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Headless E-commerce – Benefits, Drawbacks and Goals

Mike Sędzielewski
Mike Sędzielewski
December 21, 2018
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Headless E-commerce – Benefits, Drawbacks and Goals

Why headless commerce and why now?

The number one reason for product managers to choose headless CMS platforms today is decoupling presentation from business logic. This approach provides developers with more freedom to customize sites and address the evolving purchasing experience.

And digital team can apply it to other e-commerce systems like promotions, shipping, or cart.

Ultimately, it allows you to move with the following commerce trends without taxing your developers’ time:

  • Mobile – open up to new customer touchpoints compatible with mobile devices, including messaging apps and smartwatches;
  • IoT – integrate new household devices like Alexa, Amazon Dash, and other smart home appliances;
  • Untapped web marketing channels – coupon aggregators, micro- (even nano-) influencers, niche forums, selling in social media, chats, bots, and many more to emerge in future.

Today, pretty everyone in the e-commerce world has to deal with Amazon. Their state-of-the-art marketing personalization tactics absorb more and more of the market. Companies, big or small, have no choice other than to use the same armory.

Technology providers and system integrators have already figured out they have to adapt their offer – they all want to “lose their head”:

Not to mention the outburst of headless platforms supporting a myriad of customer-facing departments, creating new experiences, and propagating the buy button across new customer touchpoints.

You’ll ask: why isn’t that possible with traditional e-commerce?

In the old approach, the front-end (or the “head”) is tightly coupled with the back-end. And this strong relationship has taken its toll on marketing innovation speed and thus remaining competitive. Let’s see what showstoppers are behind slower time to market speed:

Software development team:

  • The design is constrained by legacy frameworks, pre-defined set of experiences available only.
  • Small front-end change may require changes in database and back-end code, increasing testing time, and thus the total cost of the task.
  • Changes to back-end code can cause unexpected errors in front-end.

Marketing department:

  • Little or no room for personalization.
  • Confusion and mutual misunderstanding with the tech team because small software changes take ages to complete.
  • New marketing channels untapped or by-passed low-priority software built in-house

And it is personalization and embracing new shopping channels that count today. 50% of consumers are likely to switch brands if a company doesn’t anticipate their needs (NRF’s 2018 Retail Trends Report). So even if you have an experienced software team which delivers features with decent speed, they might be slowed down in tapping into new channels without proper tooling.

How does your organization benefit from going headless?

We’ve already said that headless commerce might be the answer. Let’s analyze how it changes software delivery and ultimately marketing innovation in breadth and depth.

Once again, headless means separating business logic (your e-commerce back office systems) from the presentation layer (customer touchpoints like the web, email, SMS, mobile, ads, affiliates, etc).

Thanks to the separation, your developers, both back-end and front-end, get better development tools and thus can achieve better speed in integration with various parts of e-commerce software.

As introducing the headless approach to an organization is a cross-cutting concern, we’ll categorize the benefits and challenges according to the marketer, management, developer, and CTO:

Benefits for marketers:

  • Fully personalized customer experience.
  • Possibility to fully customize the look and feel of the entire shopping journey.
  • Ability to launch new brands and customer touchpoints by reusing building blocks.
  • Easiness of building convenience-driven path-to-purchase with untapped marketing channels.
  • Faster customer touchpoints integration.
  • The API-first approach reduces integrating e-commerce and CRM platforms effort by order of magnitude.
  • Headless approach opens frontend development to new UI frameworks making delivering new customer-facing assets much faster.
  • Platform upgrades, performance fixes, and adding new functionalities take less time and resources.
  • Better conversions optimization.
  • Building UI variants for A/B testing is easier and faster.
  • Turning off/on features for certain customer segments is much more controllable.

Benefits for management:

  • Lower development cost and faster time to market.
  • Headless offers robust building blocks out of the box.
  • Pricing is usage-based, so you can start small and worry about the scale later.

Benefits for CTOs:

  • Lower maintenance cost.
  • Providers ensure support, training, and thorough documentation.
  • API-first solutions are easier to be cached which leads to lower load on servers.
  • Lower risk of critical failures.
  • Future-proof solutions.
  • Reduced dependency on individual technologies.
  • Easier integration with automation tools, like Zapier.

Benefits for developers:

  • Ready documentation with API reference.
  • Faster backend and frontend testing due to isolation.
  • Freedom to choose any frontend framework.

Headless commerce challenges

If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. It would help if you didn’t treat headless as a solution to “fix” every part of an e-commerce pipeline in your org. These are some of the obstacles you might pop into:

Challenges for marketers:

  • Headless means no default UI, no WYSIWYG editor; you need to build UI for the customer and often for administrators from scratch.
  • Live previews can be difficult if there’s no support from the vendor or an internal tool developed by your development team.
  • Major, cross-cutting changes might take longer because the changes need to be tackled by the back-end team, and then the front-end separately.
  • Many headless vendors offer “scale as your grow” pricing; it’s hard to estimate the budget for the software purchase when you start out.

Challenges for management:

  • Slightly higher cost of e-commerce infrastructure.
  • Dependency on a third-party system for the critical e-commerce pipeline.

Challenges for CTOs:

  • More software vendors to negotiate and oversee.
  • More traffic means more API requests which in turn increases costs.

Challenges for developers:

  • Slower full stack changes; contract-driven approach needs more communication between back-end and front-end.
  • Longer time to troubleshoot when it comes to cross-cutting functionality, because of more difficult debugging.

What to watch out for when starting out with headless commerce

To avoid these traps, you should pay attention to three elements when screening a potential headless commerce platform:

  • API uptime – look for a status page and go through the historical records to see how a vendor handles outages; if you see 100% uptime, it means somebody isn’t 100% honest - even Amazon Web Service has had issues.
  • Pricing and API limits – transparent pricing which allows you to calculate your current and future bills; a vendor might have safety thresholds for the API usage that might blow out your monthly invoice.
  • Documentation and support policies – headless commerce is all about speed. But without developer documentation and educational user guides, the integration and training might as well linger as in the case of low-priority internal projects everybody wants to avoid.

For more information, go to our example-based guide on how to choose e-commerce API.

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There are a couple of additional technical considerations to take into account when you consider starting out with headless commerce. See the infographic prepared by E2X, a fellow MACH Alliance member:

Headless commerce infographic

New and noteworthy headless commerce platforms

Finally, we’d like to suggest some platforms you can incorporate into your e-commerce ecosystem. Let’s start with a scheme. The modern ecom stack looks more or less like this:

Headless Commerce Infographic on process workflow
Headless Commerce report by Isobar

Headless commerce platforms come in different sizes and flavours. You can find a full-suite type of systems covering every bit of e-commerce pipeline and specialized platforms doing one thing but with massive adaptation capabilities. Let’s take a look at noteworthy vendors available on the threshold of 2019:

Promotions:

Catalogue & inventory:

Cart:

Payment:

Messaging:

Booking & events:

Shipping:

General:

You can start small – a mini case study

In matured companies, the lack of resources and heavy processes make it hard to deploy a new technology. They become slow in innovation. The good thing about headless commerce is that you can turn it around by starting small.

Take iBood, a subsidiary of Media-Saturn, for example. Their multi-million revenue and presence in several countries require heavy e-commerce machinery. Now they want to tap into promotion personalization but their legacy e-commerce platform isn’t quite ready for this.

Instead of building a promotion engine from scratch, they’ve decided to take a shortcut and use Voucherify API.

Within a week, they are ready to launch a personal coupons campaign which helps them fight coupon fraud. Then, step by step, they roll out other promo campaigns to drive customer retention - all of this within the following weeks, without bothering the software team too much.

Headless commerce headfirst

Whether you’ve integrated headless CMS or not, the way to roll out this approach to other parts of your business comes down to three steps:

  • Recognize a new customer touchpoint you want to tap into to stay competitive against Amazon and Co.
  • Research available headless platforms taking into account what you have learned from the article.
  • Sit down with your marketing and development team to plan how to get started with baby steps.

The future is headless, so you'd better get going.

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Develop headless promotions with Voucherify

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