Getting the best price is critical when buying any product for your business, but price is rarely the only consideration. So, if you need a printer for the point of sale (POS) system at your retail location, consider price just one small part of the equation, along with things like service, support and training. And don’t rush your choice. That’s when problems often arise.

A POS system usually includes a main computer, screen, cash drawer and printer. In many cases, there may also be a scanner and magnetic stripe reader. The printer, while sometimes sold separately, will never be used as a standalone item – it’s always as part of a bundle.

While there is still a market for cash registers, it is a small one. Mom and Pop stores and retailers such as dollar stores might buy them because they don’t want to invest much in their businesses at the outset, but there are a lot of reasons to go with a PC POS system over a standard cash register.

If you’re looking at buying a printer the first thing to do is determine your requirements, says Nick Guarna, national sales manager for POS distributor BlueStar Canada. Do you print out just a few receipts a day, or many more? A small retailer may print only 10 receipts a day, while a pharmacy or a convenience store prints up to 600.

There are two basic POS printer technologies out there: dot matrix and thermal. A smaller retailer may be able to get away with buying a dot matrix printer, which costs a lot less. However, the mean time before failure (MTBF) with a thermal printer is much better. Expect to get 4 or 5 million lines out of a dot matrix printer while a thermal printer generally yields 50 or 60 million lines before it expires, according to Guarna.

On a thermal printer there are no moving parts, only a gear or two. In comparison, a dot matrix printer has a physical print head that slides along a shaft from one corner to the next. Since there are many more moving parts a lot more can break down. Plus, you must periodically change the ribbon. With a thermal printer you pop in the paper, shut the lid, and let it go. It has a head that burns the paper to a high temperature to make characters appear.

This is not to suggest that thermal printers don’t break down; it’s just that breakdowns are usually the result of human error. Someone might spill a liquid into it. A user might use inexpensive paper and cause a paper jam. But while you may experience some problems with thermal technology, you will experience more of them with dot matrix.

Many customers look at the price of thermal paper and decide against that technology because of the perceived long-term costs. However, a true ROI analysis on both printers will reveal that the thermal printer is far cheaper in the long run, Guarna explains. Normally a printer in a POS system is kept anywhere between five to seven years. After that time the thermal printer will have probably been repaired once, maybe not at all. The same cannot be said of the dot matrix model.

If you decide that you have the volume to justify thermal technology, there are a couple of other things to consider. First, there are several printer sizes, as paper sizes range from 60mm to about 104mm (four inches). As well, some printers output monochrome and some offer colour as well as monochrome.

On the positive side for customers, the various thermal printers out there are virtually the same when it comes to feature sets, says Guarna. “One model may be half a second or a second faster than another, and one may be less expensive because its MTBF is not as good, but the differences are not that significant.”

More variation can actually be found among the products’ resellers. For example, BlueStar Canada deals with about 2,500 active dealers in Canada. That’s a lot of choice but there’s definitely a margin for error. It’s important to do some research before settling on your choice.

For example, get to know the reseller you’re dealing with. Unfortunately a lot of customers don’t, Guarna says. Instead they might just call a random dealer from the Yellow Pages. This is unwise. Do a bit of a background check on the reseller, and perhaps get some references. Consider that if you’re buying many systems for several locations, the importance of having a good partner will increase exponentially.

Also, find out what kind of support your prospective reseller offers, suggests Guarna. What kind of support outside of the normal hours – when your store may still be open – does it provide? Which types of products are represented? How good is the training? How about the quality of telephone support?

“As you can tell, price is almost the last thing on my agenda from a distributor point of view,” says Guarna. “However, I understand that customers have budgets and bottom lines. All I’m suggesting is that you look at everything outside of the price first, and then try to negotiate a deal you can live with. If you get the best price but also the worst training, service and support out there, you’re going to pay a far bigger price over the long term.”


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