What is Headless Commerce? Be Part of the Headless Revolution


July 18th, 2019

What is Headless Commerce?
Be Part of the Headless Revolution

Darin Archer, CSO of Elastic Path

Why should you care about headless commerce?

Headless commerce (or API-first commerce) is becoming a less obscure term to marketers, but it’s still murky for many – especially what it means for real brands and real customers. I could dive into the technicalities of what headless commerce is upfront, but I’ll instead start with a story.

Headless commerce in action

I recently saw a social ad for a jacket from a brand I frequently shop with. I wasn’t particularly on the hunt for a new jacket, but I liked it enough to click through and see if it was worth a buy. The brand could have taken advantage in a moment of weakness and earned a spontaneous purchase from me. If it were a matter of a few clicks – select my size, choose my color and checkout – I'd have bought it without much thought.

But as is the case far too often, it wasn’t that easy. When I clicked through the ad, I was redirected to the brand website. There was the jacket, featured on a model smack in the middle of the page. But from there, no purchase options to be seen – just more buttons. Clicking that graphic brought me to ANOTHER page: the men’s catalog, featuring every product the brand sells from wallets and sweaters, to jeans and jackets.

For example, if you go to nike.com and you can see something like the jacket in this image:


Looking for rain gear instead? Marketing builds this page for rain-proof running gear and highlights this blue jacket:

Now count the steps it took to get to the e-commerce application so that you can actually add a jacket to your Cart.

Here’s another one.

Marketing would rather the images be clickable (or touched on mobile) so shoppers can easily learn more about a styled item or quickly add that item to their bag. Instead, because katespade.com uses Salesforce Commerce Cloud, it takes at least two more clicks for the site visitor to get to a shoppable product page and the experience suffers.


Perhaps my wallet thanked me for this poor shopping experience. But as a marketer, it was a sadly common and frustrating scenario, considering retailers still lose most of their potential sales to cart abandonment. This simple problem illustrates a much larger issue about the state of commerce: Brands aren’t prepared for the way consumers want to shop. They don’t want to sift through hundreds of products on the same web catalogs that have existed since Amazon started selling books. They simply won't accept inconveniences like the one I described. On a higher level, they’re done with the limitations of the web storefront model. They’re thinking bigger – and brands need to do so as well.

Customers Want to Shop Anywhere, Anytime
In response to the example I mentioned, a marketer might say, “We need to make the jump from ad to individual product page more seamless to avoid cart abandonment.” But why do I need to leave Facebook or Instagram at all? Why can’t I see that jacket, choose my size and color and checkout then and there? Beyond that, why isn’t ANY brand content I see shoppable? With all these new experiences and technologies emerging, why am I stuck essentially with the same options to shop (either on a web storefront or in a brick and mortar) I’ve had for years?

Sooner than marketers want to admit, more customers than not will expect to shop directly in Instagram, or on their Alexa devices, on their smart refrigerators and whatever other new touchpoints emerge 10 years from now. It comes down to enabling commerce at any of these points of inflection, not just when a customer has wandered to your web storefront. You can’t do this if you’re struggling to adapt your backend each time a new channel emerges. You have to have a strategy that can handle new touchpoints as they come. And that’s what brings us to headless commerce.

Brands Must Rethink the Separation Between Marketing and Commerce
Adapting to these new touchpoints requires eliminating old barriers between marketing and commerce functions. We’ve all seen the beautiful marketing experiences brands create to entice customers and showcase their products. However, these offerings usually end up directing customers right back to bland traditional product pages. The marketing website and ecommerce site are often two separate entities entirely since traditional ecommerce engines can’t support the marketing content. You can create the sexiest, most innovative marketing experiences you want, but if your backend can’t integrate factors like product catalogs, shopping baskets, account info, and more, you’ll always be back at square one. Headless commerce solutions enable brands across verticals to transcend these old paradigms by solving for just that obstacle.

How Headless Commerce Solves the Problem
Leveraging API-oriented commerce, headless commerce architecture supports all functions – commerce, experience management, payment, content, personalization – can be decoupled services. That means you can deconstruct core commerce platform attributes (e.g., product catalog, shopping basket, account services, payment integration and order processing) for more flexibility.

That solves the problem of those old silos and limitations. Since headless commerce provides all commerce logic through the engine API, all information is available to any new channel on a consistent basis. Using an API-first strategy, brands can integrate data about each individual customer regardless of channel.

Whether you’re creating a landing page or microsite for a campaign, or even a blog, when you highlight a product or service, you don’t have to create a click trail for the visitor. It should no longer be an epic quest to find your e-commerce site and ‘add to bag’ button. You can meet that engaged shopper where they are, right on your latest blog post, Instagram or social ad.

Then you can allow customers to buy wherever they want to – which is to say, anywhere. Shoppable videos, social media ads, store kiosks, Alexa-enabled purchase capabilities, virtual and augmented reality...the list goes on. That’s not just the reality for consumers, either – B2B buyers have the same expectations, whether they’re reordering parts or configuring medical equipment.

Wherever a buyer interacts with your brand, an API-first approach connects each interaction to ensure consistent experiences regardless of touchpoint. Plus, on the marketing side, brands have more comprehensive, accurate and accessible data. All of these factors can radically change the customer experience in ways brands have barely conceived.

THAT’s what headless commerce is. And you should care because it’s not only driving real results for brands, but because it’s the way of the future – and the only way brands are going to be able to stick around. Want to learn how you can break your commerce experience free from full-stack? Learn more about taking a flexible, forward-looking approach with headless and check out Elastic Path’s latest whitepaper here.

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