Point-of-sale (POS) systems for businesses


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  1. Introduction
  2. What is a point of sale?
  3. What is a POS system?
  4. What are the different kinds of POS hardware?
  5. How do POS systems work?
    1. The customer’s payment method
    2. The customer’s bank (or other financial institution)
    3. The business’s payment processing provider
    4. On-site or on-premises
    5. Cloud-based
    6. Input the items for purchase
    7. Calculate the subtotal
    8. Determine tax, shipping, and total cost
    9. Prompt the customer to add a tip (if applicable)
    10. Accept payment
    11. Communicate with acquiring and issuing banks
    12. Complete transaction
    13. Update inventory
  6. What does POS software and hardware cost?
  7. What else do I need to use a POS system?

Your business’s point-of-sale system, also referred to as a POS system, is more than just a tool for accepting payments—it is an important part of offering an excellent customer retail experience. As a result, the POS industry is booming: In 2020, POS software constituted a $9.3 billion market, and it’s projected to hit $18.1 billion by 2027.

A simple checkout experience builds loyalty and enthusiasm with customers. If your POS system works quickly, intuitively, and without error or disruption, your customer will enjoy a smooth checkout process. A bad checkout experience might include waiting a long time for the card reader to accept payment or having to restart the payment process while your customer waits.

A reliable POS system that works for your needs and that you and your employees know how to operate is important for your business. We’ll cover everything you need to know about POS systems, including how they work and the role they play for small businesses.

What’s in this article?

  • What is a point of sale?
  • What is a POS system?
  • What are the different kinds of POS hardware?
  • How do POS systems work?
  • What does POS software and hardware cost?
  • What else do I need to use a POS system?

What is a point of sale?

The terms “point of sale” or “POS” usually reference the POS systems that power in-person customer payments to businesses. More generally, the point of sale also refers to the time when a customer makes a purchase and where that transaction takes place. It could be the checkout counter at a brick-and-mortar store, a folding table at a pop-up booth, a makeshift counter on a food truck, or an in-home massage therapist taking payment from a client on their mobile device.

What is a POS system?

A POS system includes the hardware and software that enable businesses to accept payments from customers at the point of sale, plus so much more. Some additional functions that modern POS systems routinely perform for businesses are:

  • Update inventory
  • Track sales
  • Manage cash drawer
  • Print receipts
  • Scan barcodes and QR codes
  • Clock employees in and out
  • Run reports on sales and other analytics
  • Manage customer accounts and rewards

What are the different kinds of POS hardware?

There are different types of POS hardware:

  • Card reader
  • Connected device
  • Cash drawer
  • Barcode scanner
  • Receipt printer

Modern POS systems help small businesses accept a range of payment methods from customers quickly, easily, and securely.

How do POS systems work?

POS systems give businesses the ability to accept payment from customers, process transactions, and communicate with their payment processing provider. Some can also automatically update inventory and collect sales data for easier bookkeeping.

To accept payments, POS systems must communicate with three parties:

The customer’s payment method

Customer payment information, such as a credit card number, transmits to the POS system when the customer swipes the magnetic stripe on a card, inserts an EMF chip, or taps for NFC-enabled contactless payment.

The customer’s bank (or other financial institution)

The POS system is either hardwired to the internet or connected to Wi-Fi and electronically communicates with the customer’s financial institution to verify that funds are available for the transaction amount.

The business’s payment processing provider

The POS will also electronically communicate with the business’s payments processor. This is often the same company that issued the POS hardware and software, as is the case with Stripe.

Broadly, POS setups fall into one of two categories:

On-site or on-premises

On-site POS systems are hosted locally on the business’s computer, typically don’t require an internet connection, and likely require the business to pay a licensing fee for the software. Businesses will need to update the software and complete other tasks manually, but some prefer to have their sales data stored locally.


The majority of businesses use cloud-based POS systems, which store and access data on the internet. Software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies typically provide these cloud-based POS solutions and charge on a subscription basis. Businesses can remotely access cloud-based POS systems, allowing flexible access to their sales data and enabling them to connect multiple devices to a central POS system.

How POS systems work depends on the components, and these components vary according to business needs, but the steps involved in using a POS system are generally the same:

Input the items for purchase

The business “rings up” the customer by communicating to the POS system about what is being purchased and how much it costs.

What this looks like depends on what the customer is buying. If they’re purchasing physical goods in a store, the business might use a barcode scanner to pull up the items on whatever connected device they use with their POS system, like an iPad. If the customer is paying for a service, like a therapy session or gardening work, the business might select the service from a menu on the POS software on their smartphone or manually input the price and notes about the services rendered.

Calculate the subtotal

The POS system calculates the subtotal, which is the total cost of everything being purchased before additional charges like tax are added on.

Determine tax, shipping, and total cost

Next, the POS system calculates the total cost, including price, tax, and shipping.

Prompt the customer to add a tip (if applicable)

Tipping isn’t relevant for all transactions, but most POS checkout flows include an option to prompt customers to leave a tip, either by selecting from a range of standard options (usually 10%–25%) or by adding a custom amount.

Accept payment

After the POS calculates the total cost of the transaction, the customer submits payment. Most POS systems accept a wide variety of payment methods, including credit and debit cards, cards and digital wallets that use NFC-powered contactless payments, gift cards, rewards points, and cash.

Communicate with acquiring and issuing banks

If a customer uses a payment method that draws on an outside account, like a credit card, debit card, or digital wallet, the POS system will transmit the transaction details to the business’s bank—called the “acquiring bank” or “acquirer”—so it can communicate with the customer’s bank—called the “issuing bank” or “issuer”—to get approval for the transaction. This usually takes just a couple of seconds.

Complete transaction

Once the transaction is approved and payment is accepted, customers can typically opt to receive a printed receipt, an emailed receipt, or no receipt at all.

Update inventory

Some POS systems also update inventory based on what has been sold for a real-time view of goods—important for ordering new stock and preventing chargebacks.

What does POS software and hardware cost?

On average, cloud POS systems cost around $1,300 for the hardware and $69/month for the software. POS hardware ranges from $0 to $1,700, and POS software costs most businesses between $0 and $300 per month, per terminal. Consider free POS hardware and software carefully; they typically have functional limitations, spotty support, and conditions or restrictions.

You can find Stripe’s pricing here.

Total costs for setting up and maintaining a POS system will depend on a few factors, including:

  • Number of terminals
  • Number of employees
  • Number of transactions
  • Size of inventory
  • Type of business or industry
  • Additional features or payment processing support

What else do I need to use a POS system?

Tech-enabled devices that can run POS software have proliferated widely, and businesses have more choices than ever about how to set up POS payments. What each business needs to set up and operate their POS system depends on whether they have a ready-to-use POS solution or are building something custom. Stripe’s approach to point-of-sale technology is to make the process effortless and provide comprehensive support, while also allowing businesses to customize their setup.

Stripe Terminal gives businesses the power to tailor their point of sale and own their checkout experience, including features such as customized email receipts and reader splash screens. Stripe Terminal is not a ready-to-use POS solution—it requires programming experience with JavaScript, iOS, Android, or server-driven UI, depending on the integration mode the business chooses. Terminal enables businesses to integrate Stripe payments into their existing in-person checkout flows or build in-person payments into their native mobile or web-based point-of-sale application. For businesses that would rather integrate a third-party point of sale, here’s a list of platforms that work with Stripe.

Ready to get started?

Create an account and start accepting payments—no contracts or banking details required. Or, contact us to design a custom package for your business.