POS 101: Offline Mode
It is finally happening! I wasn’t prepared for this! The world is—
Excuse the brief interruption, but you should probably read about how POS software operates in the cloud before continuing (because it’s kind of important). Okay, back to panicking…
—coming to an end! Oh, the horror! What of the children? Oh, the humanity!
What? You haven’t heard?! The Internet is down! *horrified screams* The end times have come! Cue the pre-apocalyptic debauchery!
Okay, so the Internet obviously isn’t down right now or else you wouldn’t be reading this, but you’ve got to admit that was a pretty realistic depiction of your average person’s reaction to a Wi-Fi outage. Except, there is one major difference between you (as a merchant with a cloud-based POS system) and the average person. This difference is that you won’t just have to find a way to cope with your Facebook withdrawal, you’ll lose access to everything you need to run your business. Agh! Panic!
Or not. Actually, as long as your POS software has offline functionality then you’re fine . . . mostly. See, there are varying degrees of offline functionality (a.k.a. offline mode, offline protection, “always on” mode—you get the idea), and if you’re not familiar with all those degrees then you might not be as protected as you thought.
When you’re looking into a system to see if it has any kind of protection in the case of an Internet outage, you have to do more than just ask “Is there an offline mode?” That’s kind of like asking if there are healthy ingredients in cake. The answer is technically yes, but you can’t just skip the carrot sticks and go straight for the carrot cake. You have to pry a little more information loose by asking the right questions.
Table of Contents
Web-Based POS Software
There are two forms of cloud POS software: web-based and app-based. A web-based POS (we’ll get to app-based later) relies entirely on the magic of the Cloud, and is accessed through a web browser (hence the name). Nothing is local to your operating system, meaning that everything—your inventory, sales data, employee timekeeping, customer information, etc.—is tied up in a system that needs to be in constant communication with the servers hosting your data through an Internet connection. The front end that displays all the information is basically nothing more than a screen that’s showing you what’s really happening somewhere else.
For instance, when you ring up a tube of your patented bacon-flavored toothpaste, there isn’t a database in your computer that sorts through all of the barcodes until it finds the code specified to that product. This is all done on your POS vendor’s servers elsewhere. All you see is a brief search wheel before that little line of text declares that your customer has just added another item to their purchase. Without an Internet connection, your vendor’s servers don’t receiver the request to search for the bacon-flavored toothpaste and so all you see is that little “Unable to connect to the Internet” dinosaur.
But wait, you say, I thought you said I could still run my business without an Internet connection.
You are correct. There is this new-ish invention called HTML5 Caching (or Offline Caching), which basically creates a mirrored copy of your data. Every time you perform a function (like ringing up a transaction), one copy is sent to the external servers while the other is saved within your browser’s cache. Assuming you don’t clear your cache, your POS could continue to run from the copy saved to your hard drive while the Internet is down. All of the changes you make during the downtime are logged until a connection is reestablished and they can be sent back to the servers via the cloud.
Of course, as good as this may sound, HTML5 Caching has its limitations and you need to be aware of exactly how much functionality you’ll be left with if the Internet craps out. In order to figure this out you could concentrate really hard and hope that all the knowledge in the universe reveals itself to you or if you’re of the lazier kind–like me–and quite frankly don’t have 40 years to meditate in a cave, you could just ask these questions when you’re looking into the web-based POS system of your dreams.
Most modern POS software systems are cloud-based but still able to accept payments offline, either because they have an LAN that allows them to function offline or a system in place that stores and encrypts credit card info to process once a connection is restored. Some of the most popular include:
We love Toast here at Merchant Maverick, not only for its excellent restaurant POS features, but for its remarkable attitude towards customer service. Toast uses its own payment processor, which can be a drawback for some, but we love its intuitive, Android-based design and its user-friendly interface.
Learn more about Toast and what it can offer in our full review.
With a free plan, a host of integrations, and a solid set of basic features, Vend is a great choice for retail businesses of any size, and it can scale to meet even the demands of large chains. Although it is less robust than some of its competitors in terms of features, Vend’s strong loyalty program and user-friendly interface have made it popular in the industry for good reason.
Our full review of Vend offers more details.
Breadcrumb POS by Upserve was designed by restaurant employees for restaurant employees, and as such focuses specifically on the challenges faced by business owners in the foodservice industry. Online ordering capabilities, a customizable interface, and strong reporting functionality make this POS an excellent option for restaurants in need a full-service POS. Breadcrumb isn’t particularly cost-effective, but it is easy to use.
Read our full review of Breadcrumb for the whole story.
Hybrid POS Software
App-based point of sale software takes a hybrid approach to the cloud. By this, we mean there’s a front-end app, where all the business-critical functions are performed, and a backend web interface where all the boring administrative stuff happens.
You’re going to need to set everything up on the backend first: import customers, configure tax levels, customize your receipts, manage your inventory, etc. Then when you boot up the app, all of that information is downloaded onto your tablet(s) or terminals, where it is stored. This means that even when your connection to the Cloud kicks it, all of your customer data, inventory, employee accounts, etc. are still accessible so you’re not losing valuable reporting data during the outage. Sure, you won’t be able to generate new reports or manage payroll, but you can still add customer profiles, clock in and out, process transactions, and (sometimes) perform some basic inventory functions. All the sales you ran will sync back up to the cloud as soon as the connection is reestablished and you might not even notice that you lost your Internet in the first place. Plus, because things are run this way, there are fewer questions to ask when you’re interrogating your sales rep.
There are several hybrid POS software solutions we recommend here at Merchant Maverick:
ShopKeep (read our ShopKeep review) is a fantastic, all-around retail or restaurant POS system, with great support, reasonable pricing, a built-in eCommerce integration with BigCommerce, and an excellent feature set.
Read our full ShopKeep review for more information.
Queztal is a solid retail POS solution for smaller businesses. Specially-designed for shoe retailers, this POS has a simple pricing structure, great reporting and inventory functionality, and a native loyalty program.
Read our comprehensive Quetzal review for the whole story.
ERPLY is a full-service, enterprise resource planning software solution. This POS has it all, from advanced reporting to CRM, loyalty programs, employee management features, and more. ERPLY is more expensive and has a steeper learning curve than most SaaS software, but it makes up for the higher costs with a fuller, more comprehensive feature set.
Our full ERPLY review contains pricing information, a list of features, and more.
Lightspeed is a well-known POS vendor with products for both retail and restaurant establishments. Lightspeed software is moderately priced, but full-featured, boasting tons of integrations, good customer service, built-in eCommerce, and a solid reputation in the POS industry. Lightspeed Restaurant comes with its own Liteserver in its bundle which can keep your business up and running during an outage, storing data until internet is restored.
POS Systems Without Offline Protection
What about those POS systems that don’t offer any kind of offline protection? They are few (only 2 out of the dozens of systems we’ve reviewed) and they aren’t doing so well on the POS market anyway, but they are out there. If necessary, you can always set up a redundant connection, but the whole point of this article is that you shouldn’t have to.
I’d be more wary of the vendors that try to justify not developing the ability to process card transactions offline. It can be done (as Revel Systems (see our review) demonstrates), but quite a few vendors don’t yet have the ability and when they’re asked about it, they might try to feed you some malarky about how it can’t (or shouldn’t) be done at all in order to stay “secure” or “compliant.” Really, this is disingenuous, and if they obviously haven’t made it a priority, they may not be behind the curve right now, but they probably will be soon.
The following vendors are cloud-based and cannot accept payments offline. We still think they’re good solutions in general, but you should be aware before you buy any of them that offline functionality may be lacking:
Perfectly suited for retail stores of all sizes, iConnect is one of our only 5-star retail and service-based POS software solutions. Multiple pricing tiers and a cloud-based design make this point of sale system flexible and adaptable to many environments. iConnect is particularly good for businesses that need booking and scheduling functionality.
Read more about iConnect in our review; we’ll cover customer service, integrations, features, and more.
Despite its odd name, talech is fantastic iPad-based POS system with a good feature set and reasonable pricing. Able to serve both retail and restaurant businesses, talech is scalable and easy to set up and use. What it lacks in offline functionality it makes up for with good customer service and varied integrations.
Read more about talech in our comprehensive review.
Questions You Should Ask About Offline Functionality When Choosing POS Software
1) What can’t I do while in offline mode?
It may seem more intuitive to ask what can be done without an Internet connection–stay positive and all that–but it’s too easy to answer that question without giving you all the facts. For instance, the sales rep for the POS software you’re looking into (who is trying to make a commission off of you and probably isn’t going to jump at the opportunity to tell you everything the software can’t do) could say that you can run transactions while in offline mode, but will say nothing about not being able to process credit cards or access the customer database.
2) How many items of inventory are stored in the offline cache?
This is especially important for larger businesses with even larger inventories because you’re going to mess with the program’s performance if you’re trying to store too much in your cache. Most small to mid-sized businesses should be fine, but you should know what your limit is just to be safe.
3) Will I be able to access my customer database?
Access to your customer database doesn’t always come standard, and it may not matter to you since you shouldn’t be offline for more than a couple minutes. However, if you can’t attach a customer to a transaction this will inevitably affect any transaction-based rewards programs you have in place.
4) Is the cache persistent?
This is possibly the nerdiest question you could ask and the one most likely to catch your sales rep off guard, but you need to know if your cache data would survive a reboot. If a tornado knocks out the broadband and then an earthquake takes down the power lines ten minutes later, I’d think about moving to a safer climate, but you also better hope your cache is persistent or your data is gone. Really, this is usually a setting on your end, but it’s good to know if they’ve tested it to make sure you’re truly protected (from the outages–you’re on your own with the tornados and earthquakes).
5) Can I still log in after losing the Internet?
This should definitely be a deal breaker. If you don’t have this ability and your Internet goes down before you’ve opened for the day, you might as well pack it up and go home (at least until you get the connection back).
6) Can I process a credit card sale without a connection?
Be careful with this one, because the answer could be “Yes, if you choose not to integrate your credit card processing.” However, this is not really an acceptable answer. This would mean– well, exactly what it says: that you wouldn’t be able to integrate your credit card processing. This involves having to reconcile your charges at the end of the day, and that’s a hassle you should try to avoid if you can. The correct answer is, “Yes, but you run the risk of accepting a declined card.” Which is true. Just like most other things in life, processing a credit card transaction requires an Internet connection, because the system needs to be able to check if the customer has sufficient funds (among other things). Without Internet, your system could still store the card information to be processed when it comes back online, but you take the risk of running a purchase on a card that could be declined later. The chances of that happening really aren’t that high, but it’s a calculated risk you’ll need to be aware of.
The moral of the story is that you don’t have to panic when the Internet crashes. In fact, if you pick the right system you’ll probably be better off than most people, because you’ll be so preoccupied with running your business without a hitch that you won’t notice all of the fingers seizing up and the mouths elongating in horror, at least not until they get up to your register.
In any case, if you still feel a little overwhelmed by this whole selecting-the-system-that-could-decide-the-ultimately-fate-of-my-business process, check out our full selection of cloud-based and locally-installed POS software reviews. We’ve also cataloged the best small business POS software in one handy article, if you’re pressed for time.