The first wave of headless technologies emerged within the CMS space as a way to deliver content to the rapidly emerging touchpoints, but the approach is now surging through the ecommerce industry as well. According to recent data from BigCommerce, the majority of merchants say customer acquisition costs are on the rise and 59% believe improving the digital experience is now very important. For this reason, ecommerce brands are turning towards headless technologies to revitalize their tech stack.

We spoke with digital commerce experts to learn more about these headless technologies, how they’re changing commerce and why many brands are choosing to adopt the headless commerce approach. 

What Is Headless Commerce?

The term headless commerce — much like headless content management — refers to a business strategy and software architecture that decouples the front-end experience from the backend data and functionality. In this case, the functionality in question is a shopping experience and checkout process. 

Typically, a headless commerce solution is a combination of technologies, namely an ecommerce software and a headless CMS of some sort. Using APIs to push and pull content and product information to new front-ends, the company in question can extend their shopping experience to new channels, like smart speakers, digital signage and so forth. “[Headless commerce] allows the retailer’s developers a great deal of freedom to create custom shopping experiences across cutting-edge channels,” explained Meyar Sheik, president & chief commerce officer at Kibo Commerce

“Headless is a move away from the idea that a commerce site should be driven by a monolithic ecommerce system, that understands how to handle commerce AND knows how to render the website,” added David Friar, senior solutions architect at Cognifide. Instead, the headless approach follows the philosophy that applications can and should do only one thing, and do it well. “You’re using specialist tools to give you specialist capabilities,” Friar explained, “and piecing together the jigsaw with APIs.”

Related Article: 24 Headless CMS That Should Be On Your Radar in 2019

The Ways Headless Is Transforming Commerce

With the ability to swiftly adapt to market changes and adopt emerging technologies, the headless commerce approach is having a dramatic impact on businesses and consumers alike.

For commerce brands, by adopting headless technologies, retailers can adopt emerging technologies like voice assistants, wearables and smart appliances, while still leveraging traditional channels like web, social media or SMS. “However,” warned Sheik, “the implication here is that a retailer’s ecommerce platform must have the APIs and services that allow them to plug into those other selling locations.”

Friar believes it’s no longer enough to build a traditional site with a product catalog, shopping cart, and basic information content. Today’s online retailers need to consider the entire customer journey and deliver a consistent shopping experience across many touchpoints. “Instead of trying to glue together two monolithic applications, one delivering a shopfront and the other serving up brochureware,” Friar added, “[headless] allows us to deliver commerce functionality as a service which can be injected into any user journey.” This means businesses can deliver richer narratives and seamlessly interweave content with commerce throughout the customer journey.

Matthew Baier, COO & CMO of Contentstack, added that “It's not it's not just about the API integration, it's also about surfacing that to the business user and making sure there's a seamless user experience for the marketer or the content manager.” In other words, headless commerce solutions should ideally do more than simply combine content and commerce platforms. They should also provide an interface and features for marketers to optimize the end-user experience, just like they've always done. 

Learning Opportunities

With APIs in the frame though, retailers can begin evolving their digital strategies. “[Thanks to API-based architectures] integrations aren’t as scary anymore. This is what’s appealing to the digital audience and the strategists, [because it means] they can build their best-in-class stack, support it and scale it. And if something new comes along, like a better personalization engine, you can just plug it into [your headless commerce ecosystem] as opposed to breaking the architecture. So, you’re constantly evolving and staying nimble,” explained Baier. 

For consumer, “From a shopper’s perspective, engaging with headless commerce means having more channels through which they can make purchases,” stated Sheik. Today’s customers value convenience, and that means a flexible shopping experience that’s seamless across many devices and touchpoints. “Now we are seeing that shoppers don’t always go to a retailer’s website as their first stop,” Sheik continued, “so retailers and brands are going the extra mile to establish a presence on the platforms that their customers frequent.” 

Along with choosing when and where to interact with brands, customer expectations are evolving in other ways. “They expect your identity and messaging to be consistent and your story to make sense,” Friar said. With headless, retailers can more easily integrate various channels into a unified customer experience. Consumers, therefore, will be able to shop on their own terms.

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Why Brands Are Adopting Headless Commerce

There are many reasons that headless technologies are being adopted across a multitude of industries, but our experts believe the primary factors are to enable digital adaptability and the chance to modernize the tech stack as part of a larger initiative. “Headless gives brands greater freedom to quickly respond to market changes,” explained Friar, “[so they can] roll out innovations and experiment with their customer experiences without impacting their underlying ecommerce capability.” Headless commerce, therefore, allows brands to adopt new touchpoints without the need to rework everything else. 

“From a technical perspective,” Sheik said, “some brands ‘go headless’ because they want to add robust, customized CMS-driven experiences for their customers.” But he also believes many organizations pursue a headless approach as part of a larger digital transformation initiative. Sheik says these companies have accumulated technical debt — like legacy on-premises or privately-hosted platforms — over the years, and moving to a headless could be less disruptive than completely replatforming. 

“When done well,” Sheik concluded, “headless commerce can provide brands with endless options for customer interaction, thereby increasing the chances to create loyal consumers that drive increased conversions.” His advice for brands looking to adopt headless commerce is to have a clear understanding of the opportunities and costs of the headless approach, and whether they will help an organization achieve its objectives.