Operations

What Is Headless Commerce?

what-is-headless-commerce?

Headless commerce is the separation of your store’s front-end and back-end. A headless subscription build allows you to have as much agility and complexity as your business requires. In contrast to monolithic platform builds, like Shopify, headless allows for maximum customization. Perfectly aware of the ever-growing trend for customer-centricity among e-retailers and aiming to give them enough flexibility for that, enterprise-oriented eCommerce vendors increasingly adopt a headless approach.

Being adaptable and agile in our increasingly digital and interconnected world is the difference between a great and thriving business from one scraping to get by. Customers want to buy products where they are, which today means, in their homes. Quite simply, in the age of short attention spans, expecting customers to only go to your website on their computer to shop may exclude your brand from their purchases.

It’s imperative for merchants to provide customers with options for their purchase power, such as wearable devices, through smart home speakers, or with a few quick clicks while scrolling social media on their phone. The rate of speed for these new touchpoints for customers to purchase is accelerated, and a headless build allows you to capitalize on this opportunity.

Who is best suited for headless commerce?

So are you wondering if a headless build is right for your brand? We caught up with Brian Anderson, Founder & CEO of Nacelle in our Hit Subscribe Podcast about headless builds. Here’s his advice:

This isn’t for the SMB e-commerce brand that’s getting started. This is for a brand that has a particular pain point, probably associated around latency issues, so page load speed issues, probably associated around dev workflow issues. They’re not necessarily relevant for the SMB that’s getting up and running, and in fact probably not needed, and in fact it probably just adds confusion to the conversation.

Brian Anderson, Founder & CEO at Nacelle

Now let’s understand the differences between headless commerce and traditional commerce. Think of it this way — working within boundaries versus sky’s the limit.

Traditional Commerce

Typically this is where the front-end of your ecommerce platform is tightly coupled to your back-end. In layman’s terms, that means less ability for complex customizations because of the difficulty of navigating those changes in the code. Traditional commerce builds offer little room for flexibility as certain sections of the code are either limited, restricted or tangled within the backend. Often ecommerce platforms have certain front-end themes or templates with some customization options but don’t allow access to certain options on the back-end. It’s like being able to choose the paint job on your car or the tint of the windows but having no way to change anything under the hood.

Here’s another way to think about it. Imagine your traditional commerce platform as a tall and precariously leaning tower of bricks. To make a certain change you have to find a specific block buried in the middle, take it out, give it a fresh paint job and place it back in precisely where it was.

In this instance, you can accomplish that task, but it’s slow and tedious. There are also certain blocks you simply won’t be able to access because of where they’re situated in the tower. Try and pry one out and the whole tower could come crashing down around you.

Those blocks in the middle represent editable front-end and back-end code. With traditional commerce, what you see is what you get. Some blocks are off-limits, there are few ways to adjust the tower, and it can be a slow process to do certain tasks. Try and do too much and you’ll be putting too much stress on the tower. If the tower falls or seems unstable while customers are shopping, they’re unlikely to come back.

But what if you weren’t forced to use a pre-built tower? What if you could continuously build it exactly how you wanted?

Headless Commerce

The buzzword here for headless commerce is decoupled. That is to say, your front-end and back-end components aren’t intertwined together. That separation means the sky’s the limit in terms of customization.

Let’s revisit our tower analogy. No longer are you handed a finished tower and are limited by the bricks you can delicately swap out and change with fear of compromising structural integrity. You have full control over how you want your tower to be created from inception.

And our proverbial car? You notice your ride is running too slowly and corners like a cruise ship? You’re the mechanic. You can upgrade the suspension and boost the horsepower without waiting for anyone to make changes for you.

On the topic of speed and performance, we know there’s a direct relation to page latency and customers bouncing off your store. If you were on traditional commerce and noticed your conversation rates were suffering on mobile and chalked it up to page load speed, there’s little you could do to remedy the situation. But with headless commerce, you’ve got more options.

Using a progressive web app is one of the many ways to boost speed and user experience using a headless build. The progressive web app optimizes the mobile experience and makes the user feel like they’re using a branded phone app.

Real-world example, imagine your ideal customer scrolling Instagram, seeing an ad for your product and with one-click, they pull up your store. With the progressive web app, after that initial page load, they don’t have to load again in the buying experience until they get to checkout. The customer can seamlessly navigate your product catalog with no latency issues and make a purchase in mere moments.

Without headless and that progressive web app, your customer is waiting for pages to load every time they click. They’re trying to navigate a clunky user interface that is not optimized to work inside a social media app. This frustrating and often unintuitive experience acts as a deterrent and rarely leads to a sale.

Omnichannel

The term is used to describe the best practice of, “be everywhere your customers are.” The most successful brands are available in all mediums and are omnipresent (therefore omnichannel). Headless commerce makes this easy by allowing your business to stay agile and quickly meet the needs of any new touch-points to reach your customers.

Back to our tower: Being decoupled allows you to quickly stack a new set of bricks for whatever medium you’re trying to fulfill. Without headless, you’re limited to only what pathways the coupled ecommerce platform allows for.

Freeing yourself with headless allows you to personalize content with headless and an omnichannel experience. You’re faster to market and able to integrate new app integrations to assist your business as they arise.

On our Hit Subscribe podcast we interviewed Brian Anderson, Founder & CEO at Nacelle, about demystifying headless commerce. He had this to say about the omnichannel experience.

“Your customer wants to interact with your brand in different ways. Maybe it’s Alexa, Google Home, or a mobile app. Maybe it’s an ad they see somewhere. The ability to merge content and commerce in different mediums is really important. But it’s a little hard to do this if you don’t have that separation between the front end and the back end because in systems where the front end and the back end is coupled together, the back end assumes that the front end is a certain medium already. So when you don’t make that assumption and when those two things are separated, it opens up the world for different mediums, like buying with voice.”

Brian Anderson, Founder & CEO at Nacelle

Headless can solve a lot of problems and future proof your business but as indicated, there is developer upkeep. If you’re curious if a headless subscription build with ReCharge would be right for your business please let us know by filling out a form here.

Special thanks to our friends at ReCharge Payments for their insights on this topic.

About the author

Steve Hutt

Steve has entrepreneurship in his DNA, starting in the early days of online commerce when he achieved Power Seller status through his eBay store. This propelled him to become a co-founder of VisionPros.com, a contact lens and eyewear retailer. With a successful exit from his startup, he embarked on his next journey into agency work in e-commerce and digital strategy.

Currently, Steve is a Senior Merchant Success Manager at Shopify Plus, where he helps identify, navigate, and accelerate growth in the complex world of commerce.

To maintain his competitive edge, Steve also hosts the eCommerce Fastlane Podcast and Shopify Founder Stories, a top-rated twice-weekly podcast where he interviews Shopify Partners and subject matter experts who share the latest marketing strategy, tactics, platforms, and must-have apps, to help Shopify brands improve efficiencies, grow revenue, profit, and lifetime customer loyalty.

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