Headless ecommerce: The future of online stores

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Traditionally, people have made ecommerce platforms that only target shoppers on desktop computers. For a long time, this has been extremely effective. However, as new devices keep popping up, it's become apparent that these platforms don't have the right architecture for today's internet users. People are still learning they have to optimize their sites for mobile phones while consumers try to shop online from smartwatches and even smart speakers, like the Amazon Echo.

Headless ecommerce is a new solution that reimagines an ecommerce platform in a way that provides more flexibility, helping business owners access more opportunities for growth. Keep reading to learn all about what headless eCommerce is and why you should adopt it on your site.

What is headless ecommerce?

Headless ecommerce is a model that splits the customer-facing frontend of a site from its backend, where you run the functions to facilitate sales. In this model, each end runs independently, using application programmer interfaces (APIs) to communicate seamlessly.

Brands that practice headless ecommerce can give their customers a more agile, unique and consistent shopping experience because the frontend doesn't need to wait for the backend. This gives brands trying to scale up a lot more flexibility.

How does the headless approach compare to traditional ecommerce content managment?

On traditional ecommerce platforms, both the frontend and the backend run on the same server. There is no distinction between the two sides, so customer-facing operations may even perform functions that should happen in the backend. This may work well in the current situation, but technology moves fast. As you try to upgrade to keep up with it, any operation that breaks will stop your entire site. If you have any coding experience, you know how common such errors are.

The headless approach separates the frontend and backend so that your content management system (CMS) — the side of your operation that the customer interacts with — only runs functions that relate directly to the customer. If the backend needs to do any work, it uses an API to send a request to the relevant system's server, letting it perform all the tasks necessary and send back a simple response that the CMS can use.

Often, traditional ecommerce platforms and custom themes end up limiting your control over the design and presentation of your frontend layer because some changes can create errors on the backend. By separating both sides, the headless approach lets you freely customize your frontend so you can offer the best possible branded visitor experience.

The benefits of headless ecommerce platforms

Decoupling the frontend and backend might not feel like a major change, and if you aren't aware of the possibilities this brings you, you may not get much out of it. That's why we've listed some of the best benefits of headless eCommerce platforms to help you make the most of your switch.

API-driven experiences and API-first architecture

APIs simplify communication between software platforms, creating an environment for seamless data connections and transfers. For instance, if a customer is searching for a particular product, an API can quickly run a product search by sending a request to the backend. Because they're a separate layer between both sides of your website, you can easily integrate many different third-party headless APIs into your system.

You can keep each backend system separate and simply have a headless architecture API connect to the right system when necessary. Some systems ecommerce sites often use include:

  • Product catalogs
  • Content management for products
  • Checkout functions
  • Online payments
  • Order management
  • Sales performance management

For instance, if a customer clicks the Buy Now button on your site, your frontend just sends an order-processing API request to the backend. Then, to update the status of the order, it sends another API request. None of the code behind these operations is on the frontend.

This structure lets you use one backend to run multiple frontends, helping you keep up with the pace at which technology evolves. You just have to design the front end for the new channel and make the same API requests for backend functions as usual. This makes development faster and more agile.

APIs also act as extra security for backend data. That way, even if a bad actor is able to exploit a vulnerability in your frontend code, there's a layer of abstraction separating them from customers' personal information. You can also place the administration section of your system on a different server and domain, making it harder for a bad actor trying to cause a critical failure to gain control over your system.

Why headless is considered to be "better" than other frameworks

A headless approach lets you tailor the user experience to each visitor. Because you've decoupled the frontend from the backend, you can make changes to the content layer without disrupting any of the infrastructure on your website. A tailored experience shows you value your customers and strengthens associations with your brand, which helps you attract higher-quality leads.

Headless ecommerce architecture also centralizes information you collect, so you don't need to use information silos to store customer shopping data. Because this information is easy to access with a headless ecommerce API, you can personalize recommendations, promotions and browsing options for specific people. In turn, this improves conversion rates because people see more relevant offers.

With the customization that this allows, you can build your customer experiences from scratch and more easily change, customize and deploy frontend features. People are more likely to talk positively about receiving a custom experience, so this speed and customizability can positively affect word of mouth.

Why development teams love headless

Because of the segmentation between the frontend framework and the backend layer, your development team is free to test innovations and improvements for your store without compromising the frontend for customers. Similarly, designers are free to improve the customer experience on the frontend, no longer needing to verify that changes they made don't affect any backend layers.

This freedom builds an environment that fosters creativity for development teams, eliminating a limitation they often have to work around. This leads to better optimization of your website, helping you convert more visitors.

Developers can also specialize in either frontend or backend, rather than learning how to handle both sides. This means they can split up into smaller dedicated frontend and backend teams to work on new features, helping them bring out innovations faster. You could even hire a company with the right specializations to manage individual systems if necessary.

Consistent Customer Experience

Customers expect to have a consistent experience every time they visit your site. If you don't have a digital experience platform that optimizes their digital experience, they're unlikely to return.

If they placed an order, they expect to see the order status when they return to the site. In traditional ecommerce architecture, a bug anywhere in the website could prevent this from showing up. However, if your customer information is in a backend system separate from the rest of the site, an API can request the specific customer's information every time they log in. It can even use this information to show consistent product recommendations based on their purchase history.

The omnichannel experience

Customers want to have a consistent experience when making a purchase, no matter what channel they go through — whether they're using a computer, phone or even a fridge screen.

With traditional architecture, the entire website may need an update to support a new digital sales channel. With a headless solution, however, since all customer information is available from a central database, a comprehensive API layer lets you offer that experience at every brand touchpoint. More importantly, as the internet grows and new digital channels form, you can cater to them quickly, giving you a strong edge over your competitors.

Time to Market

Building an omnichannel experience on a traditional ecommerce architecture is difficult and takes an incredibly long time. It also takes a lot of work to scale up your website. A headless ecommerce platform, on the other hand, is able to branch into new channels quickly. Because of the architecture's flexibility, you can go to market faster even if consumers' preferences changed abruptly.

If you want to expand to new regions that speak different languages, a headless platform can also help you reach them more quickly. Since only the customer-facing side needs a language update, you can focus on just that side, leaving the backend layer intact.

Why companies are straying away from a monolithic architecture

The traditional monolithic architecture makes many parts of your site interdependent, like the shopping cart, checkout section, subscriptions and even site layout and design. That means that making a change in one part requires changes in other areas as well. This creates many challenges for companies, such as the ones below.

Speed of development

As you can imagine, if every change you make to one section requires changes in other areas, you need to write much more code for every update. As a result, development costs are also higher, which discourages people from trying out original, creative ideas.

Additionally, programmers like "modular" code, where each task is self-contained so they can run it at any point. Modularity also means that, when there is a bug, you can easily figure out which task it's in. In a monolithic architecture, this isn't possible because tasks are interdependent, so any bug crashes the entire system. As a result, you have to spend far more time finding and fixing bugs.

Since headless architecture also lets you split your development team, you can also have multiple teams working in parallel on different sections of your website. This speeds up the process of updating your site.

Issues with performance

The more code a site has to run to perform a function, the slower its performance. If it needs to run every backend operation when a customer clicks a button, the frontend will respond slowly, worsening the visitor experience and encouraging cart abandonment.

This also means that a bug in the backend could crash the website, preventing customers from interacting with the frontend to perform any action. In ecommerce, where you always try to remove friction in the customer journey, downtime is a big problem, even for a giant like Amazon, which lost up to $100 million in sales when its site crashed for an hour in 2018.

An omnichannel experience is also nearly impossible to maintain with traditional architecture, since each channel has its own unique system. As a result, different platforms have different data and information, hurting consistency across channels. For instance, if a customer adds an item to their cart on their phone, it won't be in their cart on their laptop.

Inability to perform continuous tests

Continuous testing is a process of automating tests so you can quickly get a lot of feedback on different parts of your site. You can use this larger amount of data to get better error detection and resolution, fewer disruptions for your business and a better customer experience.

With monolithic architecture, each test takes far longer to run because it has to go through both frontend and backend processes. Code from the frontend could also interfere with tests on the backend and vice versa, affecting your results.

You can't have individual teams working on different parts of the code at the same time. Instead, you have to run tests on each operation sequentially. If your tests on one operation required a change in code, you'll need to re-run the tests you already performed to make sure that your changes didn't affect those sections.

How can headless ecommerce functionalities impact marketing effectiveness?

Marketing an ecommerce site with a monolithic model is difficult. You have to watch new competitors pop up with the newest software, which you know your own site can't truly take advantage of because something new will be out by the time the update is complete. Headless eCommerce creates new possibilities for marketing teams, letting them leverage eCommerce assets in a way they couldn't previously.

For instance, if you want to explore launching a mini-site or another storefront to run a new product line or spin-off, you just need to connect a new frontend skeleton to your headless platform. Your APIs provide it with all the product information, accounts and order information necessary, drastically reducing the time needed to prepare for market.

This speed can raise your ROI, since you can catch trends before competitors who are still using traditional ecommerce platforms. You even have the flexibility to use any CMS you want, so you can offer the best customer experience possible even if your main site's CMS can't meet your expectations for design.

You can also use APIs to collect customer data, so you don't need to keep requesting it from your CMS or hire a third party to track it. That way, developers can easily integrate new APIs, systems and applications that gather data and even analyze it to help you improve your processes in areas like:

  • Inventory management
  • Resource planning
  • Customer management

Headless architecture also future-proofs your code. Otherwise, you could run into a situation where your CMS rolls out new features but upgrading to get access to them would break your code. Instead of trying to update your frontend and backend simultaneously, you can upgrade your system and just fix the frontend, incorporating the features you wanted.

More importantly, as you scale and outgrow your platform, you don't need to rebuild your entire ecommerce architecture to switch to a new platform. This gives you the freedom to seek out whatever platform best suits your business so you can access more performance metrics and other marketing data that will speed up your business growth.

You can also avoid getting stuck with built-in CMSs that restrict you to preset frontend themes and templates that hinder your brand's individual look and creative messaging. Instead, you can find the perfect CMS for your brand image and integrate it with your ecommerce architecture.

Finally, you can overcome the challenge of managing hidden costs that come from expenses like:

  • Website add-ons
  • Platform purchases and upgrades
  • Vendor systems
  • Licensing
  • Hosting
  • System support

Because the frontend and backend are separate, you can see the impact of every feature you use more clearly. This means you can identify the ones that help significantly, along with the ones you hardly use. This helps you plan your budgets more accurately.

Find the ecommerce solution that works for your business

Moving to a headless ecommerce platform gives you access to a lot of flexibility that can give your business a huge edge — if you know how to make the most of that flexibility. There are many APIs available that could be useful, and there will be even more by tomorrow. It can feel overwhelming to try to sort through all of them to find the ones that will help your brand the most.

So, if you want help from experts who can help you build and design an ecommerce platform that your customers will love, book a demo with Cart.com. Our team of ecommerce advisors can't wait to help you figure out what your business needs to excel. We can help you create API endpoints, increase call limits and even develop applications that will communicate with your preferred network.

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