Headless eCommerce - the future of inclusive commerce

Headshot of Shaun Gomm

Commercial Director

5 minute read

Omni-channel commerce is a quick-paced, changeable environment.

Customers expect to be able to interact with products through distributed channels and they are becoming increasingly comfortable making purchases, reviews and interacting with content through a variety of devices and channels. In the last few years, we’ve seen customers embracing social media purchases and using IoT connected devices and voice assistants.

While they’re just browsing products and making purchases – we're scrambling to make it all work behind the scenes, with state-of-the-art technology and patches in our legacy systems, which are often straining with the number of new gadgets we’ve been attaching with gaffer tape.

More than ever before organisations need flexible and scalable commerce solutions. And some eCommerce platforms are struggling to keep up. On the other hand, we see some retailers are moving with the times, innovating and even leading the change – see Amazon with its dash buttons and Alexa. While most retailers will struggle to compete with Amazon, we still need to remain flexible in order to react to change, or we’ll be left behind.
The answer? Headless commerce.

We’ve been working with our partner Storm Commerce to explore how Headless eCommerce systems can enable human-centred commerce solutions, with less of this pain (and metaphorical gaffer tape). We want to create an inclusive, UX-led platform that is designed and built for our customers, giving them the flexibility they need, when they need it and where they need it.

What is headless commerce?

Headless commerce architecture refers to an eCommerce solution that has no front-end-delivery layer. The eCommerce solution does what it normally does. (order management, taking payments, storing product information etc, and provides product management functionality in the back-end.) But it isn’t tied into a visible front-end.

The visible front-end (the ‘head’) has been separated from the functional eCommerce platform. This allows developers to easily attach it to whatever delivery method the customer needs via an API. They can deliver blog posts, products, reviews etc to any screen, watch, phone, voice assistant or device using whatever development framework makes sense.

With a non-headless system, the visible front-end delivery layer comes as a part of the system and is very heavily defined which makes any customisation or updates potentially much more difficult and potentially more expensive.

Headless commerce makes the system much more future proof and adaptable. A new technology emerges? No problem, your developers won’t need to redevelop your entire eCommerce system, just develop a new delivery layer and plug it in.

Worth mentioning too, that not only can you create a varied experience for your customer, but also for your admins. People often prioritise the consumer over the staff experience. Designing with your internal audience in mind will make an experience fit for upload, reporting and management, potentially saving time and decreasing frustration.

Let’s look at the benefits in more detail:

Creating an accessible commerce experience

We’ve put this first, because we advocate for accessibility and inclusion and it doesn’t happen enough in the eCommerce world.

This isn’t just for the warm fuzzies. We find that designing in an accessible way means that we generally build a product that’s easier to use for everyone. The stats? According to The World Bank, 1 billion people or 15 per cent of the Earth’s population experience some form of disability. So, we’re missing out on cold, hard revenue by not designing inclusively.
And search engines like it – they're more likely to prioritise an accessible site in search results.

What’s this got to do with headless ecommerce?

Headless eCommerce can allow us to take accessibility further than just following WCAG guidelines. It means we can look at how voice systems can help those with low motor control and how we can work with the latest screen reader technology.

Flexibility, adaptability, quality and speed

Development time is quicker on headless ecommerce. The development backlog is standalone, so it won’t need to be developed alongside implementing any other new technology. It uses APIs to connect to payment gateways, content layers, PIP systems and more…

Want to start running ticketed events? No problem! Want a new CRM? Cool, let’s go...

In an integrated system, you would have had to see if your platform has an integrated CRM and make sure it suits your needs. If not, you’d have to look for CRM platforms that integrate with your particular eCommerce platform, reducing your options and tying you in to one you might rather not use.

This will significantly decrease time to market with new features. It allows you to scale as your business grows, moving from budget to enterprise solutions as it suits. It means you aren’t tied to a full suite and you can use the best-fit tools for each segment you’re looking at, or those that specifically cater for your individual needs and ultimately, your customer needs.

Try new things and experiment

Headless eCommerce allows for agile trials of new services and channels allowing for innovation, and helping you remain competitive. It means you won’t get left behind when a new technology comes out, or maybe you can be the one leading the way.

Trialling a new chat system, or a voice integration only means updates to the front layer and connecting to the back catalogue via the API. This will lead to a much shorter development time and reduces the risk if it fails, as you’ll have invested less time and money into implementing it, and it will be easier to de-couple from your system if you feel it isn’t right.

The benefits of a live test allow you to test the conversion rate, look at the stats and optimise with a real audience. Leading brands like net-a-porter and Amazon are continuously testing and learning and have hundreds of releases a day.

A seamless omni-channel, personalised experience

To the consumer, this means that no matter where they see a product (an Instagram ad, on the website, via a marketing email) there is one single truth, They may have added the product to a basket on Twitter, added the discount they say on Instagram, but they expect it to be there in the basket when they open the store on their desktop… and they expect that product to be in stock. To a customer, it doesn’t seem like a lot to ask.

But it requires a little bit of effort by the eCommerce system, and unfortunately some legacy systems aren't flexible enough for a true omni-channel experience. This is much easier to develop with a headless eCommerce approach and allows us to add more channels as we need.

Headless eCommerce - pros and cons

Pros of headless eCommerce

  • Agile experimentation and easy to implement continuous learning
  • Allows you to work with best-of-breed technologies
  • Flexibility to scale and replace to match your growth and changing needs
  • Quicker time to market for new features, increasing competitiveness and innovation
  • Developer friendly
  • Multi-channel support for a true omni-channel, personalised solution
  • Easier to create a truly accessible eCommerce system

Cons of headless eCommerce

  • The first implementation will take longer to implement as it’s multiple systems, rather than one.
  • The time and cost associated are usually not for start-ups or those with smaller budgets, or new to the eCommerce game.
  • More flexibility means that the system can be more complex

Because headless systems are de-coupled, they allow you to experiment, to be flexible and to move fast. Customisation and integration with other systems is much easier with this kind of architecture and while the front-end and back-end are two independent systems, customisation can be done in parallel.