2012.13 | iPad as Point of Sale Device

Given the ubiquity of the iPad, the adoration of the general public of the device, and my own personal ongoing interest and use of this device, consideration of using an iPad as a point of sale solution is a worthy point of discussion. After all, the word of our current age is innovation – we should embrace potential change such as this, and see where it may lead us. In the end, like every other solution in retail or otherwise, it’s about ROI, and if the iPad can deliver; why not?

As someone who has had an iPad since it was possible to get one and who has logged many a mile on it, it is a dream device for me personally. Convenient, simple, and incredibly multi-faceted, I use it every day and constantly. One of the most entertaining things about having an iPad is finding new uses for it and new apps to try.

For those of us who embrace it, it should come as no surprise that retailers are experimenting with it – evaluating different applications and apps in the store. There are many offerings that are fundamentally predicated on using an iPad as a POS: Square, Revel, Paypal, and there is an upcoming NCR solution to be released in June. (And yes, for full disclosure, I’m an NCR employee)

While payment processing is certainly a key element of the decision for these solutions, let’s set that aside for the moment and consider iPad from a hardware perspective. As much as we all want to skip the whole question and play with apps, the hardware should be fully considered from a usability and ROI perspective. In some ways the iPad is a hardware platform that can enable solutions we have dreamed about for years; in others it falls short.


The Positives:

Hardware Cost – iPad 2 units are now available at reduced rates, and can be had for as low as $419. Given that a retail hardened POS terminal is more like $800 to $1,000, the up front purchase price is certainly attractive – particularly for a small business. Keep in mind that a stand will also be necessary which will add $100 to $200 to the cost depending on the model and type, but it’s still quite affordable to obtain.

Displays – Because iPad is put out in such volume and has the latest technology, they have vibrant bright screens. The touchscreen is capacitive (my option of choice), and does not require calibration. In a nutshell, the touch display looks great and they work very well.

Durability – iPad is made for the consumer market – notorious for hard usage. For general use in a specialty or relatively clean and simple QSR environment, it will suffice as well. While I had initial misgivings about its durability, my experience with retailers is that it has lasted better than anticipated in real world retail environments. It’s definitely getting use and doing well.

Small Footprint – As you can see from pictures of the unit, it requires little space on a counter and can provide just about the smallest footprint possible; especially if you want to go full urban hipster mode with no receipt printer or cash drawer.

Software Updates – While the focus is on hardware, the apple ecosystem is hard to ignore as a point of the solution. Depending on the application used, software updates can be very simple even for the novice user. If the solution is cloud based, users would not have to do anything other than perhaps change the address to which their browser is pointing. For app based users, the app store is a familiar interface, and updating apps is a relatively simple matter.

Network – Cloud based offerings are a tremendous area of growth and I embrace them myself. I use Dropbox, iCloud and more. The challenge with a retail business is that when these services are down, the business is down. In the past I would have expressed concern about this, but reliability of these services is quite high and improving. Data centers like Apples and Amazons make this possible.

Extensibility – The iPad is a great platform to add apps as discussed. Many retailers are using the iPad for manager’s tools, inventory, and more. Why not add point of sale capability to the units?

On the whole, the iPad represents a tremendously viable point of sale platform for the right environment, subject to the availability of apps and payment processing interfaces to suit retailer and customer needs.


The Negatives:

Cost – While the iPad is slightly cheaper to obtain, the jury is out on how long they last. I’ve worked with some retailers who have used notebooks in retail environments for point of sale or sales tools. They lasted about 3 years. While you could argue that a user could just throw the unit out and buy another one, remember that retail hardened POS terminals are designed to last 7-10 years, and I’ve seen some last much longer. There are retailers running DOS because it’s working just fine. Also, while the hardened units are slightly more expensive, they do allow for simple modular repair, dual hard drive capability, remote supportability, software lockdown and more.

Displays – The iPad screen looks bright, but if I had come out to retailers and told them I had the best new point of sale solution in the world and it has a 9.7 inch screen, I would have been laughed out the door – and rightfully so. The screens are a bit small for a point of sale application in my experience. I’ve seen 12″ work well, and most retailers seem to think 15″ provides a good combination of real estate and visibility for the client and the retail associate. Some also accept 17″ displays, but it depends on the environment and the point of sale platform. The reflection on the iPad display can be difficult to read in brightly lit retail environments – particularly with the new intense lighting in some stores.

Durability – The consumer market is one thing, but the whole gamut of retail is another. While the iPads have been lasting well to date, and I’m sure they will do so, they haven’t yet had to deal with 7-10 years of dust. They haven’t dealt spills of a full drinks and survived (I have a friend who left an iPad outside in the rain over night; sadly it could not be resuscitated.) They are not made to deal with the head of direct sunlight – a challenge in some glassed in environments. (if you’ve ever used one outside in the sun, you may have experienced the automatic shutdown). While the iPads work very very well, they may be less able to accommodate more rugged requirements like DIY warehouse stores and intense QSR environments.

Small Footprint – While the iPad itself is smaller, if you have to use a cash drawer, printer and scanner, you won’t save that much real estate. Also note that the peripherals are effectively the same as those used on a regular point of sale device today, though some others have come out. I expect there will be some answers around this.

Batteries – One thing they never show in the pictures of these solutions is the power cord – it doesn’t look as pretty without the cable plugged in. The batteries do last a long time, but the units will always be on in a retail environment. Some solutions provide a battery pack which adds some battery life, but wherever there are batteries, there are people forgetting to charge them. It will be important to include a reminder to charge overnight – perhaps a dock – and to always keep a cord on hand.

Software Providers – Another brief comment on software. While Square and Paypal are both huge names right now, they are effectively offering a POS solution as a loss leader for payments processing. That means that retailers are locked into a POS solution based on their payments module. Retailers won’t care about this until they realize that to move they will have to update all of their inventory on to another system. This solution model is working very well today, and it may very well continue to do so and I hope it does. I think it can work, but it is a risk to consider. Retailers are in business for the long haul, and well as they have done, this is a new business model with relatively new players.

Chip and Pin – I’ve seen some interesting solutions to deal with Chip and Pin (using a pin pad to enter a code for card payments – we do that here in Canada) on iPod touch units with sleds. In America, they can use dongles in the headphone jack of the iPad, or in the bottom port, but in Canada that does not fly. Without Chip and Pin, this thing is a non-starter in the Canadian environment. There needs to be integration to a pin pad solution, but I’m not yet aware of one. Most pinpads are currently on RS-232 (sorry no ports on iPad), or on IP – that might work. Someone has to make that work before this can happen in Canada. Let me know if you have heard of any!

Solution Roadmap – iPad and all iDevices are on notoriously short roadmaps. Seen an iPod Classic lately? Didn’t think so. As a consumer device, it is entirely Apple’s prerogative to release new units every year – to change the size – to max out the screen resolution, to change the IOS platform, to add and remove ports and more – all at their whim. This may be fine, but it may start to impact a user that has an older unit. Will they be forced to upgrade because of changing specs? Will they have to source a different mount, a different payment device, a different peripheral at short notice as the units change every year?

Network – iPad only uses wifi. While this may not be a problem for some retailers, others are concerned about providing access to wifi networks in their businesses. I’ve also found that while I’ve had some rock solid experiences with wifi, some of my apple products will constantly lose connectivity with my wifi network, and the only way to fix it is to reset the router/modem. It’s a small issue, but worth thinking about.

I point out these issues not to rail against the iPad, but to point out potential obstacles. Sometimes in the rush towards new technology, these items can be overlooked. Better to have the issues in mind when looking to implement and consider them carefully prior to moving forward to ensure the best possible customer and store staff experience possible.


On the whole, the potential of the iPad as a retail device is incredible. The millions sold are a testament to the strength of the iPad, and the following behind it.
In my opinion, the iPad will see a great deal of use as the main point of sale device in a boutique independent environment to start. It lacks some of the power and performance needed by top tier retailers – particularly given their investment in complex and sophisticated point of sale, inventory, and ERP solutions that can’t be changed at a moment’s notice. However, as point of sale platforms continue to progress, you can expect to see those platforms leverage the iPad in some way. iPad or not, the point of sale device is definitely changing.

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