Why eCommerce Is Losing Its Head

March 3, 2020

Headless Commerce - Peter Sheldon Interview

Since its inception in the early 1990s, eCommerce has grown into a global standard, with the number of people making purchases online expected to rise from 1.8 billion to 2.1 billion between 2018 and 2021. The medium has evolved from a limited digital shopping environment into a deeply immersive experience that permeates our daily lives.

Empowered by technology, today’s consumers have developed high service expectations, and meeting those needs requires the right technology, capable of granular experience management. In particular, the headless commerce approach is gaining in popularity by eliminating the creative restrictions associated with traditional commerce architecture. The results range from accelerated marketing initiatives and advanced site customization to personalized shopping environments and true omnichannel experiences.

We sat down with Peter Sheldon, former Forrester analyst – and now senior director of commerce strategy at Adobe – to get his perspective on headless commerce and its impact on the future of eCommerce.

Magento: Thanks for taking time out to speak with us. To start, how is headless commerce empowering merchants to engage their customer base more effectively?
Ultimately it comes down to agility and control. Headless commerce allows a brand to separate the front-end experience from the back-end business processes. It gives marketers the ability to embrace new channels and new customer touch points, and really removes any artificial constraints or guardrails on what they can and can’t do. It effectively opens up the doors to what’s possible.

Historically the front and the back end of commerce platforms were somewhat intrinsically tied at the hip. Headless commerce creates a very clean separation between the user experience on the front end and the day-to-day business management processes on the back end.

Magento: When you mention the removal of constraints and guardrails, what kind of benefits will this give to front-end developers tasked with evolving a brand’s digital customer experience?
 Headless commerce opens up and creates freedom for the creative individuals who are responsible for that customer-facing experience, whether it’s an app, or a website, Alexa skills, etc. But headless frees them up to really work at a potentially different pace.

Headless commerce removes any dependencies of new front-end releases having to be developed, deployed, and managed together with the back end. It gives the front-end UX team complete creative control over what the experience should be and can be based on the needs of the brand. Headless commerce is about opening up and giving front-end designers freedom to think outside the box and build experiences, which aren’t constrained in any way.

Magento: Are there specific business models or scenarios you can think of that would benefit from a headless approach?
 Well, certainly it’s valuable to anyone who wants to build an Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled product. Traditionally, products are sold as part of a one-time transaction, where you receive the product and you use it. But a lot of brands are moving toward connected products, where you think of things like home automation systems.

For example, if you buy a NEST home security camera from Best Buy, it costs you $400, and once you buy it, there’s also a subscription for recording and storing all the video footage. There’s still this aspect of the one-time purchase on the eCommerce site, but when you receive the product, it’s connected to the Internet, and so begins an ongoing service relationship the customer has with the brand.

I think those kinds of scenarios are an example of one application for headless commerce because the product needs to be continually calling home to determine if it has entitlements, if the customer is up to date on their paid subscriptions, and so forth.

Magento: Are there any emerging technologies you see helping headless commerce gain broader mainstream integration within the next few years?
I think you really have to take seriously the concept of 5G and the cellular networks. If you’re invested in home automation systems with all the cameras, sensors, detectors, doorbells, Internet-connected smoke alarms – all of that good stuff – and then go to your network router, everything is connected to home Wi-Fi. A few years ago, it used to be only a couple things like your laptop and your phone; now it’s a list of 30 or 40 products in your house, which are always connected to your Wi-Fi.

A lot of the products we buy today, whether it’s a pair of sneakers or something related to home automation, are increasingly connected to the Internet. And by being connected to the Internet, there’s the opportunity to provide value-add services, whether that’s a paid subscription or something freely provided by the brand.

With the evolution of 5G networks and the ability to put low-cost transmitters into any and every device or product, the sheer number of products we own and the number of things in the workplace that are connected to the Internet is just going to explode as 5G takes off. A lot of firms will try to monetize those services, bringing commerce into context by feeding usage, contextual, and maintenance data back to the brand or the manufacturer. This is where headless becomes very important.

I do think broader connectivity through 5G is going to be a very direct driver of the headless commerce business model growth. I’d say in the future when Wi-Fi actually becomes obsolete and everything just connects over 5G, there could be hundreds and hundreds of connected devices inside your home.

Magento: With many sources touting headless commerce as a catch-all solution for modern digital commerce, do you foresee a mass adoption on the horizon?
Many vendors in the digital commerce space are very active in pushing the term, but I think there’s a need for clarification around the topic and the related terminology. A lot of firms are interested, they want to learn more, they want to buy into it as a vision, but they need to consider organizational maturity, budget, and resources to adopt this approach. It certainly helps to have a strong IT organization that really understands the vision of how your company is going to be more agile with a headless approach.

Magento: Is headless commerce strictly an enterprise-level solution or can small businesses benefit from it as well?
 Headless commerce requires budget. It requires teams that are capable of using headless commerce technologies. Generally, a full-on headless commerce approach is a fit for larger, well-funded enterprise organizations that have significant in-house technical capabilities, architects, and their own developments teams, which are versed in building their own custom front-end experiences.

However, smaller businesses can start future-proofing their platform technology to accommodate API-based commerce architecture. They want to be thinking along the lines of, “Hey, we’re not really ready to do headless commerce today, but if we’re making a platform selection decision, we actually want to be investing in a solution that supports headless because we do see opportunities to leverage it in the future.”

The capabilities of headless commerce go beyond opening new engagement channels that traditional eCommerce platforms don’t support. It empowers merchants to create immersive user experiences for the Web and mobile without sacrificing speed or content quality in the process. And while the cost and complexity of implementing a headless commerce solution requires thoughtful consideration, modern technology options allow the option of undertaking a phased transition.

Magento Commerce has developed headless service offerings that allow businesses to future-proof their infrastructure. A notable example is the Progressive Web App Studio, a headless Web development technology used to develop, deploy, and maintain a PWA storefront on top of your existing Magento Commerce storefront. Magento Commerce has also been integrated with Adobe Experience Manager, which utilizes our APIs in a headless fashion.

With the number of headless integration options available, merchants can proceed at a pace suited to their business maturity and development goals. 


Learn more by downloading a copy of our Headless Commerce Primer for Growing Merchants and discover how your business can repurpose its approach to digital experience management.

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