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Headless Commerce: Should All eCommerce Stores Use This Approach?

by Jesús Maceira, September 8, 2022

Starting your company's journey to headless commerce can be a challenging stage. But vital, if you want your business to meet the demand of a market where consumers want new and better shopping experiences.

As e-commerce continues to evolve, companies and brands have been forced to implement new architectures that provide the freedom and flexibility to grow and scale. In this article, we will comment on the concept of headless commerce, its characteristics and the benefits of implementing it for your company.

What is Headless Commerce?

In a nutshell, headless commerce is an architecture that provides an e-commerce solution that stores, manages, and delivers content by separating the site's front-end from its back-end commerce functionality.

Developers can use the APIs to serve things like: products, blog posts, or customer reviews to any screen or device. At the same time as the front-end developers, they can work on how to present such content using whatever framework they like.

Essentially, all functional elements (such as products, forms, blog, banners, etc.) of the system can be managed programmatically. This includes the creation and management of content components.

With a headless ecommerce platform, the front-end (or "head"), which in most cases is usually a template or theme, has been decoupled and removed, leaving only the back-end.

Headless architecture gives retailers greater freedom to customize and build the type of store they want. Updating the front-end without the need to touch the back-end. On the other hand, the headless architecture also gives flexibility to create new user experiences for shoppers.

headless commerce

For a better understanding, let us highlight these two concepts:

  • Front-end (interface). The customer-facing digital storefront is also called the presentation layer. This can be much more than just a website, including channels like social media, mobile apps, and the millions of devices we use in the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT includes things like smart mirrors, self-service kiosks, vending machines, wearable devices, and voice-assisted technology like Amazon Alexa.

  • Back-end. It's all the systems, processes, workflows, and tools that run in the background to handle operations and make sure your business runs smoothly. This technology stack can help with activities like marketing, fulfillment, integrations, data storage, and payment.

The separation of front-end and back-end is important, because traditional trading platforms strictly tie these two elements together. By separating these layers, brands can be more creative in developing an amazing customer experience that brings together all types of channels and devices, without limitations or borders.

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How does headless commerce work?

The secret formula of headless commerce is the API (Application Program Interface).

An API connects the Front-end with the Back-end, sending information between the two in real time. As with some CMS, headless e-commerce works by passing multiple requests between the presentation layer and the back-end, precisely through web services or API interface calls.

For example, when a user clicks the “Buy Now” button from their smartphone, the headless e-commerce interface or presentation layer sends an API call to the application layer to process the order. The application layer sends another API call to the application layer to show the client the status of their order.

With a headless storefront, you can take full advantage of multiple back-end systems based on business needs. These systems may include:

  • A content management system (CMS)
  • A Progressive Web Application (PWA)
  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM)
  • A business management system (ERP)
  • Digital Experience Platform (DXP)

These additional SaaS (software as a service) tools create touchpoints for customers, such as a mobile app or a vending machine. Every time a customer has a touchpoint with your storefront, an API call sends that information to the backend.

With headless architecture, customers don't see anything from your back-end, just the user interface or front-end you're using to deliver shopping experiences.

Headless commerce versus traditional commerce

If you are still not very clear about the differences between traditional commerce and “headless” commerce, do not despair, in the following graph we show them:

headless commerce vs traditional commerce

1) Flexibility for Front-end development

Traditional commerce:
Front-end developers working on a traditional commerce system encounter a number of limitations when it comes to design and different aspects of the process. Generally, any changes to be made require a lot of time to edit the database, the code, and also the front-end platform. The development team is also limited in what can be updated and/or edited, without the risk of voiding a warranty or preventing future updates.

Headless commerce:
By removing the predefined front-end platform, a headless e-commerce allows front-end developers to create a user experience from scratch that is perfectly tailored to the core business needs. This way, there is no need to worry about modifying the databases on the back-end, since all that needs to be done is a simple API call. In other words, the front-end development team is freed from the "shackles" regularly associated with a traditional trading platform.

Perhaps the only drawback here is that without any visual presentation layer, front-end developers and marketers must build everything from scratch. From product pages to landing pages. And developing the correct web design for e-commerce is usually no small thing. But don't worry, a front-end as service like Vue Storefront or B2BStore can help you with this task.

2) Customization and personalization

Traditional commerce:
Traditional commerce platforms have a predefined experience, both for end consumers and administrative users. So the scope for customization and personalization is very limited. If you are satisfied with the experience provided by traditional platforms, it may be powerful for you.

Headless commerce:
Traditional commerce platforms limit developers and users to what they define as the correct user experience. With headless platforms, since there is no front-end, the development team can create their own user experience from scratch. Having more control over the look and feel of your trading platform and also the user experience for both end consumers and admin users.

3) Flexibility and adaptability

Traditional commerce:
In traditional solutions, the front-end is closely related to the back-end coding and infrastructure. This leaves little to no room for flexibility to make any desired customizations. To perform a single customization, developers need to edit multiple layers of coding from the front end to the database layer that is buried in the back end.

Headless commerce:
Since headless commerce has already decoupled the front-end and the back-end, this opens up endless customization possibilities when the business requires it. To make any changes, you just need to enable a front-end development team. You can make changes big or small, from implementing a custom checkout flow to adding a new field to the customer's account; both are very easy to do with a headless trading architecture.

What are the benefits of headless commerce?

Perhaps the most emblematic example of headless commerce is Amazon. Which has highlighted the true value of incorporating a state-of-the-art commerce platform and how it can help retailers avoid the frustrations associated with a traditional commerce platform. A study conducted by Salmon found that 60 percent of consumers want a service similar to Amazon Prime, but this cannot be achieved with a traditional e-commerce solution.

That is why many companies and brands, in their digital transformation process, are considering developing stores based on a headless architecture. In doing so, the benefits can be such as:

  1. Improve site speed: Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) can load much faster because they only input the data they need when they load. Instead of completely reloading the page, on load, elements such as: the catalog, footer, sidebar, and header can remain the same. There are various technical explanations, but for simplicity, you are only loading what you need, not the entire page on every page refresh/reload, and in the end, you should get a faster website as a consequence.

  2. Roll out a Mobile First Experience: By having a separate interface, you can really focus on mobile and mobile-first experiences. You will no longer be tied to a platform-specific frontend theme or template structure. You will be able to create exactly what you need to display. This is great for the flexibility of a mobile and general front-end.

  3. More flexibility: One of the main problems with having everything linked on one platform is if you want to add new elements to your backend etc. or maybe change the interface, you have to go through a platform like Shopify or Magento etc. However, with a headless architecture, you could more easily change your back-end systems like an ERP or the e-commerce platform itself. And just link it to the existing frontend instead of having to completely rewrite everything.

  4. Direct connection to the backend: One of the main problems with eCommerce systems is that they have multiple systems that connect to the main platform and then all show up on the frontend. This can be messy at times and difficult to manage. You can simply bind the exact data streams you need headless to the interface, instead of trying to add it all in one system.

  5. Better offline capabilities: Headless apps can work offline to some extent and are very effective for slow internet or when mobile internet goes in and out of service. It is much more effective for these types of environments than traditional websites.

  6. Push notifications: Headless apps can offer similar functionality, such as push notifications, to mobile apps. It's a great way to achieve a mobile app-like experience without having to invest in infrastructure entirely separate from your website.

  7. Avoid obsolescence: the world is moving in the direction of headless commerce. Move now or become obsolete. Building a non-headless site is increasingly at risk of becoming obsolete in the very near future.

Does headless commerce work for all online stores?

The short answer is no – the headless approach is not a good fit for all eCommerce stores. If your business is doing well enough with a traditional architecture, it may not be worth investing time and financial resources in a headless commerce platform. It all depends on what you're trying to accomplish, and then assess whether the headless approach is the best way to reach your business goals.

But if you are looking to create a more personalized and unique customer experience along with more flexible development, and have the development resources to support a digital transformation that goes in the headless direction, then it may be perfect for your business.

To help you in the analysis, here are some scenarios, if your answer is "yes" for at least two of them, it would be worth considering headless commerce in more detail:

  • "I already have an infrastructure in place and it's not always easy to retrofit another tool onto our existing technology."
  • "I feel like we're moving slower than our competitors because I can't make adjustments to the front-end and back-end at the same time."
  • “I want my shopping experience to be fast for all shoppers and to have more granular control over elements that affect site performance and speed.”
  • "My storefront theme or template isn't as customizable as I'd like."
    "I don't have a native mobile app for iOS or Android, or my mobile shopping app isn't as user-friendly as I'd like."
  • "I want to create a unique storefront ecommerce experience that is not possible with my current platform (eg smart mirrors, wearable technology, vending machines, etc.)"

Where to start with headless commerce?

At this point, we can say that there are two possible approaches: build your own headless commerce architecture from scratch, or take advantage of some commerce platform that already has a headless architecture available.

At Orienteed, for example, we have extensive experience in projects for various industries using Adobe Commerce (formerly Magento), SnipCart, BigCommerce and HCL Commerce. The possibilities for B2B, B2C and B2B2C models are truly endless. We have also developed the B2BStore solution, which allows us to quickly go to market with a low cost headless platform for its development and implementation.

For mid-market businesses and enterprise companies, a solution like B2BStore offers a lot of flexibility and scalability, fully adapting to the company's requirements.

Now your turn!

We hope that now you can be very clear about what the headless commerce approach implies. Perhaps you work at an experienced company with an established infrastructure, or find yourself leading the way in building your enterprise architecture. Regardless of the scenario, if you have discovered with this article that a headless architecture may be the right one for your business, then the next step should be to plan a strategy together with an experienced partner.

As your business operations become more complex and you want to differentiate yourself by competing on experience rather than price, you may have a better chance of achieving your goals with a headless approach.

If you need to implement headless ecommerce or need to take your current platform to the next level, contact us today here.

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