Why it matters
You've probably heard of 'Headless’ commerce. Here we set out what it is, who should use it (and who shouldn’t) and why it's the likely future of eCommerce platforms. There’s also a heavy dose of marketing BS in the headless term, with all platforms now claiming to be headless to a greater or lesser extent. We cut through the hype and set out the critical questions to ask when choosing a new eCommerce platform in order to become more agile.
Go Deeper > 2 Minute Read
Headless eCommerce: a definition
In a traditional eCommerce system, a business's website would have a backend that is tightly coupled to the frontend, often as part of the same integrated system. To change the frontend, you have to change the backend systems, and vice versa. This means you need to have a working knowledge of both sides to maintain your eCommerce site. When it comes to upgrading between versions of the software, both front end and back end need to be upgraded at the same time: this causes a problem because the user experience usually needs to change much more frequently than the back end eCommerce platform.
Headless eCommerce decouples these sides of your eCommerce platform. The website's functionality and design are completely managed by developers and designers. Meanwhile, marketers and content creatives are able to produce and publish content via templates without ever needing to know how the backend or frontend works.
This gives the content creators more freedom to create an engaging, consistent user experience, while the development team can focus their time on implementing cutting-edge features.
The tradeoff: Complexity and Agility vs Simplicity and Less Flexibility +
There is a trade off between the integrated eCommerce platform approach and the flexibility of the headless approach. The integrated eCommerce platform is simpler, everything comes from one vendor. However, with the Headless approach you get much greater agility, but more complexity, due to having multiple vendors to manage, and having to do your own integration between frontend and backend.
This trade off means that the headless route isn't right for every business. Digitally sophisticated businesses, where IT complexity can be managed to achieve greater agility, will naturally gravitate towards headless architectures. If you’re not confident in your IT team’s ability to manage this complexity, and go live dates are critical, then an integrated approach may be better.
It is true that headless implementations are almost always more expensive and can take longer to deploy compared to an integrated platform approach. Despite what some eCommerce platforms claim there isn't one right solution for everyone.
This tradeoff becomes even more apparent where the eCommerce system is heavily customized. Extending your eCommerce system to fit your specific needs usually means upgrading between versions becomes problematic, increasing the issues with integrated eCommerce platforms.
How does a headless eCommerce platform work?
Headless eCommerce works by decoupling the content from the content creation process from the back end development and maintenance processes. But what does this look like in practice?
This is achieved through Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). APIs allow you to integrate into more channels, decouple the front from the back end, and evolve your customer facing experiences faster.
With APIs, once integrated into your front end, content creators are able to publish content to the site without needing to interact with backend eCommerce services. They simply fill in a form, or use a UI to build content in the content management system (CMS), which then automatically connects to the back end using the APIs.
Meanwhile, all of the backend development is handled separately from the content. This means that experiences can be added or changed and old features removed without content on the site "breaking". This enables the front end experiences to evolve much faster, and largely independently from changes to the backend services.
Is headless just a marketing buzzword?
In recent years all eCommerce platforms have added APIs to enable their customers to separate front end experiences from back end operations, and consequently many of the integrated platforms also now offer headless and API commerce. This muddies the water making it harder to choose which approach is right for you.
However, there are fundamental architectural differences that you as a buyer of an eCommerce platform should be aware of, and some key questions you should ask prospective vendors when choosing a new eCommerce platform:
- What is your API coverage? The modern answer should be “100%: Our platform was built API-first so everything that we do is covered by an API.” More established vendors will struggle here because they are still retrofitting APIs into their platforms that were not designed with APIs in mind from the start. Expect answers from major platform vendors in the 70-80% mark. You should then dig in and find out what functionality is not covered by APIs and determine whether that is likely to be problematic for you.
- Are all of your customers running on the latest version of the software? This is really a question about multi-tenancy, where an eCommerce platform’s customers are sharing infrastructure. This is the modern way to build SAAS software and of enormous benefit to brands and retailers. Multi tenant systems have much higher resilience (so will have significantly less downtime), are much cheaper to run, easier to scale in peak periods and have no upgrade cycle. This is the way forward and every brand and retailer thinking about an eCommerce platform should be asking about multi tenancy. Note: While some traditional eCommerce platforms proclaim that they are ‘proudly single-tenant’ and will try and sell you on the benefits, this is marketing misdirection and spin: behind the scenes they are frantically trying to get to multi-tenancy as fast as they can.
- Do your APIs ever change between versions of your software? If you're going to build on top of an API layer it has to be stable. If it's not, then you’ll be forever playing catch up, maintaining your integrations as the underlying commerce platform APIs change. The precious agility promised from decoupling the front end from the back will be gone. In general, SAAS eCommerce platforms that are built API-first using multi-tenancy principles will have very stable APIs and won't introduce any breaking changes between versions. This is important for agility, which is at the heart of the headless / API question, because APIs that are based on specific versions of the eCommerce platform tend to change with each upgrade, and in so doing potentially breaking integrations between front and backend.
Two Headless eCommerce case studies
Despite being a decades-old retailer, Target has successfully navigated the move to digitization, while other retailers have struggled to adapt to the eCommerce sector.
One of the ways that Target has achieved this is by embracing headless eCommerce. It realized that a large percentage of its customers were starting the purchasing process on one device and completing checkout on another. And this meant that the two experiences needed to become one.
The headless approach provided just the experience that Target was looking for. It allowed the retail giant to unify its shopping experience, creating a consistent and streamlined purchasing journey for its customers.
Feel Unique is Europe's leading cosmetics retailer — but it’s often the more established and/or monolithic eCommerce sites that struggle to keep things fresh and exciting for customers. Feel Unique needed a modern solution that would open up new possibilities without disrupting its past successes.
Headless eCommerce provided the opportunity it was looking for. It was able to improve its customer journey in a multitude of ways without changing what made its storefront and user interface a favorite among customers.
Think carefully about your needs before jumping headfirst into headless commerce
While headless/API commerce is the future for many brands bringing significant agility, it won't be right for everyone. Think hard about your digital maturity and your organization's ability to deal with complexity. Think also about the trade off between an out-of-the-box approach with a fast time to go live, and the customizations and extensions that your business needs to make it unique. The headless commerce approach may sound far-fetched, but any online retailer can start embracing it and other cutting-edge eCommerce analytics strategies with a partner like SimplicityDX.