Headless Commerce 101: The Complete Guide

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The first enterprise-grade ecommerce platforms were built with the assumption that customers were using desktop or laptop computers and shopped via web browsers. They worked just fine at the time, but there was a problem: the architecture undergirding the software was designed with no other purpose in mind. These “full stack” platforms controlled both the website on the front end and the commerce functionality and business logic below.

Back then, no one but Steve Jobs could imagine that customers would soon browse websites and purchase products from cell phones. Not even Steve Jobs could imagine that customers would soon skip the web browser entirely and purchase products from wearables, social media, kiosks, virtual and augmented reality, and voice assistants like Google and Alexa. We’re living in the future right now, and our current state has its own future where autonomous products may well order their own replacements.

Adapting a full-stack commerce platform for mobile devices is a monumental chore. Adapting a full-stack commerce platform for personal voice assistants, virtual reality goggles, and whatever is coming next is almost an impossibility. Full-stack platforms weren’t designed for these purposes any more than the Oregon Trail was designed as a runway for Space Shuttle landings.

Customers expect digital experiences to be smooth, immersive and tailored to them personally, all at a time when potential new touchpoints emerge with thumping regularity, making it nearly impossible for businesses to keep up—especially those with inflexible and outdated technology.


Full-stack commerce platforms slow development, stifle innovation, and become increasingly brittle and complex as they are customized and extended over time. They force businesses to adapt themselves to the platform rather than allowing the platform to adapt to the business’ needs and goals.

You can’t, for example, make a beautiful and immersive marketing site shoppable; you must, instead, redirect customers to a cookie-cutter web store with thumbnail product images before they can actually buy anything. Redirecting customers to a web store from a wearable or a personal voice assistant is impossible. So is bringing your web store into a native mobile app, onto work tablets used by field technicians, or onto your social media channels.

Full-stack platforms are a lot like the now-extinct all-in one TV/VCR combos. Since the two units were shackled together, if one of them broke, the entire combo had to be repaired or replaced. Neither the TV nor the VCR could be upgraded. Eventually, as new technologies like DVD players and Internet streaming devices appeared, TV/VCR combos were forced into extinction.

Full-stack commerce platforms are going the way of the dinosaurs now for similar reasons, yet most commerce platform providers have fallen into the same trap, effectively fusing front-end experiences with back-end commerce functions. Businesses often purchase one believing that it will support their requirements and only to later learn that it can’t deliver. By choosing evolution over revolution, full-stack platforms are being left behind.


What is Headless Commerce, Anyway?

With a headless commerce architecture, the customer-facing front end or “glass” is decoupled from commerce functions and business logic like the shopping cart, product catalog, promotions, payments, and so on. A headless architecture is achieved by adding application programming interfaces (APIs) so commerce functions can be accessed by any front end. Developers can use these APIs to deliver customer experiences to any screen or connected device with any technology or customer experience platform they desire.

This separation of front-end experiences and commerce business logic allows the two to work and change independently of one another at their own pace and enables businesses to create new experiences without risking existing ones. With a headless commerce architecture, the front end can change at light speed without the business logic even knowing about it, which means your marketing teams, rather than your IT teams, are in the driver’s seat.

Think of it this way: if your car was “full stack,” you’d have to buy a new one every time you needed new tires. But because your tires aren’t permanently attached to your engine, you can swap them out as seasons or road conditions change without even touching your engine, let alone replacing the whole car.

By completely separating the front-end customer experience layer from commerce functions, business logic, and data, headless commerce gives front end developers the autonomy they need to make changes without impacting other elements of the platform.

For example, a headless architecture enables front-end developers to continuously iterate and evolve the customer experience without any dependency or impact to the back-end commerce platform. This means faster release cycles with less regression testing and risk of changes having unintended consequences somewhere else. Conversely, enhancements to back-end commerce functions can be deployed without fear of breaking the customer experience.




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Business Challenges

Extending to New Touchpoints

It seems simple enough, but marketers struggle to place buy buttons wherever they want them. Rather than making a web site shoppable, they instead shunt interested customers off to a web store which often has an entirely different look and feel from the dazzling website that piqued their interest in the first place.

Brands lose most of their potential sales—nearly 70 percent!—to cart abandonment, and a quarter of those customers say they abandon their cart because the shopping flow is too convoluted. Rather than making the jump from an ad to a product page less tortured, businesses fare much better when they can place buy buttons wherever they want to make ads and marketing experiences shoppable.

Customers increasingly demand to purchase products directly from Instagram, wearable devices, personal voice assistants, from their cars, and from smart refrigerators and other home appliances that can’t possibly interact with a traditional web store. Businesses who would rather not be extinct ten years from now had better be able to keep up with these demands and not just sell to people who happen to wander onto their web store.

In our recent consumer survey, we found that, when it comes to purchasing, consumers not only prioritize convenience above all else, they expect brands to provide it in full in the next 12 months: 63% expect the ability to purchase from a mobile phone via text, 56% expect Amazon Alexa support and 50% want the ability to purchase from a smartwatch.

Yesteryear’s commerce platforms can’t handle emerging customer touchpoints any more than you can use a VCR to binge-watch your favorite TV shows on Netflix. These older technologies simply were not designed for these purposes.


Delivering Desired Customer Experience

Today’s customers expect businesses to provide consistent, personalized experiences across every touchpoint. All interactions need to be seamless. When customers order something online, they expect the business to know what they’ve purchased when they pick up the phone. They expect sales folks at the register to know if they’ve earned any discounts. And they expect sales folks with tablets to be able to complete their transactions and skip the line at the cash register entirely.

Businesses can’t possibly achieve this when customer experiences are determined by the front-end and the software vendor’s vision for how transactions should work. Full-stack platforms are designed to deliver a prescripted customer experience for a single channel and aren’t easily extended to additional touchpoints.


Serving Customers Across Channels

New shoppable touchpoints appear regularly these days. Businesses—if they have the right commerce platform—can place buy buttons on their social media channels. They can enable chatbots to take customers’ orders and modify service contracts. They can even allow customers to purchase products and upgrades from inside a video game or virtual reality experience. Increasingly, equipment and machines can monitor themselves and schedule their own service calls and order replacement parts when needed.

Full-stack platforms aren’t designed to handle these scenarios. Businesses can purchase or build technologies that run independently of their full-stack commerce platform that can do it but they’ll end up with commerce siloes and experiences that are disconnected from each other.

Customers may see one price on their laptop and an entirely different price on their mobile device, for example, or find that customer service reps can’t see what they’ve purchased. These problems grow geometrically for larger businesses that operate in multiple geographies and use different languages, currencies, catalogs, and suppliers.


Keeping Up with Changing Business Needs

With the front end and the back end fused together, every change to one impacts the other. Changing the customer-facing layer often requires multiple changes in different places by different developers, increasing time and expenses and compounding errors and failures.

Business executives and developers alike hold their breath and hope for the best as the entire system is redeployed. And if the back end experiences a performance problem or needs a bit of maintenance, everything on the front end—including the website—may go offline. A single bug can crash the whole system.


Be advised, though, not every commerce platform on the market that includes APIs is actually headless. Most platforms were architected to be full stack with APIs added as after thoughts in a so-called “headless mode.”With this approach, businesses often discover that certain commerce functions, business logic, and data are in accessible, and that APIs perform poorly, requiring business logic to be included in the front end where it doesn’t belong and making the benefits of headless elusive.


Advantages of Headless Commerce

Unified Commerce Experiences

Today’s customers demand a consistent experience when interacting with brands, especially when they begin a purchase journey on one touchpoint and finish it on another. A headless architecture lets businesses power all customer experiences and touchpoints with a single platform, delivering seamless, consistent, and unified customer experiences to every point of interaction. Sales reps in stores, for instance, should be able to see if customers have added something to their digital cart and haven’t checked out yet.

Personalized Customer Experiences

Shoppers prefer doing business with companies who know who they are, what they’ve purchased in the past, and what they’ll likely want in the future. A headless commerce platform eliminates silos and allows customer data such as past purchases to be made easily available on every channel.

With this knowledge, experiences can be personalized with promotions, offers, and search and browse capabilities that are more relevant and impactful. Additionally, artificially intelligent personalization engines are more effective in a headless architecture because customer context and data reside in a single location and front-end experiences are free of commerce business logic.

Agile Marketing

If you choose a commerce platform with an unshackled front end, your marketing and merchandising teams can innovate at the speed of thought without the heavier commerce functions and business logic slowing them down. With a clear division of labor, creative teams can use any content management system (CMS) they like to design enchanting experiences for customers while the headless commerce platform takes care of merchandising, shipping, tax collection, and so on.

When your business expands to a new geography, content managers can build a new website in days instead of months, and new channels and touchpoints can be added almost as quickly, including not only the newest touchpoints like wearables and the Internet of Things but even those that do not exist yet.

Accelerated Innovation

Too many businesses say no to new ideas and initiatives because their commerce platform isn’t up to the job. It could take months or longer to run a single experiment. When backend commerce functions are decoupled from the customer-facing layer, creative professionals can experiment with new touchpoints and continuously innovate with existing customer experiences without disrupting or even checking in with the IT teams who maintain the back end. Businesses can throw anything and everything at the wall to see what sticks, then forge ahead with a strategy that is proven to work, all without placing a burden on the IT team.

No Need to Rip and Replace.

Perhaps one of the greatest advantages of moving to a headless commerce solution is that you don’t have to rip and replace the old platform all at once. You can ease into it by starting small with specific commerce functions or a single product line in a single geography and phasing in the headless commerce platform and functionality as you get comfortable with it. Leaving the full-stack solution in place and chipping away at it over time reduces risk and ensures your mission critical revenue generating systems will always be available.



Is Headless Right for Me?

Businesses are like snowflakes: no two are exactly alike. Their needs are necessarily different. If you only sell through a single channel and just need a web storefront and simple tools to manage that storefront, perhaps headless commerce isn’t right for you.

However, most businesses should think long and hard before strapping themselves into a full-stack straitjacket—especially if your customers are showing you that they want to engage with your business across multiple touchpoints or if you want to create unique experiences for different customer segments. If your customers’ behavior is changing quickly, you’d better be able to change along with them or they’ll leave you behind before long.


Not All Headless Commerce Platforms are Created Equal

With the rise in popularity of headless commerce, many vendors are attempting to jump on the bandwagon by adding APIs to their full-stack platforms.

However, commerce platforms that were not originally architected to be headless often don’t achieve full separation of front-end customer experiences and back-end commerce functions. Such platforms require commerce business logic to live in the front end where it doesn’t belong and simply can’t deliver all the benefits of a true headless commerce platform.

Additionally, full-stack solutions that offer a “headless mode” may not provide comprehensive API coverage, meaning that some commerce data and functions could be inaccessible via APIs. API quality also needs to be considered for any platform since they can deliver different levels of service that impact their scalability, reliability and ease of use.


Take a Headless Approach - Break Free from the Full-Stack

Unlike most commerce platforms on the market today, Elastic Path Commerce is truly API-first and headless.

It helps businesses sell more products and services across multiple touchpoints, including traditional online stores, mobile apps, videos, how-to guides, connected cars, and virtual and augmented reality, and it enables unified and connected customer experiences across all of those touchpoints. It’s future-proof too, with a flexible commerce environment that will be able to withstand industry and technology disruptions we can’t even foresee yet.

If you need help delivering unified commerce experiences across all customer touchpoints, contact Elastic Path.


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