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What is Headless Commerce and How Can it Help Scale Your E-commerce Business?

6 min read Last Updated: August 4, 2020
what is headless commerce

Written by Michael Trang

Michael Trang is a Managing Partner at SKU Agency - the e-commerce agency focused on growing your business through strategy, technology & design. Michael loves fishing, playing guitar, and learning about the latest & greatest technologies.

When you dip your toe into the wide world of online sales, it can feel like a “Welcome to the World of Buzzwords” seminar. One of those buzzwords you may hear is headless commerce. What on Earth, right? How could something that sounds like literally losing your head possibly help your e-commerce business thrive?

We’ll tell you.

What is Headless Commerce?

In a nutshell, headless commerce is what happens when you decouple the front end from the backend of your e-commerce site, application, or platform. What does THAT mean? Let’s break it down.

The front end of your e-commerce solution is customer-facing. It’s the piece that houses all your branding, user experience, and content.

The backend is everything that happens behind the scenes. It’s where you process payments, inventory, restocking, shipping, order capturing, shipping details, PCI compliance, and all the other elements that make your business a business and not just a pretty website.

For many online storefronts, these two elements are interwoven completely. When they want to update something on the front end, they have to simultaneously update the backend to ensure a smooth transition, which risks breaking the site and causing no end of trouble.

By decoupling and creating a headless commerce solution, you increase your agility and adaptability, allowing two teams to operate simultaneously and independently without crossing any wires. The two communicate vita APIs so your backend remains functional and undisturbed while your front end receives updates on any schedule you choose, which is essential in a rapidly changing marketplace.

Why Make the Shift to Headless Commerce?

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Now that you know what headless commerce is, you’re probably wondering what benefits it offers and why you should make the shift. There are a number of reasons why this type of solution will improve your business operations and satisfy your customers.

Flexibility and Speed

One of the biggest benefits of opting to decouple your front and backend is that it offers you a ton of flexibility, which in turn grants you speed. In a rapidly changing online marketplace, speed is of the essence when you’re trying to remain relevant and keep up with customer expectations.

Online sales continue to take a larger and larger piece of the overall sales pie every single year and those numbers show no signs of slowing, especially with 2020’s pandemic and less access to brick-and-mortar stores. The internet is oversaturated with e-commerce sites looking to earn their business, so they’ve become much more discerning. It’s not only about who can provide the best price – it’s also about who can provide the best experience.

The ability to quickly refresh your customer-facing site with a new design, updated branding, relevant content, and new product marketing is essential to keep up with customer demand. Trends shift and you have to remain on the ball. With a coupled e-commerce solution, you can’t update your front end without also ensuring the backend is right there step for step. Decoupling lets you focus on user experience first while you work steadily in the background to deliver.

Reliability

Headless commerce allows the front end and backend to operate with a level of independence that ensures reliable performance from both. You don’t have to worry about crashes and slow load speeds on the storefront due to an overworked backend.

Of course, to make this solution work, you’ll need a dedicated team and lots of testing to ensure your site can handle a high-volume load. However, headless commerce gives you the opportunity to perform plenty of tests without having to alter the backend every single time. Once you have all the data you need, you’ll be able to reliably predict how well your site will perform during busy seasons, which matters a great deal for a positive user experience, which in turn affects your sales.

Personalization

If there’s one thing customers love, it’s a personal touch. With traditional sites with integrated front and backends, an e-tailer typically has no choice but to work off a predesigned template that pairs with the backend. This leads to a generic site without much customization. That can be a killer when it comes to creating a cohesive brand.

Decoupling provides the opportunity to maintain the integrity of essential business operations like payment processing while offering personalization and UX focus on the customer-facing site. Customize and brand your site to your heart’s content without losing any critical functionality, ever.

Multichannel Capability

headless commerce development

Is your brand accessible on multiple platforms, including social media? Have you considered customers who shop on mobile? Do you offer in-person pickup? You need to have a cohesive brand experience across all platforms and devices in order to maximize sales. Unfortunately, that can be tough to manage when you’re dealing with a storefront with a predefined template.

Harvard Business Review goes into great detail about how today’s customers are shopping. Very few people shop only online or only in stores. Instead, they use all the tools at their disposal. That includes mobile apps, in-store technology like interactive catalogs and tablets, various shipping and pickup options, price comparison tools, and more.

The linked article also details how customers who spend more are also doing more research online before making a purchase, and even looking up products online through multiple venues before ultimately making the decision of where to purchase.

It’s important to develop your touchpoints or the points at which a customer “touches” your business – sales reps, advertising, product exposure, branding, and similar. Headless commerce gives you the ability to create new touchpoints without dropping big time and money investments into creating a new backend for every new site. Storefronts can link to the same decoupled backend!

Scaling for Growth

When business picks up, it’s a time for celebration, but that celebration can be marred by a storefront that can’t handle the increase in traffic. When the site is decoupled, the front end can be appropriately scaled to handle a surge of new customers without adversely affecting the backend, which is huge.

Ideally, you want to see those touchpoints and sales channels from the previous topic result in steady growth and an increase in sales. A headless commerce solution gives you plenty of opportunities to operate in real-time to keep up with customers while protecting your essential operations from getting bogged down.

Using Shopify Headless Commerce

Shopify is one of the many headless commerce platforms available to retailers today, and in our opinion, easily one of the best. When we discuss Shopify headless commerce options with our clients, it’s all about customization and flexibility.

Users who migrate to Shopify have the opportunity to access robust personalization options for their storefront while enjoying the strong selection of useful applications and backend software. There’s a great deal of support for marketing and reaching customers through newer technological touchpoints like home assistants, smart speakers, and smart appliances.

When you want to enhance your customer experience via mobile access, voice shopping, and custom apps, Shopify is the perfect all-in-one platform.

Through decoupling, Shopify users can now treat their customer content and backend logistics as separate entities, which means no waiting on one to update before the other can launch. Your teams can operate independently and operations go a lot smoother!

Are You Ready to Lose Your Head?

Not literally, of course! What we really mean is, do you think you’re ready for headless commerce? We’ve given you a lot of information to help you determine whether it’s the right choice for your business. Consider the following when making your decision.

  • Does my current infrastructure allow for fast updates and no downtime for the live site?
  • Am I ready to reach customers through new channels?
  • Is my site mobile-friendly?
  • Is my checkout experience fast and easy for my customers?
  • Can I build a custom storefront or am I limited to templates?
  • Are my load times abysmal during high-volume periods?
  • Could I use more apps to streamline my marketing and logistics?

Depending on your answers, headless commerce could definitely be the solution for you. It’s not for everyone. You may have an e-commerce site that works exactly the way you need it to without having to worry about decoupling. However, if you want to adjust quickly and keep customers happy, you may find it’s a great option.

Shopify offers its users a great deal when it comes to building a cohesive e-commerce business. You may not have the scope or budget to have multiple internal IT teams for each element, but there are Shopify Experts available now who can offer the support you need. At SKU, we offer our clients services including storefront customization, logo and branding updates, data migration, custom applications, and a lot more. We’re happy to help you brave this new world.

Do you have any other questions or thoughts on headless commerce and whether it’s right for your business? Please reach out anytime.

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