eCommerce

A Brief Overview of Headless Commerce

November 1, 2019

by

Katie Moon

The eCommerce world is changing as quickly as Amazon Prime delivers your latest order.

Long-gone are the days of desktop browsing. Today’s customers shop through multiple touch points: from mobile and wearable tech, to voice assistants (think Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant), to apps and social media.

As technology and consumer demands evolve, commerce platforms must also evolve their customer experiences. And while some traditional eCommerce platforms are struggling to adapt to the rapid pace, others view it as an opportunity to make their products even more accessible to target audiences.

The challenge, of course, is how to capitalize on this brave new world of digital experiences without developing your own Alexa or Apple Watch.

The answer? A headless commerce system.

What Exactly is Headless Commerce?

There are few significant differences between headless commerce platforms and traditional commerce experiences.

The overarching - and most important - differentiator between the two is that headless eCommerce is far more flexible than its counterpart.

This is because headless commerce solutions are de-coupled, separating the front-end (or the “head”) and back-end systems. Each system can function independently of one another, allowing the front-end content presentation layer to stand apart from the back-end content management system (CMS). 


By de-coupling the front-end experiences from the back-end functionality, front-end developers are no longer married to the infrastructure and coding that comprises the back-end. They do not have to use built-in templates and themes, and can create unique, customized user experiences.

Meanwhile, developers can focus on ensuring deliverability of content (everything from products, blog posts, product videos, customer reviews, and more) across multiple devices and screens.

Consequently, headless commerce architecture is intrinsically built for the new age of eCommerce.

Why is Headless Commerce Suddenly Popular?

Back when eCommerce first developed, most web traffic was driven by desktop users. Coupled front-end and back-end solutions worked perfectly well. There weren’t the multiple buyer touch points that eCommerce sites have to compete with in today’s market.

Now, not only has mobile traffic outpaced desktop traffic for most sites, but other complex channels, like interactive kiosks in brick-and-mortar stores, and progressive web apps (websites designed to look and function like an app, without requiring the user to download an app), all place demands eCommerce platforms. 

Furthermore, as building a digital branch becomes increasingly critical for all kinds of businesses, everyone is trying to expand into eCommerce. Since most product-based companies already have a CMS, headless commerce solutions allow them to build a commerce engine and connect it to their existing CMS, rather than having to deal with migrating mass amounts of data into a new system.

How Does Headless Commerce Work?

Headless commerce works by passing requests between the presentation (front-end) and application (back-end) layers. It uses application programming interface (API) calls to communicate between the two layers. 


For example, if a customer clicks “Purchase,” the front-end sends an API call to the back-end to process the order. The back-end sends an API call to show the customer that their order has been completed. This eCommerce API serves as the “body” of your system, to which you can attach many “heads” (or buyer touch points) as needed.

Your functionality (inventory management, payment processing, order processing and shipping) remains separate from your user interfaces, but the two communicate with API calls.

What Are the Challenges of Headless Commerce?

As with any system, there are some pros and cons to headless commerce. 

Headless commerce platforms provide ample opportunity for customization, personalization, and unique layouts and designs - all of which help your business stand out in an increasingly saturated market. 

The downside to this flexibility is that building a template, theme, or user experience from scratch takes quite a lot of time. There’s no plug-and-play solution. This can mean more expensive set up costs, plus additional ongoing costs as developers must troubleshoot their own creations, and continually optimize and update their designs.

Additionally, the complexity of built-from-scratch designs means that your marketing teams will be heavily dependent on your IT and developer teams. Whether it’s updating existing content, developing specific campaigns, previewing content to test the user experience, or even brainstorming, creating, and launching new content, your marketing teams will be deeply reliant on other departments.

What Are the Benefits of Headless Commerce?

Even with the costs -- both to your build-out budget, and to your marketing team’s independence -- the benefits of headless commerce far outweigh the challenges.

If you have a need for speed (and in today’s market, you do) then headless commerce makes it far easier to make rapid changes and integrate innovative buyer touch points. You can attach multiple “heads” to your eCommerce API without impacting your functionality. This means that you can keep up with emerging consumer technologies, and not have to worry about completely overhauling your entire eCommerce platform every time a new touch point becomes popular.

As we’ve already discussed, headless commerce solutions also give your front-end developers full control over the user experience. If you want to design a personalized, custom feel for your site, you can. There are far less restrictions on designers, empowering them to be creative and establish a specific brand style and voice. These customizations will also help seamlessly carry your brand across multiple buyer touch points, ensuring a consistent customer experience, and building towards an omni-channel strategy.

Just as you can customize the user experience using headless commerce solutions, you can also more easily integrate specific and select tools to tailor your architecture. Think of it like a made-to-order meal: pick your ingredients, swap them out when they get boring, add new ones when something else becomes more appealing, and never have to toss the whole recipe out and start from scratch. 

Now, take those customizations and rapid response capabilities, and optimize your site. Headless commerce will let you run multiple tests at once and then optimize based upon the results. You can even work on back-end solutions (like improving your search function) without disrupting the front-end user experience. 

Headless commerce allows you to identify and understand consumer behavior - and adjust your site accordingly - much faster than the average retailer. This will help improve conversion rates, ultimately impacting your bottom line.

An Object Edge Case Study

It’s easy to theorize about the pros and cons of headless commerce, but what does implementing a solution look like in actuality?

The Object Edge team has partnered with Oracle to find solutions and realize success for a customer who is a leading provider of consumer, financial, and property data; analytics; and services to business and government. The customer was experiencing significant challenges in the go-to-market strategies for online goods and services. 

With the guidance of the Object Edge and Oracle teams, this company’s leadership selected Oracle Commerce Cloud (OCC) because of its API-first architecture, which is inherently headless. 

The team at Object Edge leveraged a headless architecture, that reinforces how OCC´s microservices architecture and strong set of APIs enable the product to be used in different architectures. By creating a dynamic coding environment, OE provided a back-end set up that allows for both flexibility and creativity.

Key Takeaways

Ready or not, headless commerce is the future. It’s more flexible, adaptable, and customizable. 

While it limits your marketing team’s independence and requires more from-scratch development, its de-coupled front-end and back-end systems ultimately give you more control, ability to scale and optimize your systems, create a seamless omni-channel strategy, and quickly incorporate emerging technologies.

The eCommerce world is moving at warp speed. It’s time for your platform to move just as quickly.

Reach out today to learn how to make the change to headless.

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