The easy thing to do would be to simply list the differences between these two broad categories of POS systems. And I did that (please see the table at the bottom of this post), but first let’s talk a little about the decision-making process. What matters is that you choose a system to meet your needs.
This is really simple: if you have a retail operation, don’t buy a restaurant style POS. If you have a food & beverage operation, don’t buy a retail POS. Yes – I know – that should be obvious! But you would be surprised at how often it happens.

What happens if you get it wrong?

Retailer Perspective
Retail POS systems are driven by barcoded items, product codes, and/or detailed product descriptions. There are lots of SKUs and finding which one to ring in is critical. Also, inventory management is life or death for a retailer, so retail POS systems are almost always tied to an inventory management system of some description. Restaurant POS systems do not handle large numbers of SKUs very well. They rarely have good inventory management, and they have almost no functionality to make it easy to find a particular item. These issues are deadly for a retailer.

Many retailers like to keep track of their customers. So, customer databases are more the norm in a retail database. It’s extremely rare to find this functionality in a restaurant style POS.

Restaurateur Perspective
Retail POS systems will not deal well with building a tab – this factor alone is a deal breaker. If there are no barcodes, transactions will not be processed quickly. Since restaurants deal more with ingredients as inputs rather than the buy/sell process of a typical retailer, inventory control systems are rare and those that exist are more oriented towards drawing from ingredients, including bulk ingredients (like flour, or draft beer).

At the end of the day, the biggest issue is speed and simplicity. Retail POS systems don’t usually have programmable, user-friendly graphical based UI’s. Without that UI, service will be slow.

Quick Serve vs. Full Serve Restaurants
Now, before we unveil the list (which I’m sure you’ve already checked out anyway), a quick note on quick serve vs. full serve. Basically, a full-service restaurant needs more functionality. It needs to be able to set up graphical representations of table arrangements, split bills easily add new items to an existing tab, and sometimes deal with tip splitting.
There are a lot more functions for the full serve industry but again, my key point is that you need to seek out a system that is truly specific for your needs. It’s not a bargain if it doesn’t do the job!
One final note: there are systems like Scotia Software, that have a fully functional “back end” but can switch between the restaurant style graphical UI, and the more in-depth retail UI.

Retail POSRestaurant POS
Focus on the transactionRunning total with ongoing additions
Fixed checkout pointFull service restaurants often involve portable devices
Heavy reliance on bar codesSimple, customizable touch screen interface
Generic UIPre-programmed items including specials, etc.
Manual entry of data where no barcodesMost don't include inventory and management / accounting functions
Transactions processed immediatelySorted by graphical icon + description rather than part number or barcode
Receipts automatically generatedUsually tied to kitchen for an order queue
Inventory adjusted automatically
Typically includes customer database
Sometimes includes A/R or A/P

What’s Next
Next week, I’ll talk about the “must have’s” for a Service Desk module in any POS System.