The need for quick pivots are prompting a shift to ‘headless’ e-commerce

The nature of e-commerce has shifted, as consumers demand a more fluid and personalized online shopping experience. Customers now expect to be able to purchase products straight from their initial touchpoints, whether it be directly through Instagram, via personal voice assistants such as Alexa or Google Home, on wearable devices or even from their cars.

A Harvard Business Review study that interviewed 40,000 shoppers found that only 7 percent were online-only shoppers, while 20 percent were store-only shoppers and the remaining 73 percent relied on multiple shopping channels. The study also revealed that each customer’s value increased relative to the number of channels they used.

In the past, digital commerce was rather straightforward. A vast majority of web traffic came from desktops, and consumers had little choice but to purchase products from a brand’s website. The solutions implemented to handle this shopping behavior were full stack platforms in which the front and back ends of websites were coupled together.

These monolithic architectures were effective at the time. They offered an all-in-one solution and provided businesses with a centralized and feature-rich system. But as digital commerce becomes more complex, the drawbacks of these systems become more apparent.


Beyond monolithic architectures: ‘Headless’ solutions for e-commerce

The traditional web store is not suited to interact seamlessly with a diverse range of products. Monolithic platforms are designed to deliver a predetermined customer experience for a specific channel. They are not designed to easily extend to other touchpoints. This creates ongoing challenges for businesses as new shoppable touchpoints continue to emerge. And the touchpoints can’t just exist, they have to work in simple and effective ways.

Brands already lose a substantial amount of their potential sales with shopping cart abandonment rates hovering near 70 percent. Over a quarter of these shoppers cite an overly complicated checkout experience as the reason they leave without completing their purchase.

Businesses need a flexible shopping solution that enables them to create a smooth customer experience across a wide range of channels while allowing for rapid changes and adaptations of the system. This has led to the rise of headless commerce and the use of microservices in place of an all-in-one platform.


The architecture of a headless commerce system

“Headless” commerce refers to an e-commerce solution where the front end is decoupled from the back end. Headless architecture focuses solely on backup processes and is designed to push data or content to any type of front-end platform through APIs.

Instead of two rigidly fixed parts, the headless setup consists of a set of components, including a headless CMS for content management, a front-end layer for static sites or other platforms, a commerce layer for handling payment and order management and an API layer that links the back end to the front end.

The commerce component of the headless architecture is made up of different microservices including shopping carts, shipping logic, catalog search and promotions. This offers a more flexible solution as developers can use content from the back end of a headless CMS and products stored in the commerce layer.

With a headless commerce setup, the API is used to pull information to any channel including apps, wearable devices, social networks, smart homes and more. The design has long-term viability, as it ensures that an e-commerce system will be able to handle content delivery for any emerging devices and channels as they arise.


Headless commerce provides alternatives to rip-and-replace approaches 

In the past, there weren’t many options for replatforming. Brands could gamble on an arduous process that took them away from their customers, or continue using the same platform despite its limitations and inefficiencies.

A headless setup allows for modular replatforming, giving businesses the ability to address certain issues with their platforms without having to settle for the full-on rip-and-replace approach.

With modular replatforming, brands change their PIM, CMS, OMS or any other system causing issues, all while their existing platform continues operating — and this prevents lost sales due to downtime. Each part of the system is modularized so that brands can add a new component into an existing system and immediately start experiencing the benefits. Brands can then replace each component piece by piece until they have a new, more flexible headless system.


Flexibility yields many benefits

Because the front and back ends are decoupled, a headless commerce system enables developers to make changes without interrupting mission-critical parts of the brand’s business. This is essential, as necessary updates are often needed to improve both customer experience and the technical performance of the system. Consider Amazon, a great example of a headless system: The company updates its code every 11.7 seconds, helping to reduce both the number and duration of outages.

A headless system allows for unlimited flexibility, modification and customization. Marketers and developers can work independently without having to rely on each other to make simple changes. One result is that a headless commerce approach allows brands to provide a more personalized experience to customers. Marketers can easily implement multiple front-end layouts based on their users’ devices. This approach can also leverage past customer data to showcase relevant products and promotional offers.

Headless commerce enables true omnichannel selling and allows sellers to reach a wider audience by distributing content to any and every channel. The system can also support any new technology as it arises, providing marketers the means to design new customer experiences the moment new channels emerge.

The e-commerce landscape changes so rapidly that having an agile and flexible architecture is essential for effective adaptation. Retailers that embrace modular and adaptable e-commerce setups will create better customer experiences and enjoy better performance — and more conversions as a result.