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What is it?

Headless commerce is the new buzzword in the eCommerce industry and it certainly deserves all the hype. What is it? How does it work and how are eCommerce brands using it to their advantage? Let’s find out. 

Put simply, headless commerce segregates the front-end content from the operations on the back-end for an eCommerce store. Separating the consumer-facing “head” from the commerce engine “body” gives businesses the freedom to use the technologies of their choice for each end and customize the features they want to enhance the shopping experience. In its entirety, headless commerce essentially empowers brands with agility. This means they can change their setup as per their requirements, convenience, and user experience.    

Headless commerce adopts a decoupling architecture using APIs that enable developers to deliver advanced web products and features on any desired platform. Furthermore, it also enables content creators to update and scale the design and layout of frontend applications without developers having to modify the backend. And, developers can upgrade the backend functionality without disrupting the customer experience.

Why Headless?

In your eCommerce store, a customer usually interacts through a user interface that typically consists of elements like, search bar, product listings, product visuals, description, cart items,  etc which together make the presentation layer of your website. This layer is designed on the front-end or head of the platform. The back end part of the store involves the series of operations that trigger when the user interacts with the front-end. These include updating the product catalog, maintaining inventory data,  handling user orders, processing payments, and more.

Now, the front-end or the presentations layer is neatly tied with the back-end of the web store, and these two parts coordinate to keep your eCommerce operations running based on real-time store usage and user data. A setup like that typically involves a fixed set of coding to implement functionality on both ends and no flexibility. Hence, the need for headless commerce.

In a nutshell, you need to implement headless eCommerce strategy because :

  • Every device has a different UI and typically it is tightly coupled with the backend, business logic, and data access layer. When you use headless commerce, one database handles all the UIs without having to be dependent on each other.
  • Customer experience is of utmost importance for eCommerce brands and headless commerce enables brands to customize and deliver an exceptional experience on the fly.
  • The traditional commerce architecture doesn’t allow you to cater to multiple devices and user interfaces. Headless, on the other hand, separates the front-end and the backend, allowing you to integrate with as many UIs as possible for any number of devices. 

How does Headless Commerce Work?

The entire framework revolves around headless commerce APIs. Developers use these APIs to deliver products, blog posts, banners, customer reviews, etc on any screen, while the front-end developers can work on developing ideas to creatively deliver their content using any framework of their choice.

eCommerce platforms in this model serve up PCI compliance, security, fraud management, and inventory management that can also connect to larger, key infrastructure points including ERPs, POS, etc.

It is becoming increasingly popular in the eCommerce industry since it enables brands to deliver content across multiple platforms smoothly. They can use the front-end for delivering content on-demand and plugin an eCommerce solution to manage the eCommerce functionality at the backend.

Source: LinkedIn

For those familiar with web technicalities, a headless eCommerce system works by passing requests between the presentation and application layers via web services or Application Programming Interface (API) calls. 

As mentioned above, headless commerce works by separating the front-end (user interface) from the software (backend), where all the processing happens. Basically, the headless commerce platform is just the backend part, with multiple ways to connect one or more user interfaces. This connection is made through APIs that provide a generic interface to the platform that enables any frontend (existing or built from scratch) to connect to it. 

A user then interacts with a front end running in a web browser, a mobile app, or any other digital interface, which then communicates with the backend. 

In layman’s terms, let’s say someone is shopping on an eCommerce website that follows a headless architecture. Here’s what happens: 

  1. While the user is navigating the product, the front- end gets loaded in their web browser or mobile app and the product details are retrieved from the back-end by an API.
  2. The presentation layer will send an API call to the application layer to process your order. 
  3. Following this, the application layer will send another API Call to the presentation layer to show the customer status of their order. 

The concept of headless commerce could be a little overwhelming to grasp. For those new to eCommerce, separating the front end and back end could be confusing. Here, we are establishing the connection between the headless concept and how big of an impact it has on customer experience. This should help you understand the concept even better. 

Headless Commerce and Customer Experience

At its most basic, headless commerce supports a faster and better experience for online customers regardless of the channel or device they’re using (i.e. browser, web or mobile app, social media, live chat, etc). Websites with traditional commerce architecture often exhibit slower loading web pages that can push the prospects into leaving the store without making any purchase. Customer experience is a major contributing factor to making or breaking your eCommerce business.  

The fundamental shift in this architecture to a headless one can speed up your pages in a big way, essentially adding SEO value to your website. Google’s SEO algorithms always prioritize websites that are load faster, and are efficiently structured. Headless commerce is your answer to that and more. 

Under traditional commerce architecture, backend and content management systems (CMS) are tightly integrated and that makes it hard for brands to add new functionalities or make any amendments to their eCommerce platform without deranging their CMS. 

This implies that it is fairly difficult to add new commerce functions without disrupting your content presentation goals on the front-end. With limited options to directly alter the architecture, companies resort to third-party plugins or integrations that stack up over time and create unnecessary complications. 

This translates to a stagnant eCommerce experience and a bad business. With a headless eCommerce strategy, there are no such limitations, simple web architecture, faster loading speeds, and you can integrate new eCommerce integrations directly without having to use any third parties. 

Traditional Vs Headless Commerce 

In the traditional eCommerce model, the front end and back are tight, they go hand in hand. The backend refers to all the code for the website layout and plugins on the front end (the part of the website that the user interacts with. 

This kind of setup has its own advantages and there is no denying that a majority of the eCommerce industry is still going strong on this foundation. It is a simple out-of-the-box solution that can be easily adopted by SMEs selling digitally.

However, as your business grows and gets more complex, there is a desire to make changes to the front end of the website, but this option is now limited. Moreover, changes to code can have unintended consequences for an eCommerce website when the front end is in sync with the backend. And, you can’t afford to miss out on sales because of any site crash every time you try to implement something different.

Headless commerce, on the other hand, is all about having the flexibility to customize your digital storefront in a way to improve the customer experience.  

With a headless architecture, the front-end experience is not governed by any backend commerce platform. You can choose any front-end platform of your choosing, whether it is an existing design or something entirely different, designed from scratch. The decoupling between the two allows the developers to design different brand experiences for any number of eCommerce channels the brand chooses to open for their customers. 

To make the entire setup work, you can use APIs to deliver content and commerce to websites, apps, smart devices, social platforms, and more. 

The idea here is to offer front end customer experience which can align with the constantly changing consumer behaviour and allow room for greater personalization.


3 Reasons Why Headless Commerce is Better than Traditional Commerce

  • Improved Security

In the headless commerce framework, different systems work together. This eliminates the chances of error or security issues in one function affecting the entire network. 

Unlike traditional commerce, the CMS functionality is hidden under a layer of codes, thereby improving security. 

  • Easily scale new touchpoints 

New touchpoints on custom delivery models can be created based on emerging customer demands smoothly. 

  • Deliver content quickly 

As stated earlier, headless commerce better quips brands in managing peak traffic on their platforms. For example, Koala is a leading mattress brand in Australia decoupled their frontend from the backend using commercetools, which launched in the county in early 2020. The company had been planning its global expansion for a while now and was looking for a flexible platform to improve its end-to-end UX and scale overall. 

With a headless commerce strategy adopted into their eCommerce operations, the company is able to create new pages, products, overall content much faster and deliver a highly personal customer experience. 

Benefits of Headless Commerce

  1. Smooth Omnichannel Buying Experience 

With the ever-changing customer needs and increase in competition, it is important for brands to provide customers with a personalized experience across all platforms to grow in the long run. 

headless commerce makes it easier for brands to offer customers a personalized experience. 

It uses customers’ historic data to provide discounts, offers, and recommendations that are relevant to each individual customer.  Not only this, headless commerce unifies data across all customer touchpoints during the buying journey. This enables brands to offer a smooth omnichannel buying experience to their customers.

Feel Unique, a leading beauty products brand in Europe improved its users’ shopping experience by implementing a headless commerce strategy and developing  React Progressive Web app (image below). By implementing this approach, they were able to provide better-personalized results throughout the customer shopping journey.

  1. Enhances Flexibility 

By decoupling the front-end and the back-end, headless commerce allows businesses to work independently and create new user experiences quickly without risking the existing ones. 

This makes it easier for brands to try out new customer touchpoints without disrupting the IT team (back-end work).

Since brands are able to deploy rapid updates and make changes in the front-end without impacting the back-end, it enables them to deliver exactly what customers want quickly and stay in business. 

Berlin Packaging (formerly Freund) was able to quickly redesign their entire website to offer new e-commerce tools like one-touch re-ordering, future orders, and more functionality after implementing Headless Approach.

Image: New Berlin Packaging Website

“By following the headless commerce, Amazon deploys updates every 11.7 seconds.” 

  1. Improves Marketing

By enabling omnichannel sellers to design new customer experiences in minimal time, headless commerce allows marketers to release multiple websites across brands, divisions, and portfolios. The entire process can now be executed in a few days that earlier took months. 

Marketers can also run continuous tests to optimize their conversion cycles in headless commerce. They can try and test different templates for a back-end search solution whilst running the same front-end search.

For example, Lilly Pulitzer, a retail brand, implemented the headless commerce approach to unify experience between desktop and mobile users by relaunching their PWA. This resulted in an 80% increase in mobile traffic and a 33% increase in revenue.

  1. Faster time to market

        One major advantage of headless commerce is its ability to build a multichannel retail experience quickly with a faster time to market when compared to the traditional eCommerce platforms. 

It enables brands to build front-end experiences across devices and customer touchpoints as the content is hosted centrally and can be delivered via APIs anywhere, hence facilitating a faster time to market.

By creating a headless setup, K2 Sports was able to become more efficient in content creation and launched 8 brands and 16 sites in 9 months.

Image: one of K2’s websites 

  1. Scaling Business

Headless commerce enables brands to add new technologies, channels, applications, and touchpoints when required.  This enables brands to grow and scale their business swiftly.  By decoupling the front-end and the back-end, modern retailers can better manage an increase in traffic on their sites’ front-end without affecting the backend eCommerce. 

Venus Fashion is a leading women’s apparel retailer. By adopting the headless commerce approach, Venus increased its page loading speed by 50%, and this in turn, improved their conversions by 24%. 

Nike’s implementation of headless commerce has proven to be beneficial for the sports giant. With its PWA, they have been able to increase their conversion rate by 15-30%

Headless Commerce and Omnichannel Retail

Implementing omnichannel marketing and providing customers with a seamless selling experience is as important as selling what they require. headless commerce’s framework allows retailers to offer a seamless selling experience across channels using APIs. 

Brands can deliver content via: 

  • Websites
  • Apps
  • Social Media
  • Third-Party Platforms 
  • Voice Assistants
  • Smart Watches
  • Home Devices

With headless commerce in place, the marketing team only needs to design customer experience for growing channels or to match up with the trends while pulling product information from a unified backend. 

To provide users with an omnichannel experience, Amazon has adopted headless commerce. 

It uses a separate commerce service on the backend for carts, payments, subscriptions, and a separate service for the frontend presentation layer. 

Since these independent commerce services leverage APIs and are decoupled, they can scale and extend to multiple frontends.

A key contributor to Amazon’s success in 2020 is its strong technology backbone of using headless commerce and microservices. 

“It now owns 39% of total retail e-commerce sales and over 50% of consumers in the United States plan to purchase most or all of their gifts from Amazon this year.” 

With a headless commerce solution, Michael Kors was able to achieve standardization across all regions on all devices.

As per Nick Reshamwalla, Director of Digital at Michael Kors, “the brand has over 20 sites in nearly a dozen languages and multiple currencies. Moving towards a single code base was essential to streamlining testing and release management which in turn allows Michael Kors’ team to continue delivering superior user experience to our online shoppers.”

By implementing a headless commerce strategy, Michael Kors enabled themselves to integrate, push, and pull content to and from other software. Additionally, they were also able to manage their digital experiences at lower costs owing to the centralization of their code and agile front-end options.

Future of Headless Commerce

headless commerce’s popularity is growing and many big brands like Amazon, Walmart, Nike, etc. have already adopted it. It is likely that in the future, headless commerce use-cases will expand beyond mobile website optimization. 

Virtual  Pop-up Stores

Since it is easier to create online touchpoints using headless commerce systems, brands can leverage this to launch campaign-specific and time-limited eCommerce website experience. 

For example, L’Oréal, an early headless commerce adopter launched its first-ever virtual pop-up store in Singapore in August 2020.  The temporary online experience included a virtual consultation, a live-streaming section, and a dedicated shop.

Headless Commerce trend in B2B eCommerce 

The pandemic has increased the demand for eCommerce in the B2B industry. B2B corporations need to have more buyer touchpoints and have the ability to quickly respond to changing buyer’s needs. To incorporate more buyer touchpoints and streamline their eCommerce management, many B2B eCommerce brands are likely to opt for this model since it will give their IT Teams more time to work on projects strategic tasks rather than editing product details on channels, and in expanding their sales to non-traditional channels like voice assistants. 

As mentioned earlier in this article, Berlin Packaging has already adopted the headless commerce architecture to make their business more flexible and adapt to the changing customer needs. 

Another B2B brand that has successfully implemented headless commerce is Avery Dennison. By implementing the headless architecture, the business improved its overall B2B experience by diversifying its order management with a mobile scan-to-order app. 

Certainly, many more B2B brands are going to implement headless commerce in 2021 and beyond to improve their customer experience. 

It is safe to say that for brands who are looking to invest in an experience-driven website or are already having a digital sales platform, shifting towards the headless approach can be a great way to improve your eCommerce’s backend functionality. However, do keep in mind that headless commerce will require more development and design work since you will be operating two separate systems. 

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