Going Headless: An API-Driven Approach to Rethink Your E-Commerce Strategy
Explore going headless as an API-driven approach to rethink your e-commerce strategy.
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The e-commerce landscape is everchanging.
In today's e-commerce market, consumers are used to consuming content and making purchases through various touch points. These touchpoints vary from household IoT devices to progressive web applications (PWAs). Things like Amazon Dash buttons, Smart Voice Assistants including Siri and Google Home, and AI-powered bots offer consumers a unique way to search product information, read reviews, and make purchases.
In a digital business world, a company’s success depends in large part on its ability to create a flawless customer experience. While more innovative touchpoints arriving in the market, industry mavericks like Amazon has already started seizing the opportunity by catering to a wide range of touch points — ensuring customers would receive a consistent experience regardless of the channel or touch point they are interacting.
While the leaders already adapting to the shifts in the market, how do lesser mortals — brands and retailers — plan to meet the current market trends without re-engineering their backend systems or inventing the next Amazon Dash button?
A new concept has already made its mark in the e-commerce industry to address this; that is headless e-commerce.
What Is Headless E-Commerce?
The Traditional Approach
Traditionally, the majority of e-commerce platforms are single-stack solutions that come with a pre-set storefront to face customers and a backend that performs data processing. Two parts can hardly function without each other.
This inhibits any flexibility to drive consumer channel-specific user experiences. Updating the UI/UX of the storefront required a lot of coordination, time, and effort. Rolling out a new feature took months to reach the market. With a fast-moving digital market, where customers want to explore new devices and platforms, organizations need to respond to the shifts in the market swiftly and gather early feedback.
This traditional e-commerce model had clearly hindered that.
A Paradigm Shift in the Industry
Usually, the term "headless" stands for having no sense or stupidity. But what does it has to with e-commerce?
Unlike the holistic, monolithic approach of traditional platforms (WordPress, Shopify, etc.), decoupled solutions imply a clear separation between backend and front-end. Chopping its head right off. Thus, "headless": — Snipcart
Headless e-commerce architecture decouples the front-end (content, presentation, and interactive layers of customer experience) and the backend (the application’s tech stack, infrastructure, and business logic). This means that the customer-facing experience of a given brand/retailer is no longer driven by its e-commerce platform capabilities.
How Headless E-Commerce Works
With the headless approach, organizations are at full liberty to build omnichannel, experience-driven storefronts (front-ends) while still having a robust B2B e-commerce engine on the backend to facilitate complex transactions. There can be multiple front-end types, purpose-built for certain consumer needs. Those include Single Page Applications (SPA), Progressive Web Applications (PWA), smartphones, wearables, Smart Voice Assistants, IoT devices, etc. Regardless of their form factors, they all connect to the same backend that runs data operations and manages integrations with external systems, such as ERP, CRM, or services from partners.
The communication between front-end and backend is carried out via RESTful APIs (or GraphQL). The API feeds all the relevant data stored and managed in the backend to the front-end in a user-friendly way. In most cases, front-end to backend communication happens over the Internet using efficient message formats like JSON.
For instance, when the user clicks a "Buy Now" button on their smartphone, the front-end experience layer sends an API call to the backend to process the order. The backend may or may not be aware of the front-end that the request has been originated but continues to process the order.
Below is an overall architecture and landscape illustrated by BigCommerce; a leading Headless e-commerce platform provider exists today.
Image Credit - https://www.bigcommerce.com/blog/headless-commerce/
Why Headless eCommerce Is a Growing Trend
The decoupled nature of headless e-commerce divides the customer-facing elements from the system-facing elements, which gives brands the freedom to create out any front-end experience they want. Developers are free from the restraints and dictates of a monolithic front-end user experience. This flexibility is very crucial when organizations have to cater to different channels to be considered relevant by consumers.
It is inevitable that, irrespective of the channel, the brand has to provide a consistent user experience over the course of the customer journey. Hence having a closed feedback loop with customers that responds to their feedback in a more agile manner is a pressing concern that most organizations face today.
That’s where the timeliness of headless e-commerce comes in. Headless e-commerce solutions let brands control the shopping experience while letting the solution itself handle the rest.
Here are some of the key benefits offered by headless e-commerce platforms.
Headless architecture makes it possible for organizations to control exactly how they want their business logic to work, what data they want to have at their fingertips, and completely control the user experience. With traditional e-commerce platforms, businesses often wind up adapting their needs to their tech stack instead of their tech adapting to their business needs. API-driven headless e-commerce allows the best business applications to work seamlessly together, utilizing only the capabilities that serve specific business needs.
Fast and Seamless Integrations
Headless architecture makes the customization of the solution through integrations more agile as it uses API to let several systems communicate with each other, exchange data, and seamlessly integrate without constraints. Any additional functionality or system can be connected via the respective API. This greatly reduces the time and effort needed to bring in any ERP or CRM system of their own and plugging it to the solution.
Rapid and Independent Updates
Due to its decoupled nature, front-end and backend systems can be updated independently without reconfiguring the entire solution. For instance, if user feedback says the "Buy Now" button is not prominent in the mobile app, front-end developers can fix it, test it individually, and update the front-end while the backend remains the same. This allows cost-effective customizations and updates of required areas without changing the underlying infrastructure.
Freedom of Experimentation
Headless systems are decentralized and operate independent of each component, which gives a great degree of freedom for experimentation. Since both the front-end and backend can be updated separately, developers can focus on running different A/B tests with the UI/UX layer. Based on the results revealed by these tests, they can optimize and innovate consumer-facing and admin-facing experiences. Best of all, both front-end and backend can now scale independently. This fosters the innovation and accelerates business agility.
Faster Time to Market
An attempt to build a multi-channel or omnichannel retail experience with a traditional e-commerce platform will make the time to market painfully slow, and scaling will be arduous.
A headless commerce platform, on the other hand, enables brands to focus on building front-end experiences on different devices and touchpoints, as the content and products are housed centrally and delivered via API to anywhere. This facilitates faster time to market when adopting new channels, entering new regions, and so forth.
Key Drawbacks of Headless E-Commerce
For all its positives, headless does have some negatives that need to be explored.
Cost of Ownership
Since headless e-commerce platforms do not provide a front-end, developers have to build their own from scratch. On one hand, this is great, as it enables developers to build front-ends that are bespoke for each device and touchpoint. On the other hand, building templates and user interfaces from scratch can become time-consuming and costly. Plus, developers will need to troubleshoot their own front-end creations, leading to ongoing costs beyond the initial build.
Management and Maintenance for the Long Term
Headless e-commerce systems are decoupled and comprise of many moving parts. This brings in the requirement for continuous management of the system, which itself requires the right expertise and dedicated resources. The technology will inevitably have issues that need to be monitored and resolved on an ongoing basis.
Who Should Be Using a Headless E-Commerce Solution?
The decision to adopt a headless e-commerce platform depends on an organization's business needs and goals. Just because headless e-commerce allows for different development processes — or just because it’s popular right now — doesn’t mean it is the perfect solution for every business.
In general, headless is recognized as being more suitable for:
Large organizations with complex or unique business rules and ordering processes.
Organizations with multiple systems that need to integrate with eCommerce.
Businesses that already have an advanced CMS.
Organizations with a lot of constantly changing content.
Organizations experiencing rapid growth.
Large organizations with many organizations, brands, or divisions in their portfolio.
This isn’t to say headless can’t work for smaller organizations or different situations. It’s just ideal for businesses that share these traits.
Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.