Headless Commerce: A Digital Differentiator

February 27, 2020

By: Dan Curran,
Author Title: 
Contributing Writer
, Magento
Headless Commerce

Since debuting in the early 1990s, eCommerce websites have evolved from niche shopping experiences into branded digital landmarks, capturing the attention – and business – of millions worldwide. Internet-enabled touch points permeate our daily lives, from the smartphones in our pockets to the computers in our cars.

Empowered by technology, today’s shoppers expect seamless digital experiences tailored to their specific interests, complemented by same-day delivery, loyalty rewards, social engagement, and more. These ongoing shifts in consumer behaviors and expectations have created a need for new approaches to digital experience management, such as headless commerce. Based on an electronic communication standard knows as application programming interfaces (APIs), headless cleanly separates the front-end user experience from the logic-driven back end.

When anything loses its head, the results are typically less than pleasant, but that’s not the case with headless commerce. With headless, the separation of the front and back end creates a faster, API-based approach to Web development, offering competitive benefits ranging from accelerated marketing initiatives to true omnichannel experiences. Read on to learn why many merchants are warming up to the idea of losing their heads.

In the Beginning, Monolithic Systems Ruled the Day

In the early days of eCommerce, enterprising merchants looking to establish their own option involved buying into a vendor’s software solution, which accelerated the development and deployment process by providing a ready-made webstore framework.

While faster than coding from scratch, developers were prescribed a templated eCommerce experience aligned along specific processes, workflows, and rules dictated by the vendor. This created dependencies in which front-end releases had to be developed, deployed, and managed together with the back end. This, in turn, restricted commerce customization, prolonged implementation times, and created issues adopting technologies to expand on new engagement channels — among other things.

In all fairness, these systems were more than able to meet consumer needs at the time. Back then, eCommerce was in its infancy, defined by a linear customer journey and simplistic online shopping environments. Engagement was limited to desktop computers in the home or the workplace, at best. In this era, only the most visionary business leaders saw the potential in eCommerce.

But with the proliferation of smaller, portable computers and Internet-capable smartphones, “monolithic” commerce platforms suddenly found themselves faced with a reality they were ill-prepared for.

Three Approaches to Digital Commerce

The modern era of digital commerce has introduced challenges that full-stack commerce solutions have increasing difficulty coping with due to their operating limitations. This has led to the development of API-based commerce approaches that reduce – or eliminate – the creative restrictions imposed by systems with deeply integrated front- and back-end systems.

In an eCommerce context, APIs work as a flexible communications layer that relays information between the front and back end of a website. Using APIs, developers can enable the creation of multiple front-end applications that access the features and data of an operating system, application, or other service. These agile digital messengers form the foundation of today’s three main approaches to digital commerce architecture: 

Commerce Led: “Full Stack” 

This approach revolves around a primary commerce platform with an integrated storefront supported by a partner ecosystem for tailoring the customer experience. APIs will often be available to extend commerce capabilities to touch points such as native mobile apps. This approach is popular among small to midmarket businesses, as these platforms offer rapid development and time to market without requiring advanced technical knowledge. However, growth-oriented business will need a more advanced solution offering experience management features such as personalization, content testing, and data analytics.

Experience Led: “Hybrid” 

The hybrid approach focuses on a core commerce engine with a separate digital experience or Web content management platform acting as the presentation layer(s). The front-end commerce capabilities are linked to the back-end by a commerce API or more direct integrations. Hybrid delivers the benefit of headless content management while still giving marketers hands-on content control, offering a gradual, phased approach as opposed to a full transition to headless.

API-Based: “Headless” 

Headless commerce is a clean separation of a website's front end from the back end, allowing both to operate independently of one another. By using commerce APIs to deliver services between the two halves, this improves flexibility to power a wide range of omnichannel scenarios. Using a headless approach, developers are able to commerce-enable any system, application, or IoT device, and seamlessly integrate with other content management systems.  

The Benefits of Going Headless 

Unlike templated eCommerce experiences, which are limited by specific processes and workflows, headless delivers complete creative control over the customer experience based on the immediate needs of a brand.

• Flexible development options: With the front and back ends running independently, merchants can rapidly update their forward-facing content layer without upsetting logic processes on the back end, and vice versa.

• Robust personalization: Customer data is available across every touch point, letting merchants offer relevant promotions and offers to customers, and creating personalized, meaningful shopping experiences.

• Scale your site faster: Free of operating constraints, front-end developers can work more efficiently, lowering operating costs as well as accelerating site updates in less time using fewer resources  

• Empower your marketing team: Headless enables fluid content updates in support of marketing campaigns and promotions, freeing the marketing team to create and launch new customer experiences free of IT restrictions

Don’t Go Losing Your Head Just Yet 

Like any digital transformation, adopting a headless approach isn’t an overnight decision. Headless requires a realistic assessment of an organizational maturity, operating budget, and available technical talent, all of which can vary by business scenarios and objectives.

• Reach for your wallet: Decoupling front-end and back-end systems creates two separate environments, each requiring their own individual hosting and management. With more infrastructure required to support the same level of traffic for both ends, related costs can increase.

• Additional management required: New technologies bring their own distinct operating environments, software applications, security vulnerabilities, and bugs, all of which requires regular monitoring, patches, and upgrades. Teams will have to familiarize themselves with new languages and frameworks as in the case of the Magento PWA Studio.

• Longer time to troubleshoot: Adding layers to a commerce environment can increase the time and skill sets required to identify and troubleshoot the root cause of an issue. Tracing the wrong system response or rogue data will now have to go through additional tools and technology layers.

More development resources needed: With more independent development projects taking place simultaneously, more resources are required to handle the additional workload. Separate development teams= for the back-end and the front-end headless layer must be created and managed. 

Lose Your Head (And Keep It, Too)

Intimidated? Don’t worry, many technology options are available that allow a phased transition versus an all-or-nothing switch. Magento Commerce offers its customers a variety of innovations that help merchants integrate headless elements into their existing eCommerce architecture.

• Customizable front end: Magento Commerce integrates with the industry-leading Adobe Experience Manager to run either headless or hybrid commerce approaches.

• REST and GraphQL APIs: These two sets of APIs are offered out of the box with Magento Commerce, allowing merchants to quickly extend and adopt APIs for different touch points and integration scenarios. 

• Magento PWA Studio: Using the Magento PWA studio, developers can create immersive, app-like experiences for mobile browsers without the restrictions of cross-specializing in back-end processes and applications.

Is Headless Commerce Right For Your Business?

When considering headless as a viable commerce approach, it helps to keep the future top-of-mind. As headless technologies mature, broader assimilation into mainstream eCommerce is inevitable, putting early adopters at an advantage. With the range of integration options available, merchants can proceed at a pace suited to their organizational maturity, whether it’s a focused migration or a phased approach.

Learn more by downloading a copy of our Headless Commerce Primer for Growing Merchants to learn how your business can get a head start on tomorrow.

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