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 understandably 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 or hardware, 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 small 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.

A modern POS app is more than a cash register. The software should include employee management, inventory tracking, the ability to generate sales reports, and more. The free version of our POS system, ShopKeep, is even able to manage unlimited inventory items, so solutions definitely exist.

Not only has technology helped to drive this evolution, but so has 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 some POS providers to offer free versions of their POS software product, including us at ShopKeep. Unlike services like Vend, which offers a free trial, our free software doesn’t have an expiration date. If you only need the basic functionality included in our free plan, the software is free forever.

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 are going to be limitations.

A good comparison would be a free streaming music service like Spotify. For example, the free version of their service allows you to create customized playlists, 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. For example, the free plan of ShopKeep allows you to accept a customer’s credit card and complete a transaction, but you need to purchase pos hardware like a card reader to swipe credit card payments (more about that later).

Additionally, 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: accept a few payments, start to build your business. If a company offers a free version of something, there are typically premium offers waiting in the wing. ShopKeep’s free plan, for instance, includes unlimited inventory management, but it can only be used securely by one employee. If you hire another person, you will need to upgrade to the Essential or Advanced plan.

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 ShopKeep’s POS software can only be used on one register and by one employee, but you can add unlimited inventory items and process as many transactions as you’d like.

Eventually (and sometimes immediately), your business will outgrow those features. So when you upgrade to our Essential or Advanced plans, you benefit from features like unlimited register licenses, eCommerce, a loyalty program, and more.

Of course, 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 ringing up customers to managing your inventory, 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. While we are partial to our own free software, options run the gamut from bare-bones solutions, to open-source POS options, to free trials of popular providers like Vend.

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 point of sale software.

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.

Free POS Retail Solutions
Retail Software (aka a retail pos) for apparel or specialty boutiques, dollar stores, vape shops, coffee shops, wine shops, convenience stores, thrift shops, and hardware stores. ShopKeep’s free plan is a perfect solution for retail start-ups or pop-up stores.

Free Restaurant POS Options
Restaurant Software for fine dining, fast-casual or quick-service restaurants (QSR) such as cafes or coffee shops, pizzerias, and even catering halls. The free version of our pos system, for example, is perfect for a food truck, but is too basic for a full-service restaurant.

Hospitality Software
This type of POS is used at fine dining restaurants, hotels or other service facilities such as golf courses or country clubs.

Salon Software
There is software tailor-made for hair salons, nail salons, full-service beauty salons, and spas and wellness centers. This software generally includes scheduling functionality.

The Cost of Upgrading

While a free POS is a cost-effective way to get businesses up and running, there will (hopefully!) 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 cloud-based software solution, which is what 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 since we don’t require our small business clients to sign contracts, we have to earn the business – and the loyalty – of all ShopKeep merchants each and every month.

What About Hardware and Payment Processing?

When you imagine using a POS at your business, you probably envision a satisfied customer smiling while you swipe their credit card. There are multiple steps involved in every credit card swipe, however, and few of those steps are free.

You will need a credit card reader, and if your software is free, your reader probably will not be. (Thankfully, a basic reader is pretty affordable.) In order to actually accept a credit card, you will need a payment processing solution, and you’ll have to pay the interchange fees set by card companies as well as any credit card processing fees.

When you are first setting up your business, it’s easy to not read the fine print too closely with these details. After all, the processing fees come out of sales you make, so that’s not money you pay upfront. And a reader sounds pretty easy to obtain.

But as many businesses can attest, details matter.

Before you buy a credit card reader, make sure it is compatible with your chosen point of sale so you can actually accept payment from a customer.

And before you agree to processing terms, shop around! The industry is rife with jargon that can easily confuse business school graduates, let alone the average person who starts brick-and-mortar businesses. So it’s important to familiarize yourself with how payment processing impacts your company.

As far as POS hardware is concerned, the advent of the iPad and Android tablets has led to a dramatic drop in the cost of setting up a professional POS system. 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 get the software for free, the hardware needed to complete your POS setup will cost you some money upfront. But the bright side is that hardware is 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.

Is There a Free Version of ShopKeep?

In short, yes. You can download our basic register app for free onto an iPad and begin adding inventory and ringing up customers immediately. Eventually, you will need to add a payment processor in order to accept credit cards, and you will also need to buy a card reader to swipe credit cards. Because it’s so easy to upgrade to a world-class POS system once your business gets off the ground, starting with our free plan is a great option if you’re just starting out.

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 a monthly fee 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.