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Why Cash Registers Need to Be More Like Computers

I’m sure some cash registers are super-awesome. But in my experience, they’re tricky little devils. A few days ago, I mis-typed an amount and it told me that I should give this lady $190 in change for her $10 fine which she’d paid with a $20. Whoops!

I redid the transaction correctly, but I had to call a manager and give her the info so that she could verify the void the next day. Very embarrassing.

Here’s the thing about cash registers (in my experience): you can’t tell what you just did. And Clear often only takes you back one step. So if you made two mistakes, you’re screwed. Or if you don’t realize your mistake until later, you’re screwed.

What I would like to see in a cash register:

  • For starters, I wouldn’t mind using a calculator and a ledger. That might be simplest. If you mess up a line, you can just draw a line through it and start over.
  • But if I’m going to use a cash register, I’d like it to have a mouse and a backspace key.
  • I’d like a screen where I can see the whole transaction and not just the last line.
  • I’d like to be able to go back and correct things. Because on the nifty screen, I could have seen that I accidentally typed in $200 instead of $20 (what I hit was 2 00 00 instead of 2 0 00). So I could have used arrow keys or the mouse to simply find the line, hit backspace, and change it.
  • Actually, making it look like a simple spreadsheet (where the same keys you normally use on the machine fill it into a spreadsheet but you can go back and correct it) would be really nice.
  • It could work a lot like the ones I’ve used before, just show more info in case you screwed up…it wouldn’t need a keyboard.
  • And if such a paragon exists, I’d like someone to donate them to every county library ever. Thanks!

It just seems like we have the technology to make cash registers a hundred times easier to use. They don’t need a lot of bells and whistles—they could actually stand to be dumbed down as long as they reveal more information and allow for easier correction.

Creative Commons License photo credit: marada

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Christine February 26, 2008 at 7:53 am

The cash registers we had at Walmart were pretty fancy-pants. We could do things like print “pre-receits) (ie, whatever had happened so far in a transaction) in case of things like that — which helped in figuring out where something went wrong.

Of course, the keyboard layout was strictly alphabetical, not qwerty, which made it quite difficult to type. And it was Walmart. Bleeeagh.

Alice February 26, 2008 at 8:37 am

When I was your age (i.e. a long time ago), I worked at a flower shop where we had a cash register that was already ancient. Basically, it was an adding machine,with keys you pushed down, a lever, and a cash drawer. Taxes had to be calculated separately (mentally or on paper) and then added in. My boss always took home the tape at the end of the day, so if I made a mistake, I would retype the whole day’s worth!

Fiscal Musings February 26, 2008 at 9:13 am

They already have computers to handle this, but it depends on if the owner is willing to buy them.

Curtis February 26, 2008 at 9:36 am

Don’t forget, part of the job of a cash register is to track the money in and out of a the drawer for an owner/manager who is not around to oversee things. Making it too easy to “correct” mistakes also makes it easier to steal money.

People are expected to make an occasional mistake and need help fixing it. If you aren’t doing that, something is probably wrong. Look out for those people who never mess up a transaction on their cash register. They are the one’s taking you to the cleaner.

fathersez February 26, 2008 at 10:31 am

THis is interesting.

I have never operated a cash register before. I didn’t know there were so many complications. Now that you have mentioned this, I also wonder why technology has not reengineered this as yet.

Andrew Stevens February 26, 2008 at 10:43 am

Back when I used a cash register, the transaction you described wouldn’t have been a void. The cash register thought you should have received $10 which is the amount you actually did receive, so everything should have balanced. The fact that it thought you were putting in $200 and removing $190 instead of putting in $20 and taking out $10 wouldn’t have been relevant. So I would have just given her her $10 and ignored the fact that I had mistyped it. In fact, I typically used to just hit the exact change button and calculate the change in my head rather than bothering with the register, since I was more likely to make a mistake if I keyed it in.

Looby February 26, 2008 at 11:53 am

When I worked in retail we had a cash register that was hooked up to the computer, so it was a qwerty board and you could go back a screen etc. I think we used it because it took up less counter space than a computer and till separately (and knowing the store owner I imagine it was a lot cheaper). Most of the stores round here seem to use the same system and I noticed our library does too when I had to pay a fine (*hangs head in shame*). The only place I have seen traditional cash registers recently is the grocery store.

Dad February 26, 2008 at 5:56 pm

I think Curtis is on the right track. That and the reluctance in some areas to make ANY changes. When HP introduced its first business calculator, it did not have a backspace key but it did have a clear error key to let you rekey a bad entry. I asked why because I found backspace a great feature on other calculators. I was told that business people didn’t like backspace. I guess it wasn’t intuitive to them and making corrections makes fraud a bit easier. Look in the grocery store. If the cashier makes a mistake s/he has to call for a supervisor to do a void. Changes in this area seem to come very slowly.

RegisterGuy February 26, 2008 at 6:20 pm

Oh my goodness ya gotta give these poor little cash registers some credit! Oten it comes down to price when someone chooses a cash register. But there are some great registers available for around $500.00 But here is the big problem, the first role of a cash register is counting and calculating, however the 2nd goal of a register (sometimes the 1st) is security. So if the used many of the features you mentioned store owners would be open to even more fraud then they are already. Most theft comes from the inside, and where does the cash meet the potential thief? At the register of course! My site has many registers and a free support blog at http//

Thanks, and I enjoyed reading your post!

mrsmicah February 26, 2008 at 11:01 pm

So I guess what this means is that dishonest people suck. Because otherwise cash registers could be easy to use instead of hard.

I’ll settle for one that shows me every line of the transaction I’m working on. That way I’ll know if I mispunched something.

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