Should Digital Brands embrace Headless Commerce?

Headless commerce software allows brands to manage their online sales activity easily and seamlessly. We look at some of the services available and brands using Headless products to scale.

Akhil Sonthi - Consultant

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Ecommerce growth had already been exponential prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, but with billions of people confined to their homes over the past two years for varying periods, ordering online for delivery to your door became more of a necessity. This behaviour change created enormous pressure on digital infrastructures, and led to a re-examination of customer experiences. One of the tools available to vendors to easily alter online experiences and create increasingly personal interactions is headless commerce.

What is headless commerce?

Headless commerce is an ecommerce application that separates the front end or ‘head’ (e.g. application UI on a web browser) from the back end (e.g. processing software on a server). This allows the front end to be updated independently without interfering with the back end, providing greater flexibility to create unique experiences for each visitor. It also means the front end can be a lot simpler as it doesn’t deal with any processing.

The front end and back end communicate using Application Programming Interfaces or APIs. You can think of an API as a translator that allows two applications to talk to each other. Let’s say a visitor navigates to a product detail page (PDP) on an e-commerce website. The front end immediately makes a ‘request’ and retrieves all product details from the back end through an API, and those details are then displayed to the user via the web browser. If the user then goes on to make a purchase, the front end will send another request to the back end using the same API and wait for a response, which it then displays once more via the web browser.

As enterprises scale, you can imagine many different applications/front ends such as mobile & smartwatch apps being built simultaneously. All of which communicate with the back end through bespoke APIs.

The benefits of headless commerce.

OMNICHANNEL MARKETING: Companies can publish content across a variety of new channels without worrying about back end functionality.

FASTER DEVELOPMENT: Allows front end & back end developers to make changes to modules simultaneously while only worrying about the interface with the user; teams become more agile.

FASTER PAGE LOAD TIME: Customer-facing content presentation layer, which is separated from the backend website functions, can be displayed very quickly through the reliance on APIs rather than literal resource sharing (e.g. CSS/JS files) affecting both website experience and Google rankings.

IMPROVED INTEGRATION: Reduces the chance of being locked-in to particular software vendors and allows product and development teams to experiment more by connecting new plugins and platforms (e.g. CMS, CRM, ERP).

FASTER TIME TO MARKET: Brands are able to launch & test new front-end experiences faster meaning they can react to market trends and optimise conversion rates.

IMPROVED SECURITY: Access control can be utilised on the separate front end & back end systems to limit unauthorised access and handling of data.

BETTER CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE: Allows brands to create unique, personalised experiences for each touchpoint to deliver a seamless web journey for each individual customer.

The challenges of headless commerce.

REPLATFORMING: Companies need to replatform and develop their own front-end systems which can be costly in terms of time and money.

ONGOING COSTS: Monthly subscription fees for a headless platform, plus the need to maintain design templates, security and track bugs while updating their own front-end systems regularly.

AGILE IS NOT FOR EVERYONE: Headless commerce relies on product/tech teams to ship new features quickly and consistently to stay ahead of the game.

PERFORMANCE: High-quality dev teams who can write complex yet performant code are required to make the most out of a headless architecture.

The top headless commerce platforms.

MAGENTO

– Used by Ford, P&G, Nike, HP, Tommy Hilfiger, Jaguar Land Rover, Nespresso, 3M
– With almost 30% market share, Magento is a leading headless commerce platform allowing businesses to create well-structured, SEO-optimised content
– It offers complete customisation and high performance and is powered by Adobe Sensei, an AI tool that allows e-commerce personalisation based on visitor preferences

SHOPIFY

– Used by Gymshark, Fitbit, Lindt, Whole Foods Market, Kraft Heinz, Hasbro, Penguin Books, Huel
– Subscription-based, fully hosted platform enabling businesses to create online stores within minutes via an intuitive drag-and-drop website builder and provides easy integration with 3rd party apps

SALESFORCE COMMERCE CLOUD

– Used by Adidas, Godiva, L’Oreal, Callaway Golf, FedEx, Mars
– Originally known as Demandware, it has become a leader in enterprise cloud commerce solutions
– Offers world-class marketing functionality such as personalised campaigns, ability to easily create complex A/B testing of user experiences and a staging environments so that website changes can be fully tested before going live

Some of the best examples of using headless commerce.

NIKE

One of the world’s leading athletic brands adopted a mobile-first approach. They used React SPA (Single Page Application) and Node.js in a backend-for-frontend architecture which made the mobile shopping experience more robust and helped increase their market share against Adidas.

FEEL UNIQUE

One of Europe’s leading beauty retailers, Feel Unique used React PWA (Progressive Web Application) to improve website experiences and speed up/streamline key parts of the shopping journey such as search and listing pages. PWA allowed the site to then run smooth, much like a native app.

CHILLY’S

Opted for Shopify Plus on the back-end and DatoCMS on the front-end. This improved site speed, performance and SEO, while also increasing cross-selling opportunities thanks to personalised website experiences. They utilised a PWA which provides internationalisation services, which allows for rapid expansion into new markets.

In general, headless commerce provides enterprises of all sizes with greater flexibility, speed, power and security by decoupling the front end from the back end to allow independent agile development. For those reasons it’s likely to be part of inevitable digital evolution as enterprises scale and improve operational efficiency.