Headless commerce

Definition of headless commerce:

Headless commerce is an approach to e-commerce that allows companies to become more agile and flexible to test and experiment, by better separating the front end and the back end of their e-commerce experiences.

But what does headless commerce really mean?

While the term “headless commerce” might sound abstract, its definition is much easier than its name might suggest. It is an approach to e-commerce that allows organizations to become more agile and flexible (and to maximize the potential for experimentation and testing) by better separating the front end and the back end of their e-commerce experiences. Because the front end and back end can function more independently, headless commerce gives merchants the freedom to customize their online storefront to better support their customers on their online buying journey, without impacting or needing to make changes to the back end.

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Why is it top-of-mind right now?

Since online shopping became a widespread possibility in the 1990s, technology has evolved rapidly. Early on, businesses first took a full-stack approach to their web stores, where front-end and back-end systems were closely connected. This made sense because they were only focused on one experience, desktop. But organizations now need the ability to tailor experiences to different use cases across channels (such as mobile devices), while keeping the overall buying experience consistent across their brand.

This has created the perfect opportunity for headless commerce to become a tool for organizations aiming to secure a competitive advantage through innovation, iteration, and testing of their e-commerce experiences. With headless commerce, thanks to its decoupled nature, this can be done on the front end without disrupting or impacting the back end — and vice versa. This means more agile organizations that have more flexibility to maximize e-commerce improvements without a workload or maintenance headache. It also means channel-specific user interfaces (UI) that do not need to rely on each other or be interdependent, which improves the omnichannel customer experience and accounts for the growing list of channels in an increasingly digital world.

How does it work?

Headless commerce, as an approach, decouples the front end and back end of businesses’ web stores by putting an application programming interface (API) between them that manages the exchange of data, creating an opportunity to test and experiment within both environments (independent of each other). Although with headless commerce the front end and back end are decoupled, this does not mean that they are completely disconnected; they simply can be experimented with separately. They remain connected through web services or API calls, which keeps the data exchange between the decoupled systems intact, even as the organization experiments with both environments.

Headless commerce vs. traditional commerce

Still unclear? Here are the main differences between traditional and headless commerce:

Traditional e-commerce platform

With traditional platforms, the front-end of a web store is tightly connected to the back-end, meaning that there is little room to make customizations easily. UI updates require back-end changes, and any addition of new user interfaces also requires back-end adjustments. This approach allows for personalized customer experiences but does not make them as seamless and hassle-free as possible, because the workload required always involved both front-end and related back-end changes.

Headless commerce

With headless commerce, web stores’ front and back ends are separate from each other, giving the front-end layer space for endless design capabilities. With an API feeding data between the front end and back end, the API carries most of the workload, making it simple for organizations to manage changes and improvements to their web store UI.

What are the benefits of headless commerce?

Agility to remain competitive

Taking a headless commerce approach gives you the agility to quickly and frequently (if desired) update the front end of your web store to continuously keep up with your customers’ changing needs — all without impacting your back-end operational systems. Doing so is normally time-consuming enough that even big brands that use a conventional e-commerce platform only update their front-end experience every week. Meanwhile, Amazon, which uses a headless commerce solution, is able to deploy updates every 11.7 seconds.

As new technologies, like the Internet of Things and progressive web apps, continue to emerge, it’s important to know that headless commerce also allows you to easily integrate new user interfaces into your front-end ecosystem and also make changes to them independent of your back end. All these benefits ultimately mean a faster time to market, a more agile business, and a future-ready e-commerce strategy.

Flexibility of customizations

Headless commerce gives you the flexibility to offer your customers innovative experiences in your web store. Your web store isn’t confined to a specific template, giving your brand full control of the front end. Plus, you can make all the front-end changes you would like without a huge back-end workload, while still keeping a consistent brand experience across all your customer touchpoints.

Better (and always-evolving) customer experience

Every customer’s needs change over time. Fortunately, with a headless commerce approach, you can offer them a consistent experience across channels, and you can incorporate all the new channels they may adapt over time (like voice-centric touchpoints or wearables). You can do all of this while staying true to your brand’s style and tone, with unlimited capabilities to customize frequently and easily and without having to worry about impacting your web store’s performance. In fact, because the API and the cached data it transfers sit in between the front and back end, web store performance is typically improved using a headless commerce approach.

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