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Headless Commerce: Everything You Should Know About the New Way to Sell Online

Headless commerce is making waves with online retailers. See how this new development paradigm improves the omnichannel experience for e-shoppers.

As Robert C. Gallagher famously said, “Change is inevitable—except from a vending machine.” Market players who wish to expand into ecommerce must embrace change on all levels. 

Judging by Amazon, eBay, and Netflix, agility has become the Holy Grail of ecommerce. These online-selling giants update their apps up to a few thousand times a day to continuously improve the experience for consumers who use a variety of touchpoints for making purchases (e.g., a web browser, mobile apps, IoT devices). Progressive digital retailers look up to them when crafting their strategies for ecommerce development, headless ecommerce including, to respond to consumers’ demand.

What Is Headless Ecommerce?

Users interact with ecommerce websites through a user interface, regardless of the device or platform. The interface typically consists of common elements such as an item list, a search field, visuals, a cart, and forms, with company branding and designs applied. This is the presentation layer, or the frontend of the entire platform, which is also known as the head.

Conventional web storefronts lean on the monolithic architecture, meaning that behind every frontend sits the backend, i.e. the functional layer comprising the business logic and powering the traditional ecommerce store.

The backend coordinates tasks such as maintaining and updating a product catalog and inventory, managing user credentials, processing payments, handling orders, and much more. It is closely-tied to the frontend and typically requires much coding effort to enforce dynamic content personalization based on users’ data and real-time behavior.

As opposed to this traditional ecommerce architecture model, the headless commerce architecture decouples the presentation layer, or the head, from the ecommerce functionality at the back, making the solution headless.

Such decoupling makes it possible for backend developers to deliver any content quicker to any screen or device and meet one of the vital demands of the digital-era marketing—engaging customers with personalized content via multiple channels at every step of their journey.

Why is headless ecommerce making waves right now?
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Headless vs Legacy CMS: What’s Wrong with Monolithic Ecommerce Platforms?

Until recently, closely-coupled presentation and functional layers used to be a prevalent trend in ecommerce platforms. Dedicated all-in-one solutions were seen as more robust, delivering uniform user experience. While this remains true to this day, with time ecommerce companies began to spot an increasing number of inefficiencies of legacy monolithic platforms. Vendor lock-in aside, bulging full-stack solutions led to the accumulation of maintenance costs, update hiccups, and maintenance issues. Customization became overly complex, and response to new market demands sluggish.

Additionally, once new consumer touchpoints appeared, those cumbersome all-in-one platforms started calling for costly rearchitecting to support every customer interaction channel, which proved inadequate to ensure truly streamlined omnichannel user experience.

Headless ecommerce vs monolithic commerce

Headless Ecommerce: Building a CMS from the Ground Up

In headless platforms, the backend and frontend management of a website or an e-store are housed separately. Content is created and edited in the backend and then delivered to the frontend through web services and APIs able to interact with any chosen interface or device.

This works in the following way. When a customer initiates an action in an e-store (like, by pressing the ‘Buy Now’ button), the system sends an API request from the CMS presentation layer to the application one. The application layer then returns an API response, for example, confirming the order and showing its status to the user.

What Makes a Headless Ecommerce Platform?

The core elements of a headless system include:

  • A storage database
  • A content management component
  • A RESTful API
  • A content publishing frontend

On a more granular level, there are microservices supporting the architecture. Independent modules for workflows, versioning, permissions, localization, personalization, segmentation, and many others connect through APIs. Such an approach makes headless platforms agile, independent, and scalable.

Examples of Headless CMSs

As headless architecture is gaining traction, the number of available CMSs, platforms, and solutions that support headless ecommerce implementation is also on the rise. The most popular examples of such solutions include:

WordPress REST API. WordPress is the most widely used CMS that powers more than 34% of all websites. Although it was built as a coupled content management system, in 2016 the company released its REST API as part of its core functionality, shifting the development toward headless architecture more extensively.

Drupal (to some extent). Like WordPress, Drupal is mainly a full-stack, monolithic system that embraced headless by exposing content to external systems, such as mobile applications or IoT devices.

Contentful. Contentful is a very popular API-driven headless CMS that gives developers full control over content and digital assets. The platform is available in free, premium, and enterprise editions.

Magento 2. Acquired by Adobe, Magento is an e-commerce platform that offers digital solutions to businesses of all sizes. The second version of the platform, Magento 2, provides headless support with greater speed, faster performance, and unparalleled user experience.

Shopify. Following other leading ecommerce platforms, Shopify has created the Shopify Plus headless engine to help its customers build engaging custom storefronts and deliver content quickly across multiple channels.

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Business Benefits of Headless Commerce

Instead of coupling the backend and frontend layers like legacy ecommerce platforms do, headless commerce abstracts those and makes use of APIs to enable communication. Such architectural approach leads to a series of business implications and gives headless CMSs a considerable advantage over conventional solutions. The most important of these implications are listed below.

1. Product Innovation Speed-up

Most ecommerce websites still use custom CMSs with predefined templates, proprietary tooling, and platform-specific coding languages and frameworks. This approach imposes considerable constraints on designers and developers who should plan and implement features with platform limitations in mind.

Legacy solutions also require maintenance of massive databases and sophisticated code, which further impacts the speed of new features delivery. Each update, regardless of how small, necessitates complex changes at multiple levels, which may further slow down the DevOps cycle. All of these factors negatively affect product innovation.

With headless ecommerce, frontend developers enjoy a greater freedom. Their code is disconnected from the backend and does not affect the database structure, allowing for unlimited modifications that can be made quickly and without the need for adjusting the whole system.

Such software development autonomy ignites creativity and allows software teams to create user experiences from scratch, with no forced restrictions. Additionally, as complex layering and code dependencies don’t hinder frontend developers, they can start working on further iterations immediately after implementing a feature, bringing advanced products and features to life on the fly.

2. Cost Reduction Thanks to Scaling

Ecommerce sellers who come unprepared to handle peak-season traffic may have to face organizational chaos and a massive PR crisis, which is bound to affect their revenues.

Such was the case for a popular fashion retailer, J.Crew. Last year on Black Friday, the company suffered a loss of $775,000 in sales as their website failed to handle the abnormally high traffic. Another well-known retailer, John Lewis, struggled with similar issues when its website crashed overwhelmed by the traffic surge. Amazon, Walmart, and Apple were all affected by high-season outages in the past and had to cope with the customer backlash that followed. 

Ecommerce platforms should be able to scale instantaneously to prevent bursting during traffic spikes, yet the above stories show that even the greatest market players grapple with stable website performance at high season.

A modular, microservices-based headless architecture may greatly benefit digital retailers with its dynamic scaling abilities and help them ensure uninterrupted and flawless services even when traffic surges. Headless makes it easy to add more bandwidth to carts and payment systems during peaks while presenting the opportunity to reduce capacities at low season.

3. Personalized Multichannel User Experience

Without a doubt, personalization is a top priority for today’s marketers across all industries. According to the 2018 survey from Epsilon, 80% of consumers are more likely to do business with a company if it offers personalized experiences.

Legacy platforms usually come with a set of predefined user experience components, such as interface layouts, banner templates, subscription forms, and product selection tools. Even though some systems offer feature-rich, extensive UX design libraries, creating highly unique user experiences can be still ineffective as these platforms allow little room for customization. On top of that, by default, they usually deliver content to one or two communication channels only (typically, a web store and a mobile app), which can create an error-ridden experience for users on other platforms.

Headless systems lift these constraints for developers, allowing them to design and manage user experiences with total freedom. By creating multiple frontends attached to a single backend, they can support an unlimited number of screens and devices, building a webshop dashboard with a completely different layout from the one displayed in a mobile app or a smartwatch interface. This flexibility leads to better customer engagement and facilitates interaction with a brand.

Importance of multichannel experience statistics

4. Faster Feature Testing and Rollout

Customer needs evolve at great speed. Companies such as Netflix and Amazon push thousands of updates daily to respond to these needs as they appear. They can only do so thanks to their flexible and dynamic technologies.

Detaching the frontend from the backend opens up new ways for experimentation. Once a headless ecommerce platform is in place, it becomes easily replicable. As changes in the backend don’t affect the presentation layer, new personalization features can be tested safely, without disrupting the experience on the user’s end on any platform.

The headless capability to run experiments without interrupting user experience allows retailers to respond to the market demand almost immediately. For example, marketing teams can set up new sites within days as opposed to months when covering new geographies. With headless ecommerce, the time needed to roll out an online store for a new location can be greatly reduced as compared to traditional monolithic systems.

5. Enhanced Security

Finally, one of the greatest benefits of headless ecommerce is enhanced security. There are a few inherent qualities of headless architecture that make it much more resilient to cyber threats than coupled software.

First of all, having one uniform data structure instead of a gigantic multi-headed monolithic behemoth makes headless CMSs much easier to monitor and control, which decreases the risk of a critical failure. In traditional all-in-one systems, all components and functions are packed together, leading to a situation where a small change in one component may impact the entire system’s security and performance.

Secondly, thanks to the layer abstraction, the CMS functionality can be hidden under one or more layers of code instead of being directly exposed, as it happens with conventional CMSs.

What’s more, APIs used to provide content to a headless CMS come mostly in the read-only mode, which further reduces the risk of cyber attacks.

Finally, as the system is decoupled, temporary issues with one of the components won’t compromise the continuity of the web store, and can usually be resolved in the background.

Headless CMS security
There are at least 5 benefits to headless commerce, and here's how to get hold of them
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The Takeaways

Ecommerce is moving away from conventional, cumbersome systems toward agile, API-based headless platforms. Headless is a relatively new approach to ecommerce development, but it’s gaining ground swiftly. The reason why it is creating such a stir among online retailers is that it offers a range of advantages that so far have remained untapped. Its primary focus is to deliver seamless, personalized user experience, but it also benefits online sellers in other ways.

By leveraging headless architecture in your e-store, you can:

  • Ensure consistent and optimized brand experience across all delivery channels
  • Gain a competitive edge by rolling out updates quicker than competitors
  • Become more innovative by removing development constraints and allowing design and development teams more creative freedom
  • Build new pages quicker, for example, for reaching out to new markets
  • Bolster your site performance and make it more secure for your users

While headless may not be applicable in every case, it’s best suited for businesses who have a website and wish to add a storefront, or for small companies that need to be nimble and innovative to bridge the sales gap between them and larger players.

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