The Future Is Headless Commerce
Ecommerce today is all about the customer experience. Customers expect a fully customized, tailored shopping journey across every traditional touch point. This can be hard to achieve with an ‘out-of-the-box’, traditional ecommerce platform. That’s where headless ecommerce comes in.
In this headless ecommerce guide:
- What is headless commerce?
- Why headless is growing in popularity
- The benefits of headless CMS explained
- Headless commerce in action
- Who does headless work best for?
- How to get started with a headless commerce approach
- Frequently asked questions
What is headless commerce?
In a headless approach, the front end of your eCommerce shop and the back end of it are “decoupled” they stand independently of one another. That means the content presentation layer (content and experience management systems) is separated from the business logic and functional layer (existing eCommerce stack, integration, and commerce management).
This architecture divides customer-facing concerns from system-facing concerns and allows for a more tailored development of the pieces that are underperforming or a focusing of resources on the pieces that are performing best.
The part of an eCommerce website that users interact with is called “the glass.” In headless, the glass can be “owned” (operated and served up to the user) by either the eCommerce solution, the content management solution (CMS) or a combination of both.
Why headless is growing in popularity.
There are two major factors driving the popularity of headless. First, when eCommerce first appeared on the market as a viable channel, the majority of traffic to websites came from desktop, and sales were relatively simple. As a result, the platform solutions that sprung up at the time were all-inclusive (full-stack) with the website front end and backend coupled.
But as technology evolved to meet the growing expectations of customers, the path to purchase expanded to include not only mobile traffic, but a complex matrix of buyer touch points resulting in what we now call omnichannel.
Omnichannel demands a flexibility that is difficult for full-stack solutions to execute because the frontend and backend of the system are married, making it impossible to change one without running that change through the other, which costs time, money and introduces risk.
Second, and perhaps even more importantly, brands that have historically used their website as solely a repository of content are now wanting to expand into eCommerce (particularly in the B2B space).
Because of the massive amount of content that already exists, it’s much easier from an implementation standpoint to build out a commerce engine and connect it to their existing content management solution, rather than creating a completely new website and having to migrate their old content into it.
In summary, apart from saving time and costs, the decoupling of a website’s back and front end allows for quicker integrations, greater experimentation, and more nuanced personalization.
The benefits of headless CMS explained.
Flexibility is the main advantage of a headless CMS. Modern consumers demand more online shopping capabilities in the form of a front end that is up-to-date, easy to use, and seamless, while simultaneously a backend that is capable of increasingly complex transactions.
Because the front end and back end of a headless system are separate, brands can make updates to their customer-facing content layer without disrupting their business infrastructure. For example, your marketing team could launch a new promotion without having to rely on developers and a full system reconfiguration.
Innovation is the key to success, and innovation starts with experimentation. It’s the only way to learn the preferential subtleties of your key markets and really understand how best to deliver to them, which is the underlying principle of personalization.
Because headless systems are separate and therefore undisruptive to each other, you can experiment without fear of slowing your website down (or worse). For example, you could run continuous backend experiments on category tagging functionality without disrupting shoppers using the front-end search function.
As mentioned above, a decoupled architecture is a big advantage as it lets you can make rapid changes to your front end without disturbing the back end, and vice versa, because updating one does mean you have to automatically update the other.
For example, you can make a quick update for compliance with a new iPhone OS without having to reboot your entire system. With today’s new technologies moving at warp speed, the value of a system that can cost-effectively keep up can’t be overstated.
Because a headless CMS architecture is decoupled integrations are no longer a package-deal, so you don’t have to buy in bulk and end up with software that you don’t want or need. You can instead work closely with your technology team or SI to identify which integrations make the most sense for your business and will impact your bottom line.
Headless commerce vs traditional commerce.
Not sure whether to adopt a headless commerce system over traditional ways of business. Compare some of the key factors below.
Fully customizable with near unlimited options. How you build it is up to you and you can craft a fully personalized experience for your customers.
Fully focused on the user experience. Being decoupled, you can develop and make changes to the front end of your platform without having to engage elements of the back end.
Easier to silo and individually manage global elements of your business, like different ecommerce windows for different countries.
More rigid in practice. Customer experiences are formed of the pre-sets of the software or program available to the ecommerce business owner.
You might find that you have to access and update back-end data, like customer information, in order to make changes to the front end and your ecommerce shop window.
Can be difficult and time-consuming to scale ‘out-of-the-box’ system to a larger, or even global, audience.
Disadvantages of headless commerce.
While there are many benefits to establishing a headless commerce system within your business, there are also some drawbacks. Consider whether the following would be detrimental to your way of working before implementing any headless system. Or, at the very least, put in the necessary steps to work around the issues.
- Customization. Headless commerce is inherently customizable, which on the one hand, is great. You’ve got endless options. However, this requires some setup and takes a bit of knowledge on your part before you can get started. It doesn’t work from the get-go. If you’re looking for something that you can get started with right away, headless commerce is not it.
- Updates. Updates are not rolled out live to headless commerce systems from their provider. Your package is decoupled by design. Whereas some other systems receive regular updates, new enhancements, and security additions as they roll out, a headless system will require periods of offline working for you to manually install these.
Headless commerce in action.
One of BORN’s clients in the media and entertainment industry (est. revenue 500+ million) sought to create a website that could handle subscription management, the ability to play videos via streaming, the ability to download virtual products, and the option to purchase physical products.
Essentially, they needed to craft a digital experience that would offer an easier way for customers to subscribe, watch, and purchase.
The client already had a proprietary streaming engine running on their website as well as a pre-existing Drupal CMS that housed millions of pieces of media-rich content. This was the perfect opportunity for a headless architecture because it meant the client could keep their existing content but still expand their eCommerce offerings without disrupting their entire business.
Adobe Commerce was chosen for all eCommerce functionality, because of its unparalleled set of robust APIs, ease of use on the back end, and quick time to go live. BORN successfully integrated Adobe Commerce, the proprietary streaming engine, and the existing CMS to create a beautiful new headless solution. The project was completed on time and with no complications, resulting in a significant and immediate increase in conversions for both streaming services and purchased goods.
Who does headless work best for?
As the example above demonstrates, headless is a particularly good solution for any business with an existing content management solution that wants to grow their ecommerce offering. Businesses that are content heavy, have content that is media-rich or quickly and constantly changes, or are experiencing rapid growth are also excellent headless candidates.
Additionally, a firm with an experienced marketing and content organization that wants more control is a good candidate for headless, since it can help them deliver highly personalized, one-to-one experiences, and highly targeted and contextually relevant content.
Finally, headless is also an excellent option for large conglomerates with many portfolio companies, brands or divisions that need to exercise content and experience governance by enforcing workflow approval processes, DAM processes, content versioning, tagging and storage rules, or strict branding guidelines.
How to get started with a headless commerce approach.
There are several different headless implementation options and the architecture that’s selected depends on your present and future business requirements, so it’s important to consult with an experienced integrator to find the best fit for your brand.
- Decide whether headless commerce is right for you.
Think about how you want your business to function. Do your customers expect a fully personalized shopping experience? Or do you prize function over form? Decide whether a headless structure will benefit your business and how you plan to incorporate it into your expected business growth. You might want a headless system if:
- You want full customization options and have the time and skills available to incorporate such a system into your offering.
- You plan to make regular changes to your front end in terms of design and development.
- You want to reduce planned updates and downtime that are common with more traditional API-backed systems.
- You want to ensure a fully customized customer experience across all touch points, prioritizing a ‘sell everywhere’ approach.
- Decide on a headless commerce provider.
Once you’re happy with headless commerce, you need to choose a vendor. Your chosen vendor will approach headless architecture differently, so ensure you’re picking one that suits your business now and in the future.
There are three choices when it comes to headless ecommerce architecture.
- Front-end as a service. Uses minimal development to produce a relatively simple, small-scale ecommerce window. This is a popular choice for small businesses with one or two stores and limited teams or developer skills.
- Digital experience platform. A fully integrated experience. This has all the metaphorical bells and whistles when it comes to functionality. Ideal for larger ecommerce operations with multiple stores, often globally.
- Custom built. If you want to build a headless commerce platform in your own image, perfectly and uniquely suited to your business, then custom build is the choice for you. However, you’ll need to be an experienced developer to build the package yourself.
- Implementing your system.
Once you’ve picked a provider, it’s time to implement your headless way of working. The implementation process will differ depending on which option you chose from the above. However, you’ll often need several developers to assist with the customization options to ensure that your decoupled front and back-ends function as you want them to.
Frequently asked questions about headless commerce.
Why is headless commerce important?
Headless commerce capabilities allow businesses to craft truly unique, fully customized ecommerce experiences for their customers. It enables ecommerce owners to prioritize tailored content delivery for every step of the customer journey, rather than a focus on the top and bottom of the traditional funnel.
What is ecommerce?
Ecommerce is the buying and selling of products via a website. Usually, a customer will browse a website for the products they want and place an order for delivery, completing the purchase via an online portal. Then, the ecommerce business will fulfil the delivery, shipping it to the customer’s given address.
What is the front and back-end of an ecommerce site?
The front end of an ecommerce site is everything the customer sees – the shop, effectively. It can include the product pages, a product carousel, the ordering portal.
The back end is everything behind the scenes. The customer has no access to this. The back end can include customer data retention and development coding.