What is Headless E-Commerce?

“Headless e-commerce” may sound like a term that was invented by marketers who’ve been watching too many episodes of The Walking Dead. In reality, it describes a flexible strategy for separating two technologies that drive your e-commerce website, allowing for easier manipulation of each. In this article, the first of a two-part series, we’ll take a look at what it is, and why it’s becoming the standard for online retail solutions.

What is headless e-commerce?

First, here’s an official definition: headless e-commerce is the decoupling of the front-end presentation layer from the back-end e-commerce solution that manages all commerce functionality.

Now let’s translate that into English. Once upon a time, most e-commerce applications were monolithic. There was a very tight relationship between the user interface – like what happens when you enter an order – and the underlying database operations that did things like check inventory, process your order, ensure PCI compliance, and handle payment and shipping. These applications generally required intensive programming and a cast of hundreds to develop and maintain.

With headless e-commerce, by comparison, the front end that customers interface with and the back end processing are linked through API interfaces. This makes it much easier to modify or switch front ends. As a result, businesses now have a great deal of control over their customer touchpoints, with much less development required.

API connectivity, of course, has been around for a long time – it is a key component of many SaaS solutions. What makes headless e-commerce unique is having a complete decoupling between the consumer interface and the back end of an e-commerce application, connected via an API layer.

The benefits of headless e-commerce

So now that we know a little better what headless e-commerce is, let’s turn to why it has become so important. The benefits for moving to a headless solution really boil down into three key areas:

Omni-channel support. A headless API-based approach gives you complete flexibility for how to design and/or implement customer interfaces – such as a traditional website ordering platform, a mobile interface, verbal commands to smart-voice assistants like Alexa, or IoT devices such as an Amazon Dash button. As vendor Core DNA puts it, a headless solution can propel your content “anywhere and everywhere.” More importantly, it provides an architecture that lets you grow and scale with however the market or your strategy changes. Which leads to the next main benefit of a headless approach:

Speed and flexibility. This may be the most important reason of all for going headless – your competitors. And if they can get to market much sooner than you can on new channels, you’re at a disadvantage. Decoupling the front end using an API approach means that you no longer have to wait for an e-commerce developer to upgrade their product to a new channel – you just hook up your data flow to a new front end, and you’re in business.

Customization. E-commerce supplier BigCommerce notes that customer acquisition costs are rising, the market is becoming more commoditized in the face of players such as Amazon, and brands are increasingly looking to create value destinations for customers based on their own content. 60% of their respondents feel creating and publishing content to their own channels is “very important,” and 95% are considering or implementing a content marketing strategy. This can range from custom interfaces for specific markets to tailoring customer content to their IP address or demographics. Headless e-commerce represents a quick path to having custom touchpoints for specific market segments.

CoreDNA also points out a couple of key disadvantages of going headless: the ongoing costs of providing your own front ends, and marketer isolation between content creation and an e-commerce solution. But whatever type of solution framework you use, the world is clearly becoming more distributed and content-driven.

Examples of headless e-commerce platforms

A number of legacy and newer e-commerce platforms have expanded their offerings to accommodate customers who may benefit from a headless approach.

Understanding the benefits and limitations of each, in addition to the costs associated with onboarding or switching platforms is the first step to determining if headless is the right solution for you.

Here are some of the top e-commerce platforms that offer headless e-commerce solutions:

BigCommerce
The first platform to introduce a fully headless product, BigCommerce is often seen as the leading headless commerce platform.

Shopify Plus
Shopify is one of the leading e-commerce platforms and their Shopify Plus platform supports enterprise-level commerce while providing full creative control to their already-flexible SaaS front-end.

WordPress
While WordPress itself is a CMS and not an e-commerce platform, the open architecture allows users to easily adopt ecommerce functionality through third-party plugins, while maintaining the CMS functionality.

Two of the most popular shopping cart add-ons for WordPress are WooCommerce and the BigCommerce for WordPress plug-in.

Adobe’s Magento Commerce
Magento made its name in the e-commerce marketplace by being one of the most extensive platforms available. With the recent acquisition by Adobe, they have made a concerted effort to shift to a more headless approach.

Coming up next – how we can help

Of course, a headless e-commerce environment puts that much more importance on the quality of your data, for everything from order accuracy to fraud prevention.

That’s where we come in: our API-based tools represent a convenient plug-in solution for tasks such as contact data validation, lead validation, tax calculation, data enrichment and more. Check out Part 2 of this article series, where we will look at some of our specific products and how they can help.

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