Headless Commerce: What It Is & The Benefits

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Examples of interdependence are everywhere. If a sweltering summer day causes too many ACs to run, overwhelming the power grid and resulting in an electricity outage, then the solution is a back-up generator. If a well-documented, months-long project is about to be revealed, and a last-minute change from a client stakeholder may mean starting over, then the solution is to take an agile approach.

Meanwhile, if the simple change you want to make to your traditional ecommerce site means you need to also edit the database and code and reconfigure the front-end, then the solution is headless commerce.

An Introduction to Headless Ecommerce 

Once a niche trend in ecommerce business, the headless approach has become an increasingly popular ecommerce solution. Headless commerce is the separation of the head (front-end presentation layer) and the body (back-end application layer) of a business’s ecommerce platform. As the above examples point to the concept of interdependence, the headless commerce system is about separation and independence. Understanding the benefit of separation requires an understanding of why they were interdependent in the first place.

How is headless commerce used today?

In the early days of ecommerce, shopping was relatively simple. The majority of traffic was desktop-oriented and as such, the traditional commerce platform structures were created to be all-in-one. Today, the shopping experience involves social feeds, multiple screens, or even no screens at all with IoT. All these new customer touchpoints (heads) reflect the ever-expanding landscape of ecommerce technology, and forcing these heads to work with a single commerce platform is becoming increasingly difficult.

Instead,headless commerce is an ecommerce solution that allows a retailer to separate the heads from the commerce functionality and pull in best-of-breed technologies.

Given all the amazing new possibilities for your ecommerce business regarding customer’s shopping experience, utilizing a headless ecommerce platform may seem like a no-brainer, but be forewarned: we’ve seen many cautionary tales of ecommerce companies diving into the new headless ecommerce architecture without considering the impact on time and money. Knowing the trade-offs in advance will help you determine whether this is right for your organization.

Headless Ecommerce: The Pros

As the ecommerce experience grows to multiple channels, headless commerce offers several benefits. Headless commerce can enhance the customer experience, offer more potential for customization, and adapt for growth. Some of the largest benefits of headless commerce are:

Headless commerce delivers better customer experience and omnichannel shopping

In the age of the customer, it’s not enough to meet current customer expectations in regards to your ecommerce website. Retailers must anticipate what those customers may want tomorrow, next month and next year. Being able to anticipate and experiment with these shopping scenarios can happen in a headless platform environment where retailers aren’t restricted by out-of-the box templates or themes. The vast range of customer touchpoints ranging from banner ads, social media, videos, wearables and voice can deliver a competitive advantage to forward looking retailers by meeting customers anywhere they are.

Headless ecommerce enables customization and experimentation

Every new customer touchpoint will require customization, and in a traditional ecommerce environment, even the smallest customization on the front-end requires developers to edit multiple layers of coding between the front-end through the database layer that is buried in the back-end. In a headless commerce environment, design teams can create different user interfaces, experiment endlessly with the look and feel and run continuous test and optimization cycles to rapidly gauge customer adoption and preference – all with no back-end changes.

Headless ecommerce allows for flexible and faster integrations

In a traditional commerce environment, updates and integrations for an ecommerce website can take up to a few weeks. But in a headless commerce environment, integrations are API driven which enables data to be transferred quickly and seamlessly.  Software platforms like your CMS, CRM, marketing automation, ERPs and more can communicate directly with each other making integrations faster and more flexible.

Is Headless Commerce Right For You?


Headless Commerce: The Cons

In many ways, headless commerce can transform a business’s operations to allow for more integrations. However, more integrations often means more time, cost, and complexity. Implementing a headless commerce platform is never a move that should be taken lightly.

Headless commerce can be costly

When you separate your front-end from your back-end, you now have two separate environments, each needing to be hosted and managed. That’s two times the cost, with no guarantee as to two times the traffic and conversion to support these costs. In addition to the monthly infrastructure costs, there are upfront costs to set up or migrate to a headless platform environment and ongoing costs to test and implement all the possibilities for new customer touchpoints.

Headless commerce creates customization but also more complexity

Instead of one interdependent, traditional ecommerce platform and one “throat to choke”, you are now dealing with multiple vendors and technologies, each with their own set of bugs and security vulnerabilities and their own way to install, configure, troubleshoot and support. And all these headless independent projects taking place at the same time requires separate development teams, separate test cases, separate QA teams and lots of complexity.

Headless commerce means the potential loss of native ecommerce functionality

Depending on your existing ecommerce platform, you may lose some native front-end commerce functionality when you separate it from the back-end. Page building, previewing (WYSIWYG), and merchandising may no longer be available, and you may be limited to what can be updated and/or edited without the risk of voiding a warranty or preventing any future upgrades.

What to ask yourself before moving forward with headless commerce

The decision to go headless will impact every part of your organization and requires a hard look at where you are today and where you want to go in the future. As a starting point, here are some questions for your organization to explore:

  • What new customer-facing experiences are on your roadmap?
  • What functionalities will you need to build these experiences?
  • How sophisticated is your current e-commerce setup?
  • How heavily invested are you in your current CMS?
  • What are your current IT and development resources?
  • How many systems are you currently running that would need to plug in to a headless environment?

The big investment required for headless commerce makes sense for some but will be overly ambitious for others. We advocate a roadmap-driven approach where the long-term possibilities for commerce are balanced against the revenue you need to generate in the short term.

How has headless commerce benefitted businesses?

Guidance has helped several businesses implement headless commerce systems in order to increase their competitiveness in their market and improve their customer reach. Strategic implementation of headless commerce allowed these businesses to enhance customer experience, streamline their ecommerce, and improve their overall operations. At Guidance, we are proud of the results that a headless commerce platform can create for a business.

Fitbit: Developing a Global Headless Deployment in Record Time 

To stay competitive in today’s ever-evolving business ecosystem, companies need new and innovative ways to distinguish themselves as leaders within their industry. Fitbit, for example, had been a pioneer in wearable fitness technology since 2007, meaning they’ve had to adapt to the changing technology landscape in order to remain relevant. With competition from tech giants like Apple starting to threaten their position, Fitbit came to Guidance for help recapturing global market share, while enhancing the online experience for their current customers. With a global reach of over 20 countries, Fitbit needed a new global cart and checkout experience that could serve all their different customers’ needs. 

Today, having a seamless online experience is crucial for Fitbit’s success. Because they were founded in the early days of ecommerce, their current platform was no longer able to support the scale and customization that the company now required. Guidance identified Adobe Experience Manager (AEM) as the new content management system to elevate Fitbit’s customer experience. 

Guidance was able to deploy a series of API workarounds that drove the project to completion. The result is a global checkout experience and world-class B2C fitness platform that seamlessly supports 44 different languages and operates within 20+ countries. With this sophisticated platform, Fitbit is now able to compete on a global scale, as it supports its customers' transactions globally and in a more user-friendly and efficient manner.

To learn more about this project, visit our  Fitbit Case Study.

CareerStep: Headless Commerce for the E-Learning World 

CareerStep, a leader within the e-learning industry, consulted Guidance for assistance in developing a headless commerce solution for its e-learning courses within a 3 month period. Before reaching out for assistance, CareerStep was using an in-house shopping cart that severely limited their change velocity, leading to lost quarterly sales and revenue. What they required was a cloud-based ecommerce platform with exceptional functionality that can be modified to accommodate their distinct industry needs while also ensuring long-term adaptability. 

After examining the needs of CareerStep, Guidance concluded that BigCommerce would be the best choice as their new ecommerce platform. Its proven track record in improving responsiveness and overall customer satisfaction through automation made it an ideal candidate for this project.

Operating within BigCommerce’s flexible system, Guidance put a number of features in place that were foreign to the BigCommerce platform and to all of the apps in the BigCommerce app store. Because of the specific operational needs of CareerStep, Guidance collaborated and worked diligently with the company to develop a custom bundling feature where their offered courses were represented by a set of distinct products and then sold as that bundle.

With the overall objective of ensuring all stakeholders are in accordance with the learning content that can be used across different platforms, Guidance utilized the SaaS platform to ensure all of the documents are available through e-delivery and e-signature CareerStep users.

The outcome resulted in Guidance delivering a customized headless commerce e-learning solution powered by WordPress and BigCommerce with the ability to handle intricate bundling with a custom cart in addition to a new rating and review feature for students using CareerStep. Completed within a 3-month period, this solution provided CareerStep with the ecommerce resources needed to be able to complete transactions more efficiently.

To learn more about this project, visit our Career Step Case study. 

Consider the power of headless commerce for your business

Altogether, headless commerce has the power to improve your commerce operations and enhance the overall customer experience. However, it is costly and time-consuming, so you should make sure to consider whether headless commerce is the right decision for your business. If you are unsure whether headless commerce will work for you,  contact Guidance to learn more. We are proud to offer the support necessary to make your business more efficient and more competitive.  Get started today.

Written by Guidance
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