Determining Whether Headless eCommerce is Right for Your Business

Headless eCommerce is gaining traction as an ideal solution for some retailers. This articles discusses the pros and cons of headless architecture in eCommerce.

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In a digital business world, a company’s success depends in large part on its ability to create a flawless customer experience.

Why is the customer experience so important? Because customer satisfaction and revenue are directly tied to the customer experience. McKinsey & Company principal Harald Fanderl explains: “When a customer is satisfied with a company, they are [less expensive] to serve, but also have a higher potential to be more loyal customers for this company. And maybe they’ll even promote this company among their friends.”

A seamless customer experience is one that allows a consumer to interact with a company at any touchpoint, whether online or offline, and have the same flawless experience. That experience needs to be on-brand, to be on-point and to make the customer’s work in completing a transaction effortless.

Creating such a customer experience for an eCommerce company is becoming very challenging for businesses as the number of consumer touchpoints multiply.

Online shoppers used to do all of their shopping on a desktop, so the traditional, central approach to development worked for single-channel development, explains Andy Powers, senior vice president of solutions delivery at global mobility services company DMI. But with consumers using so many different devices today, he says, the unified approach to coding is slowing down change.

This is why headless architecture is catching on in eCommerce right now.

As organizations shift to be more customer-centric, they need eCommerce platforms that allow for flexibility across customer-facing touchpoints, explains Graham Haller, director of consulting at consultancy Bench. Traditional monolithic eCommerce platforms don’t allow for this type of flexibility on the front end, which inhibits an organization’s ability to create a consistent customer experience.

Headless eCommerce does.

Why Headless eCommerce is a Growing Trend

Headless eCommerce decouples the front end and back end of an online shop. In other words: The content presentation layer, or the content management system (CMS), is separate from the application layer, or the eCommerce system.

This type of architecture divides the customer-facing elements from the system-facing elements, which gives brands the freedom to create any front-end experience they want. Developers are free from the restraints and dictates of a monolithic front-end user experience.

This freedom is particularly important when organizations have to be present on a multitude of different channels to be considered relevant by consumers. According to Google, 85 percent of people start shopping on one device and finish shopping on another.

This behavior demands that businesses integrate their digital shopping experiences across multiple channels, notes Somya Mehta, online copywriter and editor for member resources at Smart Insights. Headless eCommerce solutions allow businesses to control the visual identity of their direct-to-consumer channel, giving them full control, at their own pace.

This is important because many brands — even big time, historically retail-focused businesses — are opening up direct-to-consumer storefronts in response to growing pressure to provide superior customer experiences. Those experiences can best be shaped when brands can be more agile and react to customer data quickly.

That’s where the timeliness of headless eCommerce comes in. Headless eCommerce solutions let brands control the shopping experience while letting the solution itself handle the rest.

Here are some of the key benefits of using a headless eCommerce platform:

Pro: Flexibility and Speed

Because the front end and the back end of a headless system are separate, organizations can change the content presentation layer without having to make adjustments to the application layer.

With traditional eCommerce platforms, developers are constrained to the front-end design and processes of the monolithic solutions. Headless solutions do not control the front-end design, so brands can create their own user experiences without having to worry about making adjustments to the back end, allowing them to more easily keep experiences consistent.

Along with this flexibility comes the benefit of speed — the ability to make quick adjustments to the user experience. If a new touchpoint emerges, it can be quickly customized to be consistent with the current experience and seamlessly integrated with the other channels. Likewise, any needed changes to the customer interface can be made more quickly because they don’t have to be made on the back end, as well.

How important is this flexibility and speed? According to a survey by software analytics company New Relic, 57 percent of respondents reported they release code into production at least weekly, if not faster. This is risky and time-consuming if these companies are making changes to both the front and back end of their platform each time they make a change.

Headless eliminates the need to redeploy the entire system every time a change is made.  

multichannel shopping - Headless eCommerce

Pro: Experimentation and Personalization

Personalization has become a top priority for retailers trying to reach customers in a crowded space. “Over 70 percent of retailers are trying to personalize the store experience,” says Brendan Witcher, principal analyst for ebusiness and channel strategy at Forrester Research. “The reason is because so many customers respond to it.”

Headless eCommerce systems easily facilitate testing and experimenting with front-end design so businesses can perfect the user experience. Because the front end and back end mostly function independently of one another — the front end design integrates with the eCommerce platform via APIs — administrators can easily test different designs without slowing down the site with back end changes. This also eases the workload for developers because they don’t have to make the adjustments to both ends of the site.

This is a big reason why Net-a-Porter switched to a headless system. Robin Glen, the site’s principal developer, explains that their old system was a clunky Java application that limited their ability to quickly test their designs and release code, especially when they were running a sale. So, they successfully switched to a headless system to better handle the traffic spike that comes with a sale and improve their site’s performance.

Pro: Customization and Integration

Headless systems don’t simply allow developers to customize the front end to suit business and consumer expectations. They also allow companies to customize the headless platform itself to meet business needs.

With traditional eCommerce solutions, front end developers are constrained to the restrictions of the platform, and changes to one end require changes to both. Because a headless system is decoupled, developers can create a user experience that is unique and caters to the business. Companies no longer have to make do with software they don’t want or need in a monolithic system.

For businesses that have already made significant investments in a CMS system, a headless solution allows them to add eCommerce capabilities using their own CMS as the presentation layer.

Headless architecture lets businesses integrate their eCommerce platform with any system. Vinay Sutrave at Mindtree explains that headless systems break down silos in consumer-facing operations to more easily allow businesses to add their brands to a new device and market through it. Headless does this because it allows businesses to provide consumers with the content they want on the channel they want to receive it, Sutrave notes.

With so many new devices constantly being released and adopted by consumers, this level of integration is almost necessary for a company to stay relevant.

integration - Headless eCommerce

The Challenges and Downsides of Headless eCommerce

For all its positives, headless does have some negatives that need to be explored when considering a headless eCommerce system:

Con: Development and Management

The downside to the flexibility of a headless system is that the front end has to be developed from the ground up, and a lot of standard features have to be recoded. In a traditional system, the platform is ready to go. Developing the system from scratch is a significant project that can quickly eat away at budget and people resources — and result in a subpar online store.

This is not a set-it-and-forget-it system. The flipside of flexibility is a requirement for continuous management of the system, which itself requires the right expertise and dedicated resources. The technology will inevitably have issues that need to be monitored and resolved on an ongoing basis, which means the team developing and managing the system needs to have the skills to “install, configure, tune, troubleshoot and support your front-end along with your back-end 24x7x365,” says Devon Hillard, a consultant at Spark::red.

That said, although headless is a commitment for any business, it is often the preferred route when the brand needs to have maximum control over its storefront.

Con: Upgrades and Troubleshooting

Monolithic systems have the benefit of continuous updates, which headless systems lack. When using a headless system, companies have the benefit of only having to update the API, but also the burden of having to upgrade their own hardware, which is handled by the provider in a traditional platform.

This can be especially time- and cost-consuming when it comes to security, explains the team at digital transformation company Lamia. With traditional platforms, security becomes more solid and new features are consistently rolled out. But with headless, developers might have to build all of the security, security fixes and upgraded features, at least if they host the presentation.

Not only do the developers have to dedicate time to upgrades, but they also have to find time for troubleshooting. The additional layers of the headless system, notes Hillard, increase the time and skill needed to identify and troubleshoot issues. With a traditional system, businesses can rely on the provider to help with troubleshooting issues.

Con: Limited Native Functionality

Functionality within a headless eCommerce platform is limited to what a CMS supports, the team at eCommerce consultancy BlueSky Technology Partners warns. They stress the importance of confirming that the CMS “allows for third-party tools, the ability to have federated search with content and product results and the ability to connect to an eCommerce solution for products, catalogs, pricing and promotions.”

What’s more, not all headless platforms are created equally, and some might have limited sets of features, APIs and/or support.

Finally, the risk of the headless architecture is that the administrative interfaces become constrained to the custom presentation layer, which may not be designed for transactional eCommerce.

analyzing - Headless eCommerce

Who Should be Using a Headless eCommerce Solution?

Whether or not to adopt a headless eCommerce platform depends on your business needs and goals. Just because headless eCommerce allows for different development processes — or just because it’s popular right now — doesn’t mean it is the perfect solution for every business.

In general, headless is recognized as being more suitable for:

  • Large companies with complex or unique business rules and ordering processes
  • Companies with multiple systems that need to integrate with eCommerce
  • Businesses that already have an advanced CMS
  • Organizations with a lot of constantly changing content
  • Companies experiencing rapid growth
  • Large companies with many companies, brands or divisions in their portfolio

This isn’t to say headless can’t work for smaller companies or different situations. It’s just ideal for businesses that share these traits.

The Business Drives the Solution

When shopping for the right eCommerce solution, keep business goals at the forefront of your research. Closely consider present and future business requirements to choose the platform that will serve both.

Stacked and headless eCommerce platforms both have their pros and cons. The best headless platforms have the ability to provide the presentation, as well. Such platforms tend to have solid teams behind the APIs and the eCommerce back end, as well, and these teams will already understand the challenges that front-end developers might face.

In the end, however, understanding your company’s goals can help your determine which solution is better suited for your company.


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