The Rise of Headless Commerce

“Headless commerce” has become an e-commerce buzzword lately, but how can brands use it to their advantage?

“In its most basic terms, ‘headless commerce’ refers to the decoupling of a website’s presentation layer — the front end — from its commerce and business logic/function layer — the back end,” said Meghan Stabler, vice president of product marketing at BigCommerce.

A headless commerce approach “helps a merchant support both the latest in technology and/or end-user devices and also build powerful, personalized and engaging commerce experiences,” she told the E-Commerce Times.

As brands have increased the amount of website content that must be updated regularly, they increasingly have been seeing the advantage of decoupling that content layer from the business layer, while ensuring their customers have a seamless experience between consuming content and making purchases.

“As online shopping increasingly replaces the brick-and-mortar retail experience, consumers have developed an expectation that online brands double as purveyors of rich and engaging content,” observed Stabler. “For them, the experience they have online needs to mimic the one they were accustomed to in-store, and engaging content offers them a digital way to connect more deeply with the brands they like.”

Headless commerce ultimately is an important integration strategy.

“Headless commerce is the key to blending these two experiences — content and commerce — in a more harmonious way, because it allows the merchant to tap one platform for content and another for commerce, rather than forcing a single platform to handle all aspects of its website, as had been the case previously,” Stabler pointed out.

Headless commerce comes into play whenever a customer comes into contact with a brand.

“Headless commerce essentially brings two concepts together — a turnkey SaaS back end with the core commerce functionality and utility APIs as the delivery mechanism to connect the head,” said Adam Sturrock, vice president of customer success at Moltin.

“It may seem counterintuitive, but headless commerce is not actually headless,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “A head is the customer touchpoint where the transaction and value exchange takes place — such as a website a customer visits, or a mobile app they download and interact with to buy something.”

Headless Commerce Benefits

A primary benefit of headless commerce strategies is that they give companies greater flexibility and allow for extensive customization.

“In the past, merchants were forced to choose between a website that focused on the content and experience but faced extreme commerce limitations, or one that had all the bells and whistles of a high-performing e-commerce site but lacked some of the pizazz of a content-first experience,” said BigCommerce’s Stabler.

“If done correctly, headless commerce promises to grant retailers the choice, flexibility and customization capabilities they need to effectively compete in today’s crowded e-commerce landscape,” she added.

Headless commerce can improve the customer experience.

“The benefits to brands of adopting a headless commerce solution are that it gives them flexibility to deliver more innovation and customer experiences quicker,” noted Kevin Murray, managing director of Greenlight Commerce.

“They can use these services as building blocks with less overhead and costs when having to change their existing digital landscape,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “It can give them a lot more control over the experiences they want to deliver to their customers.”

Headless commerce helps a brand prepare for future challenges. It allows services “to be swapped by new providers as needed, which is easier than changing an entire e-commerce platform,” said Murray.

Separating the content on sites from the e-commerce levels — while allowing those levels to have the same look and feel for customers — just makes sense for most businesses, he suggested.

“This means that logic related to certain processes can be stored in one place and then consumed by something else more easily,” Murray explained, “rather than having to duplicate the same functionality for different presentation purposes. This is even more important due to the continued emergence of different presentation layers that require e-commerce capability — desktop and mobile browsers, apps, kiosks, social media.”

With headless commerce, updating content across multiple touchpoints is efficient, noted Darin Archer, CMO of Elastic Path.

It enables marketing teams “to make design and content updates very quickly without requiring IT support,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “It also allows companies to enable commerce in all customer touchpoints, including nontraditional touchpoints such as voice commerce or VR. ”

Evolution of Headless Commerce

Headless commerce is still gaining traction, and in the coming years, it’s likely to become much more common, suggested Stabler.

“We’re only just seeing the full spectrum of use cases,” she said. “Currently, headless commerce is predominantly focused on the connection between e-commerce and the CMS platform, but the functionality itself can be replicated for a seemingly endless number of use cases. Because the front end and back end are decoupled, merchants can expand their opportunities and outreach to more customers in rapid time.”

Headless commerce likely will become the norm, as “innovative new channels and experiences are being created that meet the customer at new points of engagement and potential purchase moments,” said Moltin’s Sturrock.

“No longer are we constrained to destination-based commerce interaction, visiting a store or website, but we can now weave commerce interactions and transactions into our daily lives seamlessly.”

It’s not just e-commerce sites that are adopting headless commerce strategies. Increasingly, brick-and-mortar stores are seeing its value, as well.

“As end-user technology continues to innovate, the customer ‘commerce experience’ must innovate also,” said Stabler.

“We see that with the traditional brick-and-mortar stores who are experimenting with AR/VR in their stores and by extension to their online presence,” she noted.

“I expect that we will see many brands integrating a headless/API-first commerce strategy into other experiences on mobile, voice, AR/VR, even standalone kiosks,” Stabler predicted. “With merchants and brands needing to get their goods into the hands of the consumer as quickly as possible, headless commerce will help them do just that.”