How does a POS system work? how does a pos system work

The process of ringing up sales looks simple enough to the casual observer: the customer hands an item to the cashier who then scans the barcode and then taps a few keys at the register. The cashier tells the customer the total amount due, which prods the shopper to pay so they can take their products home.

It’s a simple and (usually) quick process, but what many people don’t realize is that there’s a lot going on behind the scenes of every point of sale transaction. 

If you’re curious to learn how everything works, keep reading. 

This post will shed light on the ins and outs point of sale (POS) systems and how they work. 

Let’s get started. 

What is a POS system? 

A POS system — sometimes referred to as ePOS system — is exactly what it sounds like: it’s the system that enables the point of sale process to take place. When we say “POS system” we’re referring to the hardware and software that allow cashiers to ring up sales. 

While many consider “POS” and “ePOS” as the same thing, in some countries like the UK, the two terms have an important distinction: “POS” systems are traditional cash registers while “ePOS” are their electronic counterparts. The term “POS” seems to be more popular in countries like the US and Australia, while “ePOS” is more widely used in the UK. 

Which brings us to our next point…

POS systems vs. cash registers 

Think of cash registers as the analog version of modern POS systems (or ePOS systems if you’re in the UK). The former is a device whose main purpose is to ring up sales, while the latter is an integrated system that not only facilitates the checkout process, but also helps you manage your catalog, market to your customers, and run your business as a whole. 

Cash registers focus on just sales. They don’t sync with your inventory system, provide you with any reports, or “talk” to your other business apps. A POS system, on the other hand, has more business management capabilities and can also connect with other platforms that you’re using in your business. 

Key components of a POS system 

We can’t talk about how POS systems work without first discussing its components. Generally, POS systems are composed of two tightly connected parts: hardware and software.

The hardware covers the equipment or devices used to carry out the checkout process. They include:

  • POS display
  • Barcode scanner 
  • Receipt printer 
  • Payment terminal 
  • Cash drawer 

Not all POS systems will have every single device above. If you send out email receipts for example, then you don’t need a receipt printer. If you only accept credit card payments or do business on-the-go, then a cash drawer isn’t necessary. 

The two must-haves in any POS system are the display and payment terminal. 

The software is the program that’s running your POS. The look, feel, and functionality of your POS software will vary from one provider to another, but most modern systems will have the following features:

  • Sale screen
  • Inventory management
  • Customer relationship management 
  • Reporting and analytics 

On-premise vs. cloud-based

POS software can also be classified as either being cloud-based or on-premise (on-site). The former can be accessed over the internet, while the latter is hosted locally on your own server or computer. 

Cloud-based point of sale systems usually work through a SaaS (Software as a Service) model, and providers charge a subscription fee for the software. On-premise POS systems are installed on your computer, and you typically have to pay for the software upfront or pay a licensing fee. 

Many are opting for cloud-based software because they’re more accessible and scalable. With cloud-based solutions, you can access the software from any device as long as you have an internet connection, making it easy to check in on business.

Updates happen automatically, and you simply have to download the latest version of the software.

With on-premise software, the solution “lives” in your device or server, so you’re in charge of  maintaining and updating the software. Businesses that prefer to have their data on-site are usually the ones that choose on-premises software.

How POS systems work: different components coming into play

The best POS systems work when the components mentioned above function seamlessly together to enable the transaction. Think of it this way: the hardware and software of your POS solution “talk” to each other to make the sale happen. 

Here’s how:

Things kick off when a sale is initiated by the cashier. That is, when they scan a product or enter it into the sale screen. At this stage, the POS software populates the sale screen with each line item. It displays the product along with the price, and the total amount owed. 

On the backend, the software is syncing with its inventory management and adjusts the stock levels based on the quantities purchased by the customer. 

While all that is happening, the cashier tells the customer the amount due and the shopper selects a payment method. If the customer pays electronically via credit card or their mobile device, it triggers the payment terminal to come into play. The customer follows the prompts on the terminal and goes through with the sale. If they’re paying cash, they can just hand the amount to the cashier. 

The cashier confirms the amount on their end. Then, the receipt printer is triggered and prints the receipt. For cash transactions, the printer sends a signal to the cash drawer to open when necessary. 

Note: Other things can take place, depending on the store. For instance, some stores have a loyalty program, in which case the customer gives the cashier their member details. Other times, the merchant may ask the shopper to enter their contact information. These things can happen before or after the payment step, depending on the store’s setup.

Behind the scenes, the software is also working to keep everything in check. Stock levels are updated and data is fed into the system’s reporting and analytics. If customer details or loyalty data are captured, the system also stores that in its database.  

It doesn’t stop there: POS systems play an important role after the transaction 

The work of your POS or ePOS system doesn’t end when the transaction is over. As mentioned previously, newer point of sale systems can help you run multiple components of your business, including inventory and customer management, finances, analytics, and more. 

Consider the following:

Whenever you make a sale, your POS software logs the transaction and updates your stock level. Let’s say you’re a clothing boutique, and at the beginning of the day, you had 50 large maxi skirts in stock. Throughout the day, you sold 25 of those dresses. If everything is working correctly, your POS system would’ve recorded those 25 transactions and modified your stock levels accordingly. 

A POS system that tracks your inventory becomes particularly handy if it’s able to connect with your other sales channels. Going back to the maxi dresses example, if you sold an additional 10 dresses online, then your system should take those sales into account and update your overall inventory levels. 

Your POS system and payment processor work hand in hand. For best results, opt for an integrated payment solution, wherein your restaurant POS system or retail POS software interfaces directly with your payment processor. That way, when a customer makes a payment via credit card, their payment data directly feeds into your POS and you can ring up sales faster. 

While it is possible to opt for non-integrated payments, this setup will require cashiers to manually key in payment data into the POS, which makes the experience more cumbersome. 

POS integrated payments also make end of day reconciliation easier. Instead of manually checking receipts against all your transactions, an integrated payment solution automates the process, thus saving time and minimizing errors. 

One of the great things about a modern POS or ePOS system is having easier access to data and insights. Unlike traditional cash registers, which only record transactions, POS systems can track and analyze sales, inventory, and customer data, which then leads to powerful reporting and analytics. 

The best POS systems in the market make it easy to track important metrics in your business and many allow you to filter data so you can easily find the information you need. 

For instance, if you’d like to generate sales reports for a given time period, product category, or even customer group, a solid POS system will help you do that. Want to figure out what your top sellers are or how fast stock is moving? There are plenty of POS solutions that can crunch the numbers at the drop of a hat. 

These things simply aren’t possible with a clunky cash register, and it’s one of the many reasons why more and more businesses are switching to new and trusty POS systems.

Further reading

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