What Are The Pros & Cons Of A Free POS System?
Which is truer?
The best things in life are free.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
As usual, in this battle of idiomatic chestnuts, the answer does not present itself in a neatly tied, black-and-white package, but in a drab array of flannel grays. Both are true. Neither are true. The fact is, in most aspects of your life, the concept of “free” may present itself as a frustratingly unsolvable riddle. Some things may seem obvious, while others remain shrouded in mystery. Is that free smoothie at the new coffee shop a safe bet? Probably. Should you accept the “free gifts” offered to you by tight-smiled and desperate-eyed timeshare committees? Lord, no. Will a free POS system benefit your business?
Ah, now there’s a real puzzler.
Launching a new business is costly; unless you are on the receiving end of a very comfortable trust fund, you’ll likely be neck-deep in debt from day one. When faced with a double mortgage and/or the potential waste of your parents’ life savings, it can be tempting to grasp at anything free. But depending on the size, structure, and location of your business, a free POS may not be the solution you’re hoping for.
Let’s explore the nuances of free POS systems and go over some of the facts you’ll need to consider before making an informed decision.
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Three Things to Keep In Mind When Considering a Free Plan
There are–of course–more than three things to consider when choosing a free POS system for your business, but here are the most important…
1. Free POS Systems Come With Limited Features
There are a few exceptions, but most free POS plans are weak sauce. You’ll probably only be able to use one register, and monthly transactions will be restricted. Chances are, your free POS will lack employee management features, offer limited SKUs, and bar you from most higher-level inventory functions. Free systems are also shy on reservation and table management tools, online ordering services, purchase orders, and raw ingredient tracking—all of which can be essential to foodservice businesses.
Limited features aren’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. It really depends on the size of your business. If you’re running a food truck or a small kiosk, you don’t necessarily need all the bells and whistles of a full-service POS system. In fact, you might be better served by a no-frills POS, like Square, that mostly serves as a tool for taking and tracking payments. Likewise, if your business has one employee—you—there’s no point in investing in software that can clock people in and out, handle payroll, and provide advanced permissions settings.
Unfortunately, for many businesses, the freemium POS model just isn’t strong enough to handle more than a few employees or an even moderate sales volume. Ask yourself these questions before deciding to put all your eggs into a free basket:
- Am I the only person in my business?
- Can I get by with one register?
- Do I take in less than $5,000/month?
- Do I handle fewer than 1,000 transactions/month?
- Do I have a limited menu and/or fewer than 1,000 SKUs?
If the answer to any one of these questions is “no,” you may need to rethink your decision to use a free POS program.
2. Customer Service Is Probably Not Included
Some of you may spend your spare hours pouring over knowledge bases and white papers, watching webinars and tutorials and memorizing facts about your POS. To you, I say ‘congratulations.’ (And also advise—with respect—that you try to get out more.)
The rest of you average Joes are going to need occasional assistance setting up, running, and updating your POS systems. The bad news? Free POS plans usually do not come with the option to call customer support, and some don’t even allow you to email with questions. In other words, you’re on your own. If you can’t find the answer to your problem on a user forum or the vendor’s website, you won’t be able to solve it. And having your POS shut down in the middle of a lunch rush or during prime shopping hours will result in lost opportunities, unhappy customers, and less money for you at the end of the day.
Let’s be clear on one thing: the POS companies aren’t necessarily at fault here. It costs money to train and employ a good customer service team, so most vendors don’t want to ‘waste’ those resources on users who aren’t paying into the system.
Before you go with free POS software, think about these questions:
- Am I comfortable doing my own troubleshooting?
- Can my business handle downtime in the event that my software or hardware acts up?
- For my situation, does the fact that the POS is free balance out the risk I’m taking in regards to customer service?
If it’s yeses all around, give that freemium plan a try. If not…well, keep looking.
3. Free Plans May Not Give You Access to Add-Ons and Integrations
Good POS software often has built-in integrations with essential 3rd-party solutions for accounting, eCommerce, inventory management, shipping, CRM, email marketing, and more. But it costs money to build and maintain these native integrations, and POS vendors are naturally chary about just handing them out for free. If you’re using a freemium point of sale plan, you’ll almost certainly be barred from using already-built integrations.
Many POS vendors also design their own solutions for time-tracking, reservations, online ordering, delivery, and so on. But—again—it’s likely that you won’t be able to use these add-ons either. And some providers won’t even allow users of their free plans to access the API, making it impossible to jury-rig your own integrations.
Once again, let’s play the “will-a-free-plan-actually-work-for-me?” game. Before you make a move, ask yourself:
If yes, then a free plan may not work well for you. Not unless you like awkwardly shuffling between apps or manually transferring data. In that case, go nuts! And maybe invest in some treatments for carpal tunnel.
So You Still Want To Go With A Free Plan…
First things first: if you’ve read everything above and still think a free plan is a good option for your business, congratulations! Free POS systems can actually be very useful tools, provided your business is a good fit.
There are several no-cost point of sale solutions that we recommend here at Merchant Maverick. Specifically, Square, Vend, and Imonggo all have relatively robust free plans that should meet the needs of most very small-scale retailers or restaurateurs. If you have a food truck, a farmer’s market stand, a mall kiosk, a pop-up shop, or a similar enterprise, any of these solutions should do nicely. (Read the Top 3 Free POS Systems for more details about these vendors specifically.)
It’s very important, before you choose any one of these solutions, to do your homework. Some of these vendors top off at 1,000 SKUs, while others permit only five or six inventory items. Some allow you to use email support, while others throw you to the proverbial wolves. Some include payment processing, while others don’t even integrate with payment processors. I suggest choosing two or three likely candidates and then doing a deep comparison.
Another thing to bear in mind? With a few exceptions, most of these solutions are scalable. This means that, if your business grows or you suddenly get a big windfall, you can stick with the same POS system using a paid plan.
It should be pretty clear by now that there are both pros and cons to free POS systems. The best things in life—love, friendship, laughter—may be free (though even a first-year philosophy student could debate that pretty effectively), but when it comes to tangible assets, there’s definitely no such thing as a free lunch. What you save in dollars and cents, you will pay in reduced features, limited customer service, and/or exclusion from integrations and add-ons.
For some of you, the costs will outweigh the benefits. If that is the case, I suggest going with a more full-featured POS system. Many vendors, like ShopKeep, provide excellent features at reasonable prices. Check out our full POS review section for a good overview of what the industry has to offer.
But if “free” still seems like a pretty awesome deal to you, go forth and prosper, using any one of the great free options listed in this article. Good luck, and happy selling!