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 launched a host of new services, chief amongst them LightSpeed Cloud (later to become Retail), LightSpeed Web Store, and LightSpeed Payments (don’t worry, we’ll make sure you understand the difference by the end of this review), secured $35 million of investment and also continued to develop tailored solutions for restaurateurs.
LightSpeed Retail is best-suited to medium-sized retailers who need some of the functionality typically required by larger companies. It has found a strong following amongst those running high-end boutiques, largely because of extensive customization options and flexible register functionality. That said, any retailer, boutique or not, will feel at home using it.
Lightspeed was founded in 2005 by software engineer Dax Dasilva, a developer who began writing programs at the age of 13. In 2002 he helped create store-management software for Apple. Dasilva kept improving on that initial attempt, and a few years later Lightspeed OnSite, the forerunner to Retail, was born. During this period, the company received a hefty retinue of rewards 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 lists 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 which 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 functions on offer. Finally, and most vitally, the software is cloud-based. This is important because it’s the direction that most retailers are moving in.
One of the reasons cloud-based POS systems are booming at the moment is because they remove the responsibility for maintenance from the end-user, allowing you to run a fully-functional system with limited technical know-how. Should something go wrong, you essentially have an entire IT team at your disposal. All your information is automatically backed up and accessible from any device, and integration with third-parties, such as email marketing clients, is seamless.
When you compare Retail side by side with OnSite, the two are pretty equal in terms of functionality, and Lightspeed has removed both products’ large upfront software license fees, changing to a subscription model. This means that they don’t have to compete on price, but puts Lightspeed in the awkward position of selling two distinct products that essentially do the same thing and cost the same amount. Determining which one is superior is largely a matter of opinion. Some people might not mind the extra responsibility that comes with OnSite, and others might dislike Retail’s minimal design. Before making any definitive statements about which one is better, let’s dig a little deeper into the features…
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 registers
- 10 employees
- $259/mo, $222/mo if billed annually
- 4 registers
- 20 employees
- $51/mo for each additional user.
- $9/mo for each additional employee.
- $59/mo ($49/mo if billed annually) to add web store with a limit of 2000 products. Advanced web store is charged at $85/mo ($49/mo if billed annually) and allows for unlimited products.
- You can also add “Advanced Reporting” for an extra $25/month ($21/month if billed annually).
All plans include unlimited products, customers, and transactions, software upgrades and premium technical support. Retail has a trial period of 14 days.
As I mentioned, my main issue with Lightspeed is the high cost 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) – something to consider when you are making a choice. You should ask yourself whether you need nuanced functionality or whether something more generic would work equally well.
Web-Based or Locally-Installed:
Lightspeed Retail is totally web-based. The upside to this is that you don’t have to deal with backups and software updates. Getting up and running is also a more fluid process. HTML5 caching has been introduced so you can make sales during periods of outage (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 stand-out areas of 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.
Ease of Use/User Friendliness:
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 item 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/Operating System Required:
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. As of the time of writing this review, my understanding is that the one exception is the iPhone 6, for which hardware is not yet supported. 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 APG cash drawer, Vault Simplicty Base (an iPad stand), Bluetooth socket scanner, receipt printer and receipt paper. An 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 $15 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).
Automated eCommerce integration: It’s possible to automatically have inventory updated to your Lightspeed web-store and sync any sales made through it with your backend.
Lightspeed makes Retail’s API available publicly so that customers can create their own integrations to suit specific needs. However, current available integrations include:
- QuickBooks: This integration exports files from Retail into 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.
- Shopify: When you connect your POS to the Shopify online store application, you can manage your inventory all in one place. It also allows you to import items and customers from Retail into Shopify and vice versa.
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 done at the end of the day automatically.
Customer Service/Technical Support:
Since Retail is priced with a subscription model, premium technical support is part of the service. Phone and live support is available as follows:
- 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)
There’s email support available as well, and a searchable support page with a database of troubleshooting and “How-To” articles. Lightspeed Retail has an extensive and detailed user guide available online, and all Lightspeed products come with an online knowledge base that has answers to almost any problem. Lightspeed also has active Facebook and Twitter pages featuring links to stories of interest and customer profiles, and fostering a community around the company’s products.
Consumer response to Lightspeed Retail is generally positive, but that does not mean it is without faults. An iTunes App Store review, for example, describes the product in less than glowing terms:
Terribly buggy, awful unintuitive design. Has pretty much half the functions you need, even in this new version that contains the retail manager app inside. Basically just cut and pasted it in, it barely functions if at all. Constantly crashes, not recommended for a professional business. Definitely doesn’t live up to the name in terms of speed. Please put some competent coders on staff and make your app actually work.
This review is on the rare side: most of the negative comments I’ve seen center around support issues, but don’t mention any tremendous headaches with the software. Those kind of complaints were more common with OnSite, but as the software has matured and grown into Retail, the number of complaints has died down.
Personally, my chief complaint is with Lightspeed’s very aggressive customer pursuit. Each time I signed up for a trial with OnSite or Retail I had an email within 30 seconds (obviously automated) from one of Lightspeed’s salespeople. I always leave bogus phone numbers on signup forms—555-1234, usually—because I don’t want any calls. Lightspeed is the only company where someone emailed me to tell me number didn’t seem to work. But they all keep emailing, for one reason or another.
When I did reach out to one rep to get some questions answered, he took this as his cue to call me daily for about a week, leaving messages that I needed to call him back and it was urgent to do so before special pricing was no longer valid. This persistence was despite me telling him that I didn’t want him to call me as a follow up. “If I’m interested,” I told him, “I’ll let you know.” Needless to say, he just kept calling.
Overwhelmingly, Lightspeed users have good things to say about the POS. Here’s a sampling of the most recent user comments at softwareadvice.com:
We have been using Lightspeed for a few years now and can’t believe we functioned without it. We thought we knew what was selling in our store but once we were able to run reports with clear and precise data, we were able to see what was really happening…We just opened two new locations and are now utilizing the Multi-Store feature-this feature has saved us a lot of time and makes everything very easy and organized..The customer support is awesome, very thorough in their responses and assistance.” – Carrie from Desert Island Trading
The easy to use POS screen made training our employees a breeze…Inventory tracking is one of the biggest strengths of this software…We also added the Lightspeed webstore when we switched to Lightspeed – and we’re so happy that we did.” Justin from Shop Good
Lightspeed simplified the point of sale system for me and has been one of the best decisions I have made since opening my doors.” Cameron from Nutrishop STL
MerchantOS, Retail’s predecessor, had a very good reputation among its users; many were happy enough with it that they were worried what changes the new ownership would bring. Fortunately, it seems that they worried for nothing.
Lightspeed Retail is in an interesting position. As I mentioned above, the company built up a successful business selling local server software (Lightspeed OnSite), and then bought out a company selling a cloud-based equivalent. Lightspeed is selling both products now, with two separate teams, and I imagine the sales guys are happy if you buy either one.
Though there are still enough people too nervous to host their business-critical data in the cloud, it doesn’t make sense to keep offering both solutions in the long-term: there’s got to be a unified vision between the OnSite and Retail versions or Lightspeed will seem as if it’s in perennial transition. Besides, why on earth would someone want to end up paying more for OnSite, in terms of the actual monetary cost and total cost of ownership, when Retail does the job just as well and with more ease? In a 2013 TechCrunch interview, founder Dasilva justified OnSite as a “…more visually rich, omnichannel” product that’s particularly suited for retailers who want “the full Apple aesthetic.” That was two years ago, though, and things have changed in that time. The cloud is far more sophisticated than it used to be.
The good news for Lightspeed is they’ve got 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 business that want to balance a simple, intuitive interface with strong functionality and a data-driven approach, it’s a definite contender. There are a few nuances to iron out, but for my part I highly recommend Lightspeed Retail.