Talking headless: Cutting through the headless commerce hype
POSTED : August 24, 2020
BY : Steve Larson

Most retailers may think they know what headless commerce is, but it can be hard to get past all the hype. Some may even not like the term “headless,” but let us all agree it’s an approach that leverages APIs and microservices to decouple the channel experience (web, app, kiosk, chat, call center, POS) from the functionality (content, personalization, search, profile, cart, checkout). It provides marketers and merchandisers greater flexibility and control over the customer experience, while IT gains more opportunities for reuse and fewer systems to maintain. Is that enough to know whether it’s right for your organization?

While major retailers like Target are all in on headless commerce, many companies are struggling to justify their platform investment, especially during lean times. However, just as Covid is making investments challenging, it’s also accelerating trends long in the making. One estimate puts e-commerce growth this past quarter at 23% with a concomitant decline of 24% in brick-and-mortar sales. As more consumers seek out contactless experiences, demand is shifting from physical retail to digital shopping.

Some contactless trends may be short-lived, but the strength of your digital channel will undoubtedly determine your brand’s long-term viability. The tipping point for headless commerce may have already arrived. So, if you’re still trying to discern whether headless commerce is right for your organization, a clear accounting of its benefits will help cut through some of the hype.

Speeds time-to-market

Source: Salesforce

Let’s say you’re interested in rolling out curbside pickup as a new offering as part of your effort to create more contactless engagement for your customers. With the decoupled architecture that headless commerce platforms afford, you can significantly reduce your release cycle and perhaps achieve the ultimate goal of deploy-on-demand for new services on offerings.

With a traditional monolithic ecommerce architecture, when a developer makes a change, that change can only be deployed along with the entire system. The layers of testing and approvals for a single functional change inhibits release velocity. With an API-driven decoupled headless architecture, the application is broken up into discrete components that can be deployed independently. Because the risk exposure is much lower for changes in a headless system, less testing and governance is needed, and consequently, time-to-market is much faster.

When combined with a “test and learn” philosophy, where change is introduced to a small percentage of customer traffic, the risk of a material impact is even lower. This enables the business to deploy new features and functions whenever they want, gauge results and broaden the audience once proven effective (or roll it back if it isn’t). The outcomes of a switch to a decoupled API-driven experience should be immediately felt. One large retailer I’ve worked with moved from a two-week functional release cycle to a daily cycle and are now exploring intra-day deployments.

Path to the cloud

Beyond the obvious pluses of moving to the cloud—speed, security and accessibility—headless commerce will enable your organization to scale at minimal cost while reducing your licensing costs. It also provides a migration path off your existing commerce platform.

By having your experience in the cloud, you’re able to auto-scale. If your e-commerce site experienced peak loads during the recent stay-at-home orders, you might have also seen some site instability. With headless commerce in the cloud, the services driving the experience can automatically scale, ensuring a performant site for all customers. Plus, with the cloud you only pay for what you use, eliminating the need to carry extra, usually idle, capacity to manage peak volumes.

A cloud-based decoupled architecture also helps reduce the number of licenses required by segregating the compute. With headless commerce, when your customers are browsing your online store, that compute is kept separate from the compute needed to support the commerce functionality—such as cart and checkout. With a monolithic commerce system, the same compute manages both the experience and the commerce features, meaning licenses must be maintained to support “peak” traffic volume. Because many more customers engage with the experience than add to cart or place an order, decoupling the experience means fewer licenses.

Omnichannel experience

Lastly, personalized omnichannel experiences are much easier to attain with headless commerce. Because the experience is separate from the functionality, introducing new channels or expanding functionality across multiple channels, is faster and cheaper. For example, a single content service can support multiple channels, eliminating redundancy and (perhaps more importantly) ensuring a holistic customer experience as they move between channels.

Consumers increasingly expect brands to remember and “know” them regardless of channel. Consequently, brands have to, for example, support seamless journeys that start with discovery on a phone, ordering on a tablet, picked up curbside and exchanged in a store. Leveraging a consistent set of common capabilities via multiple channels enables a consistent experience with less effort than if each channel had its own set of capabilities.

The rapidly evolving expectations of consumers who are faced with a mounting public health crisis is shifting demand to digital channels, where much of it will stay. Many companies are now being forced to rethink their stance on headless commerce. Maybe a few years ago it was too expensive to pursue. But today, it may be too expensive not to.

See what retailers are doing to expand their omnichannel universe.


About the Author

Steve LarsonSteve Larson serves as Senior Vice President of Digital Technologies at PK. He has over 21 years of digital experience, including more than a decade driving large-scale ecommerce engagements for clients such as Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Starbucks, PetSmart, and many others. His recent work focuses on IT Modernization strategies that leverage cloud-based open source solutions. He’s a passionate advocate for Agile based “test and learn” approaches to optimize customer engagement through increased relevancy and connected experiences across all channels.

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