Headless Commerce Defined

Headless Commerce Defined

Everyone’s talking about headless commerce, but the answers you may get as to what it means will likely vary. In this article, we set out to create a solid working definition that you can use as a framework for whether this approach will best support your commerce efforts.

The two words on every merchant’s lips these days is ‘Headless Commerce.’ Beyond being just a novel buzzword, it’s a trend that is worth taking notice of. What’s important before investing in a move towards adopting a headless commerce approach in your business is to have a clear definition of what it is.

Let’s take a breath and examine what we’re talking about here when we refer to headless commerce.

Why the Hype Over Headless?

It’s now vital to go where your consumers are and to build strategies that allow this movement to happen quickly and seamlessly. Headless commerce has emerged as the solution to the lack of agility that many organizations have complained about when trying to meet their customer’s where they are, beyond just the desktop experience. Today’s customer is very powerful and needs to be addressed on their terms, not the retailer’s. Failure to do so will result in lost revenue and an inability to retain and attract new business. Above it, it’s about delivering an exceptional customer experience—anytime and anywhere. Headless commerce has been the force behind the push to move faster than ever and enter into the new spaces where technology is supporting the commerce experience.

What is Headless Commerce Exactly?

Headless commerce is an agile solution that extends data and key functionality, related to the consumer, and information on the company’s products, orders, inventory, and prices. Headless commerce architecture separates the customer-facing experience or presentation layer a brand offers from its back-end business logic. A unified brand experience results from this in which a consumer is engaged across a variety of third-party platforms.

We can all agree that headless commerce recognizes the importance of creating unified brand and commerce experiences for customers across multiple touchpoints. The approach is focused on going beyond the physical store to meet customers whenever and wherever they are. The old philosophy was that shoppers were accustomed to going to the tried and true website for their online purchases. And then the adoption of new technologies, namely mobile phones ushered in the need to develop mobile commerce strategies. Innovations such as the rise of social media purchasing, for example on Instagram and voice buying using devices such as Alexa are extensions of commerce behavior into new areas beyond the browser. In addition to this, the in-store experience has changed with the role of sales associates expanding beyond offering what was once considered a semi-adequate service experience to now needing to exceed expectations including delivering personalized and meaningful encounters with customers.

Each consumer wants to feel special and in turn, every interaction needs to be unique. Engagement must happen on their terms and using every touchpoint. If you don’t fulfill your customer’s needs, the result will be a complete lack of engagement and a high churn rate.

Separating Content and Commerce

While commerce has been the primary driver of the online shopping experience, content has become a significant part of what brands have started to use to inform and inspire consumers. A commerce-led approach uses the commerce system as the front-end with the content management system working on the back-end. Conversely, a content-first approach switches it up with the CMS (WordPress, Sitecore, or Drupal for example), digital experience platform, or a single page app framework such as React being used as the front-end and the commerce system integrated on the back-end. APIs enter the picture here and work on the back-end to manage logistics and commerce as well as helping to insert content and commerce easily and quickly into any touchpoint to deliver a consistent experience for the consumer. ERPs, PIMs, OMS tools, and inventory management are connected to the commerce system using APIs.

In short, headless commerce takes the very best from an ecommerce platform, strips away the presentation layer, and offers you the ability to determine where commerce activity takes place and what data is both captured and used during this process. This is done using the power of APIs.

Traditional Commerce vs. Headless Commerce

Traditional commerce is restricted by design constraints related to front-end development because the time required to edit the platform, associated code, and database(s) can be huge. Personalization is limited to what users and admins have access to. Because the front-end is tightly coupled with the back-end code and infrastructure, there’s little room to customize which limits the flexibility of this approach and holds you back from pursuing any potential customizations. A change in one area needs to be done across the board to all the other touchpoints resulting in a time-consuming process to ensure consistency. In some cases, there may even be limits to what can be updated or edited as this can void your warranty, cause technical issues, or prevent upgrades from functioning correctly in the future.

Headless commerce has little to no design constraints on the front-end. It all comes down to API calls doing the heavy lifting. There’s flexibility in being able to create a unique experience for users and admins. Customization is limitless with changes being made quickly on the front-end. Developers on the front-end side no longer fear having to modify the database to implement simple changes like adding a field to a customer account or updating the checkout flow.

This philosophy of decoupling or microservices helps the headless commerce model reduce the complexity and investment used in traditional approaches. The old ‘plug and play’ technology is replaced with a flexible system that helps you build your commerce site without any platform-specific limits. The sky’s the limit when it comes to design as headless commerce permits you to build the HTML service and then benefit from the APIs that best compliment your unique needs. You aren’t forced to fit into a monolithic system, instead you can choose and use the components that best match your business’ needs. You can deploy multiple sites across brands, geographies, languages and more without the usual delays and costs to do so. It’s all in your hands now.

Technology is rapidly changing as are consumer expectations. Headless commerce will help you to prepare for “the next big thing” in commerce before it’s too late and your competitors do. If your building an ecommerce store or looking to redesign your existing one, the headless commerce approach might be the very way forward to provide you with a flexible site that is stable, yet offers a wider variety of customization on the presentation layer with a way to easily extend your commerce and content efforts to meet your customer where they are and putting them at the center of your business.

Simion Petrov

Author: Simion Petrov, SVP of Innovation and Industries

Simion began his career at OSF in 2007 when he entered the internship program as a software developer and quickly ascended within the company holding roles as a team leader and project manager. From 2013 to 2018, Simion established and optimized the company's commerce division, growing the group to over 400 people who delivered over 200 projects, making OSF Digital one of Salesforce’s top ecommerce partners. He has created new local structures designed to support the company's rapid growth in APAC and LATAM while at the same time, worked on innovation of the company's processes, best practices, and products including the creation of the OSF Product Labs program.