What is headless commerce? (Ultimate Q&A guide)


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Welcome to ultimate Q&A guide to headless commerce. Each week we will answer common questions about headless ecommerce as a resource to enterprise merchants considering this architecture for their business. Enjoy reading, or jump to the question that's on your mind: 

1. What is Headless Commerce? 

The rapid adoption of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies is driving a new approach to ecommerce where retail platforms go headless. 

So what is headless commerce architecture? Headless commerce refers to the decoupling of the frontend content of a store from the backend functionality that powers the transactions. 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.        

With the backend functioning independently, businesses are no longer constrained by the architecture in the way they build branded content and commerce experiences. The same commerce engine can plug into multiple frontends, publishing content to digital marketplaces, social media apps, mobile devices, and connected home appliances (to name just a few!)

In this decoupled architecture, developers use Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to connect the two ends – calling on data from content management, payment processing, order management, and other systems to deliver customized content to any platform.

That 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.

2. What's the difference between headless commerce and traditional commerce? 

In considering a headless ecommerce definition, let’s take a closer look at how it differs from a traditional ecommerce model.

Traditional ecommerce platforms use a monolithic architecture where there is a single database and the coding tightly integrates the backend with the frontend. Designed primarily for websites, monolithic platforms give developers full control over the way they are coded and customized. 

This approach served businesses well when commerce was largely web-based. A traditional platform is straightforward to develop, allowing startups without large in-house development teams to get online with a server-side application and manage their products with tools like Shopify or WooCommerce. 

But with this type of “all in one” architecture, launching new customer experiences can force developers to overhaul both ends of the platform, rather than simply attaching new frontends. The fixed architecture limits businesses to using the tools that are built into the framework, which limits creativity as they expand their content and shopping channels. 

With a cloud-based headless system there is no single point of failure.

Developers and content creators work from separate systems, reducing the risk of data breaches that access customer information.

A headless approach allows businesses to speed up their time-to-market with new features, and in turn, increase revenues. 

3. What's the difference between content-led and commerce-led experience? 

A content-led, or experience-led architecture places the customer experience at the forefront of the way a business operates its commerce operations. 

In this approach, content is delivered through a digital experience platform (DXP) that manages the way customers interact with the brand across all channels – from brick-and-mortar stores, to web, to mobile, to IoT devices. By giving marketers a complete view of customer engagements, the DXP allows the store to deliver targeted content based on the customer’s previous interactions. This is particularly valuable for lifestyle brands, where the experience is at the center of the marketing strategy.

By contrast a commerce-led experience emphasizes the efficiency of the sales process in operating the store. 

Placing the commerce engine at the frontend of the platform, developers optimize the customer experience based on the product search, checkout flow, and order management efficiency. Marketers then need to adapt the content they create to fit the capabilities of the commerce system and are reliant on developers to make changes to the customer experience. With the consumer interaction coupled with the commerce engine, this approach is less flexible than a true headless system. 

4. Why is headless commerce becoming more popular? 

Decoupling headless commerce allows for the blending of content and commerce for a seamless digital experience that drives increased conversion.

The ecommerce landscape is shifting faster than ever before. The COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly changing consumer behavior and will likely alter the landscape permanently. Consumers have turned to online channels to deliver everything from groceries to entertainment, and traditional brands with limited online presence have fallen behind while revenues soar at Amazon. That is only accelerating the trend for big box retailers to launch direct-to-consumer storefronts.

Even before the pandemic, 60% of Internet users started shopping on one device but continued on a different one, according to Google, and 82% of mobile users were using their phones to research purchases they intended to make in a store. 

This kind of behavior demands that businesses take an omnichannel approach to providing an integrated shopping experience across all channels. 

Amazon is changing the game for customer interactions. The online retail giant is continually adding new touchpoints in its evolution from a web-based bookseller to a global marketplace that reaches buyers through its connected home and car devices. It has lifted customer expectations for the buying experience and raised the bar in the Internet retail space.   

The increasingly complex matrix of devices that require unique content is challenging the effectiveness of the full-stack platform that was designed when consumer traffic was largely desktop based. By decoupling the stack in a headless system, marketers have full control over the user experience and can quickly react to customer behavior, while developers can focus on the process management systems. 

5. How does headless commerce work? 

You can define headless commerce as everywhere commerce that works by giving brands a new level of agility. At the heart of a headless approach are the APIs that deliver content as data from the decoupled backend to the storefront – whichever that may be.   

If a retailer wants to launch checkout options through a connected car, wearable device, or home speaker system, it is simply a matter of adding a new API call. This avoids the risk of breaking the coding by attaching plugins or switching to a new platform to be able to incorporate the new features. In short, headless enables streamlined omnichannel delivery to the consumer.

When a customer makes a purchase, the headless commerce platform sends an API call to the commerce engine to process the transaction. The call brings together data from the order management system, payment processing infrastructure, product information manager and other systems to complete the transaction.

The ability to call on these data sources is also a powerful tool for content creation. A DXP uses the data delivered by the APIs as a basis for creating the personalized content that builds customer loyalty, bringing customers back for repeat purchases.

Are you ready to reimagine commerce?

Bold Commerce builds  headless commerce solutions that let your business scale dynamically, get to market faster, and create high-converting, consumer-centric experiences across any touchpoint. Find out if API-powered commerce is the right fit for your business.

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Leave a comment below with any questions you have about headless commerce!

Special thanks to our friends at Bold Commerce for their insights on this topic.

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