Headless e-commerce is a hot topic in the media and industry events. Business owners who learn more about headless eCommerce (usually called “headless commerce”) start feeling uncomfortable, not understanding whether it is sufficiently important to implement it or not. No one wants to stay behind with technology, but retailers do not have money left for unnecessary toys either. Let's have a look for possible benefits and pitfalls.
The essence of headless commerce technology
The definition of headless commerce describes it as de-coupling front-end customer experience from back-end technology infrastructure. Of course, the front-end still connects to the back-end but via APIs (Application Program Interfaces).
In traditional architecture, front-end and back-end work together in the same computation process. It is impossible to run each of them separately there. In a headless approach, these are physically separated environments, also isolated within the memory of the server. The front-end accesses the back-end over the network through an API (Rest API, GraphQL) using a specific protocol.
Although it is not known who first introduced the headless commerce term, it quickly became popular. As it seems, the word headless comes from the headless technology of the Chrome browser. In the context of the browser frontend, it is an important developer tool that allows to test code, check the quality and consistency of the layout and perform all these tasks much more effectively.
There is a significant business component in deciding whether to switch to headless e-commerce from a traditional platform. In general, there are two ways to implement headless commerce. The first one is developing your own headless architecture of an online store and migrate from the current traditional e-commerce platform. This takes a lot of time (months if not years), is very expensive and is no guarantee for a successful result. The second way is the migration of the online store to a new platform like Virto Commerce 3 (also mind Magento or Shopify Plus with some limitations), in which the headless principle has already been implemented.
Think twice when shifting to headless e-commerce technology
The decision to go headless should not be made based on emotions or hot trends. In the history of IT, there were many promising technologies that did not deliver the expected profit for the companies because they were implemented at the wrong time or incorrectly.
First of all, it is advisable to meet with your own team, both technical and sales, and discuss how the capabilities of the existing e-commerce platform can be fully exploited. There are always certain reserves there, and this is the cheapest option to improve the results of online trading. If the team confirms the limits of the platform have been reached, then switching to headless will be a more reasonable decision.
Also, you need to make sure you actually have the right resources to manage new technology. These are a skilled developer team and a relevant budget to afford headless ecommerce implementation.
4 benefits of headless commerce
There are at least 4 benefits for the headless approach in ecommerce; they include front end speed, infrastructure flexibility, interface personalization and scalability based on microservices. Below are a few more details about each one of them.
Front-end speed up
Most retailers start with the transition to headless to speed up the front end, which is the first benefit to mention. The e-commerce platforms that software vendors provide are always packed with many excessive features that may not be used by that retailer but definitely impact performance. When the internal functionality is completely removed, you can usually see a great improvement in the front end response for user requests. Retailers who have switched to headless and have focused on speed, often create progressive web apps (PWA) to unify the browser and mobile app interface. This has a positive effect on user experience.
In professional language, the sales channels of interaction with customers are called «heads», and the back-end is called «the body». If you separate the work of the front-ends from the body, then this approach would be called headless. In headless, to publish the desired content in the channel, the front-end interacts with the back-end via the API.
The flexibility of the headless infrastructure
The flexibility of the infrastructure is directly related to the fact the front end and the back end are separated so that the deployment of architectural changes can be done much faster. For example, when the back end needs some maintenance, the front end interface will not be corrupted because it is completely separated.
Customization and personalization
The possibilities for customization and personalization are of high level; In the absence of an external interface defined by a content management system (CMS), a retailer can create and run a completely unique user interface for customers.
Scalability is also an important advantage. Some brands want a microservices approach to their architecture. Since you can separate front end and back end, you can easily update or customize your digital assets without sacrificing performance. So, as your assets grow, you grow too.
The transition to headless e-commerce is definitely a business decision, but it would be impossible to realize without a strong team of in-house developers. Another option could be a collaboration with a reliable integration partner or an acquisition of a third-party, who has experience in headless development.
Think about headless e-commerce if you struggle improving customer experience and personalization, support of omnichannel sales, need faster integrations with third-party services, develop new user interfaces and innovative touchpoints like chatbots, IoT, messenger, etc. Mind that all these fast-paced changes to the platform are much easier to do in headless architecture than through traditional e-commerce.
Building your own headless commerce platform is for companies that are customer experience-centric and tech visioners. For others, it is better to use vendor-driven headless e-commerce platforms.