eCommerce Key Words: Headless sounds bad but it’s a good thing

May 22, 2023
8 min read
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Welcome to the first post in our eCommerce Key Word Series, in which we will argue that losing your head in the ecommerce game can actually be a good thing.

Read on and find out why you should consider implementing headless architecture for your B2B eCommerce and the advantages (and challenges) it can present.

A great solution with a weird name

Nothing to do with playing French Revolution. Headless commerce is a new approach to eCommerce architecture that separates the customer-facing front-end (or "head") from the back-end systems that manage products, orders, and other business processes. A new approach compared to what, you may ask. Excellent question. Let’s go back a bit.

Traditional eCommerce architecture was conceived as a solution to allow people to buy from their desktops. One single thing, one single solution. One single system using one specific technology stack. Monolith, legacy platforms, tightly integrated all processes and components; stock and order management, product pages, blogs, carts and checkouts, all in one framework. Smart, right? 

But then we got smartphones and tablets. And we wanted to interact with products, services and entertainment through phones and tablets too. With that, came apps and all sorts of things that need APIs to allow for that to happen.  And channels, and social commerce, and marketplaces. You get it. And then the once great solution became a problem.

Monoliths cannot provide the agility this requires. In traditional ecommerce architecture, adapting to new and emerging technologies and channels can be a challenge, to say the least. Who doesn’t need flexibility and agility to adapt these days?

Because traditional content management systems were not set up to take advantage of omnichannel, they have locked in developers to using preferred back and front-end systems together. By separating the front-end from the back-end systems, businesses can more easily customize their customer experiences and adapt to changing market conditions. Headless allows businesses to add new touchpoints and technologies without having to overhaul their entire eCommerce system. Smarter, right? 

Quite the opposite of losing your head, headless eCommerce means more, independent “heads” allowing for more flexibility and personalization. Perhaps they should have called it Medusa eCommerce.

How does that even work?

Traditional systems have worked well for years now, but the tech and the customer landscape has evolved rapidly. Businesses need to take a new approach to content management. This is where headless comes in.

Mark Howes, Sales Director, EMEA, BigCommerce.

OK, so the front-end, the customer-facing part of the ecommerce system, is decoupled from the back-end systems, which are responsible for managing products, orders, and other business processes. In other words, content about products and services is stored and administered in the back-end, and then presented in the front-end. How do they connect? Through APIs.

APIs play a crucial role in headless commerce by enabling the display of content using any front-end technology, whether it's a browser, mobile app, or even a chatbot. This means the content in the CMS is no longer tied to a specific template or delivery layer. Instead, it can be sent to any channel or device.

Developers can leverage APIs to build custom integrations between different systems and technologies, allowing brands to push content to different platforms seamlessly. This flexibility in content delivery is one of the key advantages of headless commerce. And that's where composability comes into play.

Composability: Back to The Prequel

Coined in a 2020 report by Gartner, composable commerce refers to a modular digital commerce approach that allows businesses to customize -or compose- their tech stacks by choosing best-in-breed solutions to suit their unique business requirements. Like with music. Or with Legos.

Interestingly, however, composability is not really a new thing. Before monolithic systems became prevalent, it was the norm. In the early 2000s, businesses had separate commerce systems and content systems, as no one had thought about combining them into a single platform. After moving towards monolithic systems for the past 15 years, the wheel comes full circle, as composability proves to be the best approach to achieve flexibility and agility.

To evaluate whether a technology truly aligns with the principles of composable commerce, look to the industry tech standard set by the MACH Alliance, (which stands for microservices, API-first, cloud-native SaaS, and headless) as a guide for enterprises to choose commerce solutions that offer future-proof technology.

Who needs more heads and more headless?

Headless eCommerce solutions offer several advantages for B2B and enterprise businesses that strive to be agile and adaptable in a rapidly evolving market. Like for instance:

Increased flexibility:

The fact that the front-end and back-end systems are decoupled means that changes to one system won't affect others. This makes it easier to add new touchpoints and technologies without having to overhaul the entire eCommerce system. It also provides the flexibility to choose different technologies and frameworks for each layer independently.

More Customization:

As we’ve mentioned, legacy and traditional systems can be inflexible and limiting when it comes to creating custom experiences. Because they have predetermined experiences for both consumers and businesses, they leave little room for customization or personalization. Headless moves away from legacy systems by letting the CMS do exclusively what it is supposed to do — manage content. 

Improved scalability: 

If scalability implies every aspect of your business will have to grow together, at the same time, it kind of defeats the purpose. Scalability is, ultimately, the freedom to grow when you need to and how you want to. Headless commerce is also more scalable than traditional ecommerce architectures because it allows businesses to expand their ecommerce offerings as they grow without having to worry about whether their existing systems will be able to handle the increased traffic. The separation between the frontend and backend allows for independent development and deployment, which means businesses can introduce changes and updates to the user interface without the need for extensive backend modifications. That reduces development and deployment costs and the agility in deploying frontend changes enables businesses to respond rapidly to market demands.

Your business may be growing fast on one platform, you may be expanding to new markets, or you may need to scale fast for a special event or holiday. The customer experience can scale independently from the backend.

Greater agility, in more ways than one

Agility is mainly achieved through the head or front-end in a headless commerce approach. Once decoupled, content is stored in a way that is agnostic to how it is presented. This means businesses can pick and choose the heads they want to use and develop, which allows for more rapid changes in response to market conditions and evolving customer sentiment. The back end stands firm. The head (frontend) lets you move fast when your customers move. Where they lead, you will follow.

Also, because the front-end and back-end systems exist independently, developers can work on them simultaneously or in sequence, which means that changes can be made more quickly. And because the front-end and back-end systems are connected through APIs, the front-end’s sole focus is to deliver a smooth and optimized user experience, while the back-end can concentrate on handling data and business logic efficiently. By optimizing each layer independently, businesses can achieve better performance and faster page load times, so that’s two added advantages of adopting a headless approach. And that’s not all. Composable commerce also provides more financial agility, as merchants are not bound to a long term monolith provider. 

Not like this

How will I know?

Headless commerce can be a powerful, game-changing approach for businesses with specific, complex requirements for their customer-facing applications, such as supporting multiple channels or devices, or responding quickly to changing conditions. But it doesn’t mean it’s suitable for everyone. For example, smaller businesses with simpler requirements may find that a traditional commerce platform is more suitable for their needs. 

You can ask yourself if you need to go headless. Or we could do it the other way round.

  • You don't need headless if your current solution lets you adapt the UX to different stages in the shopper journey. 
  • You don't need headless if your customers can make purchases from multiple digital touchpoints.
  • You don't need the trouble of going headless if it's easy for you to update either front or back end.

In any case, before making a decision, it's important to identify your business goals and determine if headless commerce can help you achieve them. And, while headless commerce can offer more flexibility in the long run, it's important to consider how this approach will integrate with existing systems and plan for any necessary changes or upgrades.

It’s not “small print”, it’s “challenges”

Finally, it's important to consider the challenges and risks associated with adopting a new approach like headless commerce. 

Many businesses spend a significant part of their IT budget maintaining legacy systems that are not compatible with headless commerce, so technical debt is certainly a thing. Technical debt refers to the cost of maintaining outdated or inefficient technology over time. While adopting headless commerce can reduce technical debt in the long run, it's important to consider upfront costs and risks.

One of the benefits of headless commerce is that it can enable faster delivery of new features and experiences. You still need to balance speed with quality and test all features thoroughly before release.

It could be argued that early adopters of headless commerce may face a first mover disadvantage if they invest time and resources into developing custom APIs and other infrastructure to support headless commerce before it becomes more mainstream. Or worse. If headless does not become widely adopted, they may get stuck with a system that is difficult to maintain or integrate. However, there are also potential benefits to being an early adopter of headless commerce. For example, gaining a competitive advantage over businesses that are slower to adopt this approach. You know, catching the worm.

With a little help from good friends

Ultimately, because implementing headless eCommerce requires technical expertise and resources, it's important to assess whether your business has the necessary capabilities to support this approach and the necessary expertise in-house to implement it, or whether it will require work with external partners. In that case, it’s vital to evaluate potential partners carefully and make sure they have experience working with headless commerce platforms and technologies. (If you can’t think of anyone, just click here and book a BigCommerce demo with us).