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“Headless” Ecommerce - fad or future?

Going “Headless” seems to be all of the rage in ecommerce these days. By “Headless” I don’t mean turning into the Headless Horseman from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – but rather decouplie-cong the presentation layer from a platform, typically for more flexibility and endless customizations in content management and delivery. Is Headless just the latest ecommerce fad, or is it truly the new, revolutionizing commodity in ecommerce?

It is true that the world of ecommerce is changing at a rapid pace, mostly due to Amazon. Amazon’s blend of delivering content and commerce to consumers helps them edge near $1 trillion in market value. From Amazon’s Dash Button - a little electronic device connected to your Amazon account that allows you to quickly reorder goods by clicking a button (someone please take the Funyuns one away from me) – to ordering a new “Wolf Howling at the Moon” T-Shirt via Alexa on your Amazon Echo, this convenience allows Amazon to kill it in this realm. And no, I don’t have personal experience ordering a Wolf Howling at the Moon t-shirt on my Echo – who told you that? *shifty eyes*

Why am I mentioning the Dash Button and Alexa? Because Amazon is the prime (no pun intended) example of a business that has successfully implemented a headless commerce system. At its fundamental core, Headless simply refers to having a collection of digital amenities that support commerce and give consumers new avenues to explore product information, read reviews, and place orders. So it should come as no surprise that Amazon is the major influencer in this space.

What is Traditional Ecommerce?

Before moving on, let’s first dive into what the traditional ecommerce model is. By traditional commerce, we’re mostly referring to the monolithic model where the front-end is tightly coupled with the back-end. With higher development costs and a slower go-to-market timeline, this is still a fine and reasonable solution for Enterprise and B2B ecommerce stores, as typically the company has full control of the platform and solution.

However, the downside of the traditional model usually centers around flexibility and adaptability. There are certain limitations, design constraints, and pre-defined experiences using this model. Making changes in this environment also typically require a greater deal of time to edit the database, codebase, and the front-end as well.

I don’t want to call traditional ecommerce antiquated, but it was certainly molded in an era where desktop users with web browsers were pretty much the only audience digital commerce accounted for. Never in our wildest dreams, and I’m just talking 10 to 12 years ago, could we imagine that we’d be buying products on our social media feeds or on our mobile phones while sitting on a train. Or, even crazier, making purchases on a “screen-less” device via an Echo or a rather chatty Google Assistant on your Google Home.

What does this all mean? Honestly, in ecommerce, we can’t assume we know what the next commerce channel will be. Thus the idea of Headless starts making more sense…

The Benefits of Headless Commerce

I want you to think of your favorite brick-and-mortar stores and why you love their shopping experiences. Is it the easy-to-navigate and familiar feeling of Target? Or perhaps the unique, multi-sensory, and memorable feeling of going to a recently opened Vineyard Vines? Yes, these examples are from my personal experiences.

With a Headless system, you can offer a customized and unique experience imbued with brand attributes in everything. You can offer a flexible, familiar, and cost-effective experience. You can offer an omnichannel store where you’ve touched all digital amenities. With a Headless system, you can offer all of this 1) without hurting backend processes, 2) improving your speed to market, and 3) offering customization and personalization options. 

Let’s start with its flexibility…

As an ecommerce Front-end Developer (FED), the notion of flexibility can only make me smile. In an industry that was reliant on databases and back-end coupled code, headless ecommerce enables FEDs the freedom and control to dictate the user experience. Free from the handcuffs that are typically associated with a traditional platform, front-end developers can make simple API calls to marry the core business needs to the front-end of the site, free from the worry of bugging a back-end developer to modify a database. This creates endless possibilities for customizations.

How about the customization and personalization options?

Decoupled from a traditional platform, developers can create their own UX from scratch. Headless allows us to have more control over the look and feel of our digital commerce store for our customers and as well as the admin users. In addition, the freedom to drive increased engagement through custom content experiences is more achievable when you’re creating the UX from scratch.

What about improving the speed to market?

Headless commerce gives developers the freedom to move at warp speed. Think of how much shopping online has changed year-to-year. With a headless system, you can make updates and changes rapidly without any impact to the back-end system. As an example, say the next big thing is purchasing through Augmented Reality – you can theoretically make a quick release to support that without having to redeploy your entire platform.

For context, Amazon updates, on average, every 11.7 seconds. Considering that the front-end and back-end aren’t so tightly coupled, headless allows you to make changes at a rapid pace. You can easily make a change to the front-end without having to worry about back-end components.

It’s not all daisies and roses yet

All of the advantages of Headless combined are obviously appealing and seemingly the future of ecommerce. Unfortunately, it’s not all daisies and roses yet. Remember that awesomeness of creating a UX from scratch? Well, it can be daunting and challenging as well. There are a lot of drawbacks that prevent people from taking the leap into true Headless. But it doesn’t have to be the end of your Headless dreams… there’s still hope in a decoupled solution.

Wait, so what is a decoupled solution? Well, it’s similar to Headless systems in the sense that the front-end and back-end are not coupled together. However, the one big difference here is that a decoupled system will typically come with a front-end platform equipped with pre-existing tools and templates so developers are not creating everything from scratch. The front-end communicates with the back-end through an API, which is very similar to a Headless system.

I’m going to pivot here and speak about a decoupled solution done correctly. In this specific case I’m referring to BigCommerce’s new Commerce-as-a-Service, scalable API solution. Very quickly, if you don’t know BigCommerce yet, it is an open SaaS ecommerce platform that’s acknowledging that brands want more than the decoupling of the front-end and back-end. They’re realizing brands want microservice architecture and the best-of-the-best solutions to plug and play into their systems to increase conversions, revenue, and innovation.

With nearly 30% of the web using WordPress, BigCommerce saw an opportunity to present a headless commerce integration for WordPress that’s highly scalable, customizable, and personalized.

Now you know what headless and decoupled systems are, and also have an example of a decoupled solution done correctly. Thus, in part two of our Headless talk, I’m going to dive into BigCommerce’s Commerce-as-a-Service and their WordPress plugin. Stay tuned!


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Adam Wagner has been working in the web development industry since 2005 and joined Americaneagle.com in March 2007. As the technical manager of E-Commerce Front End Development, he’s responsible for all front-end accountabilities in the department, essentially working as a bridge between the project management team and the front-end development team to help architect and craft E-Commerce websites.

When he's not learning a new tool, platform, or software used for ecommerce development, Adam loves spending time indoors or outdoors with his wife, son, and daughter, drinking German beer, following his beloved Chicago Bears, being a serial guacamole eater, and stunt doubling for Zac Efron.

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