Lightspeed Retail Review
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Note: There are two separate LightSpeed POS products, though the distinction isn’t always clear. LightSpeed OnSite (also called LightSpeed Pro) comprises software that is installed onto your desktop Mac and is available in most countries. LightSpeed Retail (also called LightSpeed Cloud) is a cloud-based POS system that is only available to US and Canadian residents. This review looks at LightSpeed Retail.
Lightspeed, the Montreal-based software company whose POS solutions are now used by over 20,000 people, set several major benchmarks in 2014. It secured $35 million in investments, continued to develop tailored solutions for restaurateurs, and launched a host of new services, chief amongst them Lightspeed Cloud (later to become Retail), Lightspeed Web Store, and Lightspeed Payments. Now a year later, Lightspeed has picked up another $61 million, bringing the running total raised by the company to $126 million.
Software engineer Dax Dasilva, a developer who began writing programs at the age of 13, founded Lightspeed in 2005. In 2002 he helped create store-management software for Apple and kept improving on that initial attempt until Lightspeed OnSite, the forerunner to Retail, was born. During this period, the company received a hefty retinue of awards and accolades. It won the Retail TouchPoints Next-Generation Retail Award in the Payments/POS category. Additionally, OnSitefit Magazine put the company on its Hot 50 startups list in 2010 and placed them on OnSitefit 200 list for 2011 and 2012.
So, with all of the recognition and growth that initially surrounded Lightspeed OnSite, what do we make of its cloud-based cousin, Retail, a product that evolved out of the 2013 acquisition of MerchantOS? The first thing worth pointing out is that most of the features that made OnSite such a well-received product have remained intact. The software is still characterized by depth of functionality and the ability to tailor the infrastructure to meet specific needs. The second thing that marks an improvement over OnSite is Lightspeed Retail’s well-balanced and beautifully minimal interface—no small feat when viewed in light of the myriad of functions offered. Finally, and most vitally, the software is cloud-based. This is important because it’s the direction that most retailers are moving in.
Unfortunately, there is a flip side to the recent success of Lightspeed’s retail POS system. Over the last couple months, the software has experienced multiple system outages that are frustrating users and, in some cases, costing them thousands of dollars in lost revenue. Lightspeed’s technicians have managed to get these incidents under control (for the most part), but their systems are still overloaded and unable to accommodate some basic functions, effectively setting it back months or even years.
Though Lightspeed has built up a reputation of creating great products with impressive functionality, these recent setbacks are sure to deter more than a couple merchants from investing in their software. But I’ve seen other POS systems survive worse so there’s hope for Lightspeed Retail yet.
Read on to learn more.
The good news for prospective users of Retail is that Lightspeed has simplified and reduced its pricing model, though the array of add-ons can still be a tad confusing.
As you’ll see later on, cost-of-service constitutes one of the biggest criticisms of Lightspeed, past and present. The old model was based on a traditional upfront fee for user licenses and then included additional costs for optional modules, mobile licensing, and support beyond the first year; by today’s standards, it was fairly prohibitive. A modest setup with one iPad register could still end up costing you $2,200 in license fees, and starting in year 2, premium support (comprising phone support and software upgrades) would be another $600 a year.
In addition to being expensive, the pricing model was complicated and confusing, so the new pricing rollout has been a welcome change. Unfortunately, it is still comparatively high. On top of this, the add-on fees for additional registers and web-store syncing seem a little like shameless profiteering. Extra costs can be difficult to justify when there are so many competitors offering similar products at a slightly lower price.
- $89/mo ($76/mo if billed annually).
- 1 register.
- 5 employees.
- $149/mo ($128/mo if billed annually).
- 2 register.
- 10 employees.
- $259/mo ($222/mo if billed annually).
- 4 register.
- 20 employees.
- $51/mo for each additional register (includes 3 employees).
- $9/mo for each additional employee.
- $59/mo ($49/mo if billed annually) to add web store with a limit of 2000 products.
- $99/mo ($49/mo if billed annually) to add an advanced web store with unlimited products.
- $25/month ($21/month if billed annually) for “Advanced Reporting.”
All plans include unlimited products, customers, and transactions, software upgrades and premium technical support. Retail also has a 14-day trial that you can use to check out the software for yourself.
Web-Based or Locally-Installed:
Lightspeed Retail is totally web-based. The upside to this is that without the bulky hardware, set-up is a more fluid process, and you don’t have to deal with backups or on-site software updates. HTML5 caching has been introduced so you can make sales during Wi-Fi outages (during which time card transactions will be queued). All this means is that if you’re serving a customer without an Internet connection, their transaction will be sent to the processor once a connection is re-established. Most POS providers now offer this feature.
Lightspeed Retail targets (you’ll be surprised to hear) retail settings. It also offers extensive features for selling services alongside physical products. With the ability to create estimates/quotes, service and repair orders, and define labor costs, the software is useful in a variety of settings, from oil-change shops to Brooklyn storefronts where beautiful people in thick-rimmed glasses sell artisanal llama cheese. One of the standout areas in this software is the amount of register functionality offered, something not readily available in similar POS system providers.
Note: If you’re a food-seller, then have a look at our Lightspeed Restaurant review; Retail won’t be suitable for your needs.
Specific Size of Business:
Any size business will work happily with Lightspeed Retail, though the definite target market seems to be medium sized businesses or those that require custom elements and added flexibility. That said, the software is so feature-rich—with functions to support every part of the retail cycle, from ordering and purchasing to stocking and selling (as well as extensive CRM capabilities and employee management)—that it appeals to even the largest of big box retailers.
As for cost, Lightspeed is pretty pricey compared to other iPad providers with a similar target market (ShopKeep and NCR Silver both have a price range of around $50/month with all the add-ons included). If you’re a small to medium-sized retailer it’s likely that one of these better-priced alternatives will meet your needs adequately. All of the functionality Lightspeed boasts—solid inventory management, deep analytics reporting, and marketing campaign management—is offered by similar providers. The only difference is that these other POS systems aren’t as flexible (likely why boutiques, who often need custom options, have gravitated towards Lightspeed Retail), which is something to consider when you are making a choice. You should ask yourself whether you need nuanced functionality or if something more generic would work equally well.
Ease of Use:
Both the front and back-end of the software are extremely intuitive. The initial set-up, completed in the in-browser software (though you can manage it from your POS), is a step-by-step process including a catalogue of items with which you can populate your inventory. There is also a wizard that will guide you through every part of set-up if you need it.
The organization of the management area is basic in the best possible way. All of the functions are grouped into categories on the left-hand side, and the most commonly used options are the most prominently displayed. This might seem like an obvious thing to do, but you’d be surprised how many POS dashboards hide away the most vital functions. You can start, continue, or refund a sale with veritable ease, create special orders and even set a lovely customer display for when you’re away from the register.
All of the functions are accessed through simple, large buttons and once you’ve got the hang of Lightspeed Retail you’re not going to forget how to use it (bar an interface re-design of course). There’s a high degree of inventory customization, reporting options, and customer tracking—all of which are incredibly easy to access and use—manageable from a single page (so you don’t have to cycle through different screens). Similarly, the management of your customer database is a breeze.
Accessing reporting is a little bit more complicated, with dozens of compiled reports to choose from. Still, it’s nothing that can’t be understood with a little bit of devoted time.
One final point: the iPhone app is very basic, so don’t expect too much from it. You only have the option of scanning items (there’s no item lookup) and viewing the amount of sales made over a pre-defined period. That’s it.
Hardware and Operating System Requirements:
The Retail App and associated hardware will work with any 3rd generation or above iPad or iPhone, though bear in mind that you can’t make sales through the iPhone; you must have an iPad. The in-browser option will obviously run on any computer with an Internet connection.
Lightspeed sells all peripheral hardware themselves and offers two bundles:
iPad POS Hardware Kit ($999) – Includes an APG cash drawer, a Vault Simplicity Base iPad stand, a Bluetooth socket scanner, a LAN receipt printer, and receipt paper. The actual iPad is not included.
iPad POS Hardware Kit Plus Aerohive ($1999) – This bundle, which is available exclusively in the US, includes the standard (above) hardware kit and also an Aerohive Wi-Fi router and “Embedded Verizon Network LTE.” If you’re as technologically challenged as I am then these phrases might be just another mouthful of gobbledygook. As far as I can tell, both the LTE and the router are designed to offer speedier, safer transactions by providing 4G access and an established firewall.
Any of these peripherals can be purchased separately if you don’t need a whole bundle. For models and pricing, check out Lightspeed’s hardware page here.
The main issue I’ve raised so far is Lightspeed Retail’s comparatively higher cost, but even a cursory look at the features will show that there is a justification for the extra $30 or so you’re charged every month. I’m not saying that I agree with Lightspeed’s pricing model, but it does have a basis.
- Multi-Tender Options: All payment types are accepted: cash, credit, debit, check, gift card, and store credit (either from exchanges or established house credit accounts). You can print and/or email receipts (and gift receipts) with product descriptions and notes. Gift certificates/cards also have a barcode for ease of use and can be reused (their balances can be changed). The option to apply discounts is readily available through the register and you can hold and suspend sales and return to them later, or transfer them to another device. Adding new/existing customers to a sale directly through the POS interface is seamless. Performing returns and exchanges is equally easy.
- Inventory Management:The options for inventory management can go fairly deep depending on your particular needs. The basic process—adding descriptions, category management, and reorder points—is relatively simple. Amongst the more advanced features are customizable tags (so that you can essentially create your own inventory taxonomy for searching for items), multiple attributes (large, medium, small etc.), and the ability to assembly items into groups, including serialized items.
- Purchase Order Management:You can track vendors, complete PO’s, and receive orders. For selected vendors there are more advanced options, such as direct catalogue ordering from within Lightspeed.
- Employee Management:There is a basic time clock for employees, operated through an easy-to-set up pin, as well as a log of employee sales and inventory changes. You can set up customizable roles from within the management area.
- Work Order Management:You can create work/repair orders, track repair progress, and print claim checks and service labels. The labor option also allows you to time and bill work orders based on time worked. You can schedule appointments for services and turn quotes/orders into invoices/sales too.
- Customer Relationship Management:The ability to add customers to your database is available on both desktop and iPad. You can track contact information, credit limits, and transactions. Other great features include the ability to set up different customer categories to offer specialized discounts, track outstanding balances and past-due accounts, track all your print statements, apply payments to invoices and balances, or use credits against future sales. Integration with MailChimp is now also available for email marketing management.
- Reporting:There are hundreds of pre-set printable reports. Customize reports may be filtered by day, week, month, or year. View your profits by total revenue or margin. There’s also a desktop browser export feature—any report lists can be exported to Excel in spreadsheet format.
- Multi-Store:Lightspeed allows you to transfer inventory between locations, and provides full visibility of all inventory from stores and warehouses (you can look-up to see if another store has the product a customer wants).
Integrations and Add-Ons:
This is one of the areas where Lightspeed seems to be having some troubles. Their Add-Ons page lists several applications and services that Retail integrates with, including:
- QuickBooks: This integration exports files from Retail into the QuickBooks .iif format to meet your bookkeeping needs.
- Perkville: Perkville allows customers to refer their friends to your business in Perkville in order to get discounts, promotions, and deals at a specific store location.
- Swarm: Swarm is an advanced CRM analytics tool that allows you to see what’s selling and to whom, helping owners to target top customers and increase sales.
- MailChimp: You can synchronize your Retail contacts with MailChimp and start campaigning. MailChimp is an email marketing campaign application, and its integration into Retail means you’re always promoting to the right people.
- NimbleSchedule: Use NimbleSchedule to schedule and track employee hours over the Internet, allowing employees to request time off, trade shifts, and clock in or out from anywhere.
Shopify used to be on this list, but was recently removed due to some problems with Retail’s API. Existing Retail customers who have Shopify accounts are being forced to go through a third party called Accumula, which is charging about $100 a month to sync the two systems. Several Accumula users are reporting considerable problems with the integration, claiming such issues as loosing large amounts of data or having to manually adjust inventory levels because Shopify and Lightspeed won’t communicate with each other. New users are being told that Lightspeed does not integrate with Shopify at all, and communication between Retail and your web store is going through POSSync—another application that will cost you an extra $75 a month.
Beyond eCommerce integrations, unless you are content to use MailChimp, any other CRM services will have to go through MailSync (about $25 a month). Retail also integrates with QuickBooks, but only the desktop version. QuickBooks Online and Xero integrations are supposed to become available in the next 2 to 3 months.
Compatible Credit Card Processors:
In the U.S., Lightspeed Retail has two compatible credit card processors: Merchant Warehouse and Element Payment Systems. In Canada, Element Payment Systems is the only option. Batching is automatically done at the end of the day.
Customer Service and Technical Support:
Since Retail is priced with a subscription model, premium technical support is part of the service. Various kinds of support are available as follows:
- Phone support is available almost 24/7:
- Monday to Friday: Open 24hrs (closing at 1:00 am EST on Friday night)
- Saturdays: Open from 10:00 am to 1:00am EST
- Sundays: Open from 10:00 am EST (back to 24 hrs)
- You can also chat with a representative from virtually any page on the Lightspeed site or leave a message with your email address if no one is available.
- There is a searchable support page with a database of troubleshooting and “How-To” articles.
Negative Reviews and Complaints:
As of the last couple of months, customer responses to Lightspeed Retail have spiked and although there are quite a few positive reviews, many of them seem to be predominantly negative. The majority of issues surround problems with customer service, Retail’s API, and server issues that lead to system crashes.
To start, Lightspeed’s customer service has been subpar for some time. There are numerous complaints from various customers who report spending hours on hold, waiting days for returned emails or calls, and unresponsive account managers. Personally, the biggest problem I had with the technical support wasn’t that I was unable to get hold of them, it was that many of my questions went unanswered. Responses to questions about integrations and the API were vague at best, and I was left with the impression that none of the people I spoke to understood the product as much as they should have.
I did find a more immediate concern, though (yes, more immediate than poor customer service). Throughout my research, I uncovered multiple customer reviews complaining about major system outages and disrupted API connections that were costing people thousands of dollars. As it turns out, in February, Retail started reporting API-related processing delays that affected the system’s communication with services like Shopify and resulted in “slower than usual response times.” This pattern continued through March and into April when Lightspeed experienced major system outages due to overloaded servers. Depending on the severity of the outage, anywhere from 20% to over 50% of Retail customers were left unable to operate their POS systems for up to an hour at a time. Several failures were reported over the course of four months until August when the company was able to regain control. However, this was not the end, because the only way Lightspeed has kept the entire system from crashing again has been to temporarily disable various functions (reporting, exporting, integrations with Shopify) during peak selling hours. Even still, “performance issues” continue to arise, including the fact that access to Retail’s API and the ability to import purchase orders has been disable since the middle of August, and “will remain disabled until [Lightspeed is] confident that the infrastructure can support it without affecting any other core services.”
There have been promises for weeks that these features will be returned soon, but there is no definite timeline as to when the system will return to full functionality. After speaking with three Lightspeed Retail representatives to try to get the company’s take on the issues, I was left with very little information. One of them told me only that the API was working, it just couldn’t be used, and the other two were very talkative until I asked about the server issues, at which point they stopped responding all together.
Positive Reviews and Testimonials:
Despite Retail’s problems, it still has a loyal following of satisfied customers who aren’t experiencing a majority of the problems other users are having issues with. For example, Colin from Gateway Church lauds Lightspeed Retail for its excellent customer service and functionality:
“The best thing Lightspeed has going is their service. If we have a question or issue, we can call or chat with someone almost 24 hours a day. They are constantly updating and improving the system. Bugs are fixed regularly, and features are often added monthly. They listen to suggestions about product features, and the ability to work from anywhere is incredible. The system is simple to learn, and there are video trainings for almost everything. The system is cross-platform. Importing products from their catalog system makes ordering special items much easier. We use a central warehouse for receiving all of our product, and then distribute to our stores from there. This system is best in class for that. A good web developer can integrate Lightspeed with many other sites and software.”
Jeremy from NanaMacs Boutique agrees:
“Great reporting, easy to use simplicity. Constantly improving the software, interface, features, etc. It is superb for inventory management. Gift Cards are easy to use, re-use, re-charge, etc. Customer loyalty programs are being integrated, once more are integrated, this platform will be far above the competition.”
Lightspeed Retail is in an interesting position, and I am torn between the two sides of this product.
On the one hand, Lightspeed has one of the most robust and easy-to-use solutions in today’s POS market. Lightspeed Retail is good. Very good, in fact. For small to medium-sized businesses that want to balance a simple, intuitive interface with strong functionality and a data-driven approach, it’s a definite contender.
On the other hand, it’s better to have an adequate product that functions 99% of the time than a great product that functions 50% of the time. Frankly, I’d feel a lot better about the outages if the company was more transparent about the cause of this whole debacle, but in order to discover what little I do know about it, I had to comb through months worth of status reports.
When it really comes down to it, it’s difficult to recommend a product that is still in the midst of a system overhaul, especially when it may fail again. For the time being, Retail has temporarily recovered from multiple system overloads, but at the cost of some pretty basic functions and who knows when or if those will ever be recovered. I really do hope that Lightspeed Retail regroups soon, because it’s a great product with a lot of potential, but I simply cannot recommend a system that is limping along on one leg. For now, I’m giving the system 3 stars, but we will continue to watch for Retail’s recovery and will hopefully be able to bump the rating back up soon.