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Headless commerce can power digital businesses post-pandemic: here’s why

Headless commerce isn’t the future of online shopping: it’s already here. In fact, it’s been around for nearly five years. But with the pandemic forcing customers across just about every demographic to purchase online, it’s only going to become more important if businesses are going to build seamless shopping experiences in a way that is agile and adaptable. As we move from an eCommerce world (essentially, clicking and shopping online) to an omnichannel one (a fully integrated shopping experience across different devices and channels), headless will be essential. Customer habits have radically changed; it’s now more important than ever that businesses have the technological capability to meet new demands and facilitate even better shopping experiences.

For those companies using legacy monolithic eCommerce platforms, it can be difficult to think about moving to something different. Making a shift can feel like a risk. If your existing platform is the primary source of revenue for your business, it can feel scary to change- even if it’s not performing at the level your business should be. Moreover, from a technical perspective, it can also feel like a huge project that’s hard to justify.

Such feelings are understandable but the approach is restrictive. A sentimental attachment to your eCommerce platform will throttle your capacity for growth and undermine agility. This makes it harder for you to properly meet the needs of your customers.

In this post we’ll examine some of the issues with legacy monolithic eCommerce platforms and explore why a headless commerce architecture can not only solve those problems, but also help your organisation unlock new opportunities for growth and innovation.


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What are the issues with legacy eCommerce platforms?

Even organisations with a particular attachment to their eCommerce platform will recognise some of the shortcomings of legacy platforms. As monoliths, they can be cumbersome to deploy and difficult to maintain. In turn, this makes it very hard to build digital experiences across multiple touchpoints that are attractive and intuitive for customers.

More specifically, the issues with monolithic eCommerce platforms include:

Omnichannel selling

It’s difficult to add new customer touchpoints and channels to monolithic eCommerce platforms. The head is tightly coupled with the core platform and to add new heads, such as a Point of Sale or mobile app, requires heavy customisation. This might not have been an issue in the years when eCommerce was first emerging, but with shoppers expecting experiences to be seamless and omnichannel, this can seriously impact the quality of customer experience. Indeed, the very point of the term ‘digital commerce’ rather than ‘eCommerce’, is that it underscores the fact that online shopping happens across multiple digital touchpoints.

UX across customer touchpoints

eCommerce platforms typically offer ease and speed to market - which is great if you want to get an online store up and running quickly. However, as you learn more about your customers and how they discover and purchase your products, you may want to change and add more UX experiences to meet their needs. The inflexibility of most existing eCommerce platforms makes it hard to do this, which means you’re stuck with their UX (it’s also one of the reasons why many online stores all look the same, creating a kind of identikit digital high street).

Headless puts you in control. Or, as we’ll see later, it puts your developers in control, allowing them to build specific solutions that meet the requirements of the business - or rather, its customers.

These are all serious issues. They’re easy to overlook if performance seems steady, but you might well be throttling your capacity to grow. And if your competitors are taking advantage of headless commerce, then at some point you could fall behind.

Mobile and mCommerce

Many legacy eCommerce platforms aren’t optimised for mobile. And with mobile commerce - mCommerce - growing rapidly (reports suggest it is likely to account for more than half of all eCommerce transactions this year), it simply doesn’t make sense to ignore the opportunities of mobile. Indeed, you really need to think mobile-first. By decoupling the “head” from the services that make up your digital commerce infrastructure it’s much easier for you to build for mobile on your terms - you can build for multiple experiences and touchpoints - rather than trust that the vendor from which you have purchased your eCommerce platform is keeping it up to date to meet changing trends in consumer behaviour.

Agile deployment

Legacy eCommerce platforms will inevitably require more downtime for deploying new changes. As monoliths, you can’t simply update or change one small part of it - instead you need to make changes to the entire system. Typically the business requires to make UX changes more frequently than backend changes. To have to bring the whole system down to deploy these is frustrating and means that these changes are made less frequently than they would like.

With headless systems you can minimise downtime. This is because you can deploy specific decoupled components, including the UX, rather than the entire application infrastructure.

Scalability

The monolithic nature of legacy eCommerce systems makes them inflexible. It’s not uncommon, for example, to hear stories about online stores crashing when hit with a spike in traffic. Downtime - especially during popular periods - will seriously impact the bottom line. There are workarounds, but again, this can be expensive and requires more work for engineers.

Headless commerce, meanwhile, offers a far more effective solution to scalability challenges: because it is built out of many different component parts, with the head decoupled from backend services, it’s much easier to adapt so your system has the resources to deal with rapid spikes in customers. It allows you to scale the front and backend independently from each other.

Slow page load times

Legacy eCommerce platforms are often sluggish; pages are often resource-intensive. This can be quietly damaging: research suggests that 40% of people abandon a website that takes more than three seconds to load. However, a headless solution is lightweight as it decouples your front and back end and puts you in control of how a page (the head) displays data coming from the backend services.

SEO and discovery

The problems legacy eCommerce platforms pose will undoubtedly have an impact on your SEO and organic visibility. As Google’s indexing algorithm prioritises mobile and highly responsive pages, sites built with little attention to the mobile experience or with page speed issues will suffer.

It’s not just about mobile and speed though - the inflexibility of the eCommerce platform monolith means the degree to which you can control your site's visibility is severely limited. As with mobile, you have to trust vendors are doing the work to ensure its platform is up to date and optimised for SEO. With one-third of online shoppers searching for the products they want using a search engine such as google this can be incredibly damaging.

Security

It would be wrong to call legacy eCommerce platforms insecure. But once again - because they are monoliths - they are harder to protect from evolving threats. Because the infrastructure is packaged together in one piece, a single vulnerability can have major consequences throughout the stack.

However, because you’re dealing with a system that is composed of decoupled components, with headless commerce you can minimise the risks of major breaches, by thinking instead of the security of each part of your infrastructure. True, this does put more responsibility on engineers to embed security in their development processes - but with trust at a premium when it comes to when it comes to digital, can you really afford not to find a better way to ensure your systems and services are secure?

Why headless commerce?

The idea of changing your eCommerce solution might feel daunting even if the argument in favour is clear. Pulling apart a monolith and then wiring together multiple services can sound complicated and surely a substantial drain on resources.

However, one of the advantages of headless commerce is that it decouples your front-end (the “head”) from your back-end functionality. This leaves front-end developers free to work on how products and content can be presented in the best possible way, while back-end developers can focus on your eCommerce site’s core product and order management functionality.

Why headless commerce has advantages for engineering teams

Headless commerce is a new way of working for many developers. It’s also undoubtedly a better one. Here's why:

Freedom for frontend developers

With a headless commerce system there are no design constraints. Instead, you can build the front-end presentation layer independently of the backend, and then seamlessly connect them.

Portable code and data

Headless commerce removes your dependence on massive, legacy infrastructures. Engineering teams will likely love this, as it gives them more control in how they solve problems, allowing them to select the best tools and approach for different platforms and devices.

Better suited to continuous delivery so changes and updates can be made at speed

Legacy eCommerce platforms aren’t conducive to truly agile practices. However, with headless commerce, engineering teams can adapt and evolve platforms and applications according to the needs of customers. For example, front end changes can be made easily and quickly, ensuring the business can remain properly focused on the customer.

Why should a business use a headless commerce platform?

If developers are happy and feel they have more control of their work, that’s almost always good news for a digital business. But what are the broader benefits of headless eCommerce for businesses?

Embrace omnichannel opportunities

Whether you want to launch in new markets or adopt new channels, you can deliver your products and content without endless back-end modifications or heavy customisation. This accelerates time to market. For example, you can wire a new point of sale or customer service platform into your commerce services easily, using the APIs provided by your new headless platform.

Headless commerce allows you to seamlessly link the knowledge stored in your back-end across every front-end. This means you can personalise your front-end to the individual customer, across multiple touchpoints, providing a quality omnichannel experience.

Greater customisation and personalisation

We mentioned earlier that legacy eCommerce systems can be cumbersome. With headless eCommerce customisation and even personalisation are much easier. This means the business will not only be able to provide better and more targeted experiences to customers, it can also ensure business stakeholders can more easily use and modify the platform according to their needs.

Test, learn, and optimize

We’ve looked at the fact that headless commerce makes it easy to make changes to components independently of each other, such as the UX. One of the benefits of this is that it allows organizations to try things out quickly. You could, for example, trial different UX templates and approaches, or perhaps try out a new piece of functionality while maintaining the same front-end. You might want to experiment with a new front-end experience without changing your back-end.

It becomes much easier to try your ‘like to haves’ with headless commerce. It lets you run continuous tests and optimisation cycles to get a better understanding of your customer.


Read next: Comparing customer data platforms (CDP): how to choose the right one for your business


Headless can help you thrive

Whether the pandemic has given you a new perspective on the size of the opportunity of digital commerce, or if you’re simply feeling that your existing platform is dated and restrictive, now is the perfect time to consider adopting a new headless platform. The benefits are clear - for everyone, from marketing to engineering. With a better setup, you can thrive.

AND Digital can help you on your journey to headless. We can guide you to define your strategy, work with you on progressively building away from your monolith to a headless approach and help equip you with the skills to take it forward to achieve your business outcomes.


If you want help identifying the right platform, or to see how headless eCommerce could help your business, email hello@and.digital.