Headless Commerce: An Intro For The Uninitiated

By Travis Balinas, Director of Product Marketing at BigCommerce

When it comes to the retail industry, experts
spend a lot of time talking about the current shiny object, be it the
ever-growing contingent of digitally native vertical brands – better known as
DNVBs – poised to win the hearts and minds of today’s shopper, the increasing
dominance of Amazon or the more than 16 legacy retailers that have shuttered
their doors this year alone. In retail, we’re trained to spot the industry game
changers; yet we seem blind to a single opportunity that is becoming
increasingly important for today’s digitally-minded merchant: the retail tech
stack. It’s a far less sexy conversation, but one that has the potential to
have far greater impact on the experience shoppers have on a brand’s

As the preferences of today’s modern consumer
have evolved, so too has a brand’s website, morphing from a pure informational
resource to a channel for purchase to a brand experience to where we are today:
experience-driven brands that differentiate through the thoughtful use of
content and commerce. Yet, despite consumers making it clear that all three
aspects are equally important to the holistic site experience, there continues
to be disagreement amongst internal retail stakeholders around which site
purpose should take priority, and as a result, what tech stack makes the most

The result?

We see back-end tools that don’t align with
the actual business needs – a flourishing ecommerce business whose growth is
stymied by an inflexible and unscalable content management system; a business
that sees hockey stick growth through their ecommerce platform, but struggles
to create the content-first experience so representative of the brand ethos.
Time and time again, merchants find themselves choosing between an “either-or”
scenario where, in the end, no one wins.

And therein lies the beauty of headless

At its core, headless commerce refers to the
separation of the front-end customer experience with the back-end commerce
engine. The resulting combination is the best of both worlds for a retailer’s
competing internal stakeholders, as it gives web designers and marketers the
powerful content tools they want, while still providing developers and
ecommerce managers the powerful commerce tools they want and need to scale their business effectively. Put simply,
headless commerce allows brands to create uber-personalized ecommerce site
experiences that appeal to the modern-day shopper.

Headless commerce is still very much in its
infancy, but already, we’re seeing implementations that have very real
implications for the future of the commerce industry. For example, earlier this
month, BigCommerce launched a new WordPress plugin
that makes it possible for companies that have already built a site on
WordPress’ CMS to bring in commerce at scale without any negative impact on the
speed or performance of the existing website.

We’ve even seen examples of merchants who
forego a CMS altogether, instead opting to build their storefront with React
and leverage BigCommerce’s APIs to run commerce in the background. Through
headless commerce, merchants can get all the benefits of running a robust
ecommerce engine while prioritizing the content-rich experience offered by
WordPress. And consumers just plain win.

While the BigCommerce for WordPress showcases
one use case for headless commerce, its potential extends far beyond a single
connection between ecommerce platform and CMS. Headless commerce gives
retailers and their developers the APIs, SDKs and developer tools needed to
bring commerce into any content-driver experience, and in fact, Gartner predicts that 25% of
leading online sellers will have enabled first-generation “commerce that comes
to you” capabilities by 2020, meaning that the commerce experience can live

There are some enterprise solution providers
(like Skava and Moltin) enabling headless capabilities through a slightly
different model that leans heavily on microservices to deliver very
sophisticated (and costly) build-your-own systems and online stores. Though
there’s a distinct difference in approach and mechanics (and often pricetag),
both flavors of headless achieve the ultimate goal of infusing commerce
capabilities in a way that empowers retailers to create content-forward
experiences for their customers while covering priorities like security, fraud
management, PCI compliance and inventory management.

At the end of the day, the goal of any
merchant is to create an experience that facilities a positive brand
interaction. Consumers desire efficiency, and they increasingly prefer
something that feels special. Connecting the dots between all these disparate
touchpoints, be it in store, online or through another avenue entirely, helps
provide that unique experience to consumers. Not to mention, consumer
preferences and trends change faster than mission critical systems can respond
to, so having a flexible system built for the curveballs of the future help you
be more agile as a business, without having to worry about completely
overhauling large portions of your tech stack regularly. Now, it’s up to
merchants to embrace headless commerce and the potential it offers before being
left behind.

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