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Tablets transforming the cash register

Parlin Jessen, co-owner of a Fiji Yogurt shop, gives a customer change from his iPad-and-bamboo cash register.Sandy Huffaker/The New York Times/NYT

SEATTLE — The humble cash register, a device that seems sprung from the imagination of an accountant, has become the darling of designers, adding a dash of style to the most ordinary daily transactions.

With the advent of tablets, particularly the iPad, many stores have traded in their clunky cash registers for mobile devices. Now, though, they are dressing up those tablets with inventive accessories to make them both more pleasant to look at and more practical for cashiers.

Retailers from doughnut shops to department stores are putting in tablet-based cash registers that hang on the wall or can swivel around like desk lamps to face customers. At Coco Donuts in downtown Portland, Ore., iPad registers hang on a track on the wall, and employees slide them over to customers at the counters, who can sign for their bill, barely missing a bite.


Some designers are using eye-catching materials like bamboo to make iPad enclosures that scream for attention; others are using minimalist designs that make the register all but disappear. And sales associates are plucking the tablets off countertops so they can take orders from anywhere in a store using tiny credit card readers attached to the devices.

Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream is ditching the button-encrusted Casio monoliths at its Seattle stores, replacing them with six Apple iPads that sit on stylish, handcrafted plywood pedestals engraved with the store’s logo of a dog (a Boston terrier and French bulldog mix) licking an ice cream cone.

‘‘The new iPads are a huge aesthetic improvement over our old clunky plastic registers,’’ said Kristina McDonnell, Molly Moon’s director of operations, who ordered the stands from Tinkering Monkey, an Oakland, Calif., studio.

Cash registers have gone through many mutations since they were introduced in the late 1800s by an Ohio merchant looking to combat employee theft. They were electrified in the early 20th century, and more recently, got touch-screen displays.


But less has changed about their looks. Cash registers have remained a hulking presence — ‘‘always industrial and ugly,’’ said Kirthi Kalyanam, a professor at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University.

In addition to being more attractive, the new registers are more flexible and user-friendly, like the ones at Coco Donuts. By putting the registers on the wall, the store’s owner, Ian Christopher, freed up counter space for coffee drinks and doughnuts.

The business of making iPad registers is so early that there is plenty of room for handcrafted designs.

In a workshop in San Diego, the Happy Owl Studio makes the Cashbox, a $1,500 iPad register, made of bamboo in amber and other shades, with space for a cash drawer and receipt printer integrated into its burly rectangular frame. A stand that holds the iPad on top tilts back and forth between customer and cashier.”

Parlin Jessen, co-owner of a Fiji Yogurt shop in San Diego, said his Cashbox has gotten a lot of attention. ‘‘Everyone asks, ‘Where did you get this?’ ’’ he said.

Although there’s nothing preventing cashiers from goofing off on the store’s iPad, Jessen said the prospect bothers him less than the alternative.

‘‘It would be better that they’re doing it on a supposed cash register instead of a phone,’’ he said. ‘‘At least that way, it looks like they’re doing work.’’