everything from inventory management, customer, and employee management, while also providing you with excellent reporting and data to help you make smarter business decisions — that’s more than your cash register ever did for you.

However, just because it’s free, doesn’t mean it’s right for your type of business. Point of sale software is different for every industry. From downtown retail stores to uptown salons, to trendy cafes to gourmet food trucks, catering halls and fine dining restaurants along the bay – every niche has different needs when it comes to a point of sale system.

The best free POS software for a retail business may not be the best choice for restaurants and vice versa. It’s up to you to do the research, look around to see what’s out there, make a list of features you’d like to have, and know how one compares to the next. You’ll soon start to eliminate some of the possibilities and come up with a few top contenders.

Because each industry has unique business needs, it’s best to find free pos software that is designed for your specific industry. For example, retail store software isn’t likely to have features like appointment scheduling, which is typical of POS software designed for salon and spa management. To keep things simple, here are the 4 types of industries to narrow your focus on.

  • Retail Software for apparel or specialty boutiques, dollar stores, vape shops, coffee shops, wine shops, convenience stores, thrift shops, and hardware stores.
  • Restaurant Software for fine dining, fast-casual or quick service restaurants (QSR) such as cafes or coffee shops, pizzerias, and even catering halls.
  • Hospitality Software for fine dining restaurants, hotels or other service facilities such as golf courses or country clubs.
  • Salon Software for hair salons, nail salons, full-service beauty salons, or spas and wellness centers.


The Cost of Upgrading

Although free POS software is a cost-effective way to get your business up and running, there may come a point in time when you’ll need to upgrade. While upgrading will give you access to the features you need as your business grows, it will also come with a price.

Subscription Fees
Like we said at the beginning of this article, local server-based technology, and the associated business model is dead and obsolete. If you are still being asked for a large upfront payment for local servers, Windows touch screens, or software licensing fees and updates, you should be running as fast as you can in the opposite direction.

When you do decide to take the leap and upgrade from free POS software, what you should look for are companies that offer a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) business model as we do here at ShopKeep. We choose to provide a subscription service because within that cost structure, we can offer free, 24/7 customer service alongside completely free POS software upgrades – delivered seamlessly over the cloud.

This model works nicely for both parties because we don’t ask our small business owners to sign contracts. That means we have to earn the business – and the loyalty – of all ShopKeep merchants each and every month.

POS Hardware
Up to this point, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve kept the conversation strictly about POS software, but that’s about to change – and so is the chatter about free. You see, when it comes to a complete POS system for a brick-and-mortar business, it’s comprised of two components: point of sale software and point of sale hardware. Together, they make a complete system.

Luckily, the advent of the iPad and Android tablets has led to a dramatic drop in the cost of POS hardware. We’ve gone from a world where POS Systems used to cost upwards of $10,000 to one where comparable hardware can be purchased for as little as $600-$1200. This includes things like a receipt printer, iPad, cash drawer, credit card terminal, iPad stand, and barcode scanner.

Shrinking the cost further is the fact that many providers now deliver ultra-simple ‘plug and play’ hardware that allows small business owners to ‘install’ their systems without needing to pay an outside technician. It’s still not free – but it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than it used to be.

So while you might be able to use free POS software, the hardware needed to complete your POS setup will cost you some money upfront. But the bright side is that it’s not nearly as expensive as it was in the past, and we can all cheers to that!

SEE ALSO: How is ShopKeep Different From Square

Hidden Fees
Many POS providers aren’t very transparent when it comes to their free POS software, and free can really end up costing you much more than you bargained for. Small business owners have enough risk in their lives without having to commit to a software provider who can’t meet their end of the bargain. When you’re assessing point of sale providers, be 100 percent sure that setup is free and that you can leave, cost-free, whenever you like.

Credit Card Processing Fees
Chances are if you want to accept credit cards in your business there’s going to be a cost to do so. The powerful card networks charge interchange fees to ride their rails and free POS or not you’re going to pay to ride. However, there are some cases in which the merchant service provider will let you process up to a certain amount without charging you interchange fees.

Equally, if you’re assessing a POS System that makes its money through a margin on your credit card processing, make sure they too are providing genuine, 24/7 customer care and regular, free improvements to your POS System. Remember: these updates aren’t just ‘nice-to-have.’ Your system must be regularly updated and patched to remain secure and compliant with PCI-DSS security standards.

Finding the right POS software for your business is a daunting task, which is why we’ve included our Choosing a POS System: Your 90-Day Plan guide to put you on the right path.

To Sum Up

If you find the limitations of a free pos system a little too limiting, chances are your business needs a more comprehensive point of sale system. Not all businesses are going to fit neatly into the confines of a free POS system, and that’s okay. Don’t fight it. If you genuinely can’t find harmony with free POS software, find one that does fit your needs – even if you have to pay for it. You’ll be much happier you did.

Paul Nugent

Paul Nugent

Paul Nugent is a small business advocate who uses his background in the startup space, along with his POS system expertise, to allow small business owners to make informed decisions within their specific budgets.