Headless ecommerce isn’t only for big businesses with large in-house teams that want to focus on customer experience. If you’ve heard about it, but aren’t sure whether your business could benefit, here are some things to think about.
What is headless ecommerce?
In traditional ‘monolithic’ ecommerce solutions customer experiences are tied or ‘coupled’ to the systems used to manage online sales. This creates dependencies and means that changes must be carefully tested before they are deployed. It’s time-consuming and expensive. If your market sector is fast-moving and customer engagement is a key differentiator this could be holding you back.
Headless ecommerce allows you to tailor customer experiences at every touchpoint, independently from your back-office systems. Your ecommerce presentation layer – the part your customers see and use – is decoupled. You can focus on customer engagement and choose best-in-breed functionality for your back office.
To achieve this independence, headless ecommerce uses application programming interfaces (APIs) in a microservice architecture (MACH). This allows information to be passed between systems in near real time. Almost any aspect of your front-end customer interface can be quickly changed and deployed.
However, this freedom comes at a price. The structure and controls built in to traditional systems make it easy for branded content to be created and deployed. Headless ecommerce adds complexity to your day to day ecommerce operations. You will need the help of skilled developers to achieve the continuous innovation you’re looking for.
The ‘pros’ of headless ecommerce
A headless approach gives you the flexibility to create experiences specifically for your customers and the channels they prefer. It gives you more scope for customisation, expansion and improved performance.
Page load times – if you have a large ecommerce site with thousands of products it can slow things down. The limitations of your platform and back office systems will become more apparent. A headless approach is one option to overcome the bottlenecks.
Customisation – you can harness new technologies like augmented reality (AR) to improve your customers’ journeys. ‘Try before you buy’ online could help customers make their choices. If you have the time, money, and technical skill, almost anything is possible. You can create and deploy new concepts easily and, if they don’t work well, you can replace them just as quickly.
Scalability – as your business grows and traffic to your website increases, page load time can be affected. You can overcome this problem with a headless approach because what your customers see is separate from your business systems.
Agility – for a small ecommerce site the benefits of MACH could be marginal. For larger catalogues you can redesign and replace your back office systems and presentation layer independently. If you decide to change your shipping or logistics systems, your front-end won’t be affected.
PWAs – progressive web applications behave like native apps but are actually websites. They can cache data from your server, synchronise it in the background, and send push notifications in near real time. You can use the same tools to create a headless site that feels like an app, but your customers won’t have to download it.
Currencies and languages – headless ecommerce simplifies online experiences in multiple languages and currencies. You can offer specific versions of your products and content based on country of origin.
The ‘cons’ of headless ecommerce
There are, of course, some limitations to headless ecommerce.
Timescales – when you update or create content for a traditional ecommerce site and publish it you’ll see the changes immediately. Your headless ecommerce approach delivers fast page speeds but your content must be held in a content distribution network (CDN). When changes are made, assets in the CDN will need to be recompiled, which takes some time. How long could depend on the size of your catalogue. The number of changes you have made and the content management tools you use are also important.
Configuration – continuous integration and delivery of new code into a repository allows you to automate changes. However, you will need your developers to set this up. To avoid frustration, your content creators and publishers should be aware it’s part of the process.
Content management – typically you can manage your products and content via your ecommerce platform. You can still do this with a headless approach but processing through your content management system (CMS) is also needed.
Costs – because many of the benefits of a headless approach come with scale, the monthly costs can be significant. These are in addition to the initial development costs. You will want to make sure the customisation and flexibility you achieve will give you a good return on investment.
Complexity – you are adding new systems and processes which must be managed. Your team will have additional workflows for publishing, managing updates, and logistics. You’ll also use a lot of customised code so you will want support from the best developers.
Functionality – you might need to develop bespoke solutions to continue using the native functionality of your back-office systems. This might include forms, reviews, or banners, for example. If you are currently using a lot of plugins and extensions moving to headless could also affect them. You’ll need to check whether they have APIs that can work with your front-end. Otherwise, customisation will be needed.
Headless ecommerce platforms
Here are some of the headless options you might want to consider. Pricing will depend on your ecommerce requirements and sales volume.
Previously known as Magento, Adobe Commerce offers seamless headless functionality on premises or in the cloud. It’s based on the open-source Magento platform so your site will be scalable. It comes with a page builder, a visual merchandiser, and inventory management. Adobe Commerce is suitable for retail (B2C), business to business (B2B) and direct to consumer (D2C) sales. You can use the PWA studio, Adobe’s integrated tools and Adobe Experience Manager for personalisation and customisation.
BigCommerce provides its own dedicated headless environment as part of its Enterprise package. This software as a service (SaaS) platform offers multi-storefront headless options and access to popular front-end frameworks. BigCommerce also has its own range of content management systems and a digital experience platform (DXP). You can choose a best-in-class CMS and customise it with built-in APIs. If it’s your first experience of a headless environment there’s also a range of knowledge base articles and how-to guides.
Shopify Plus is another familiar SaaS enterprise ecommerce platform. You can use it to build a traditional online store or for a headless approach. Your teams can build pages with tools they already know and can deliver omnichannel sales. It provides a pre-built Hydrogen demonstration template that you can use globally. You’ll have access to dedicated technical support, and a performance-optimised framework for fast page loading. It can be integrated with leading ERP systems, customer relationship management (CRM), product information management (PIM) software, and your CMS.
VTEX is a cloud-based enterprise ecommerce platform which includes a marketplace and order management. VTEX offers customised headless options that can be combined to speed up your time to market. It’s scalable and can handle high volume traffic. Depending on your business type, marketplace integration and offline sales could make it an attractive option.
Work with headless ecommerce experts
Williams Commerce has top-level partnerships with major commerce platform providers including Adobe, BigCommerce, Shopify Plus and VTEX. We’ll give you advice about headless ecommerce, based on our real world-experience.