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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 website.  

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 sense.

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 commerce.

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 anywhere.

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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