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It's hard to imagine a time before online storefronts, mobile commerce, and the ability to transact from nearly any device anywhere. But the reality is, many of these commerce conveniences we know and love are semi-new.

A brief history lesson shows that commerce, like customer expectations, evolves fast. From the launch of e-commerce sites and digital payment methods in the early 2000s, to mobile commerce comprising more than 10 percent of US retail sales by 2025, to the introduction of social commerce capabilities through sites like Facebook and Instagram, commerce has changed dramatically in the last two decades.

Looking ahead, many organizations are exploring how unified commerce, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and automation can help personalize shopping experiences, optimize pricing structures, enhance customer service and build operational intelligence.

To thrive long-term and ensure business success, e-commerce and customer experience (CX) leaders must be able to quickly respond to ever-changing commerce trends, market demands and technologies. This requires a flexible headless commerce architecture that supports and fosters innovative experiences.

In this article, we define headless commerce and discuss how it can help leaders drive growth, deliver a fresh CX and be prepared for what's next.

What is headless commerce?

A headless commerce architecture separates the front end (the head) from the back end of an organization's e-commerce application and supporting systems to offer increased flexibility, agility and personalization. It is a key component of a holistic unified commerce strategy.

The front end of an e-commerce application consists of all the customer-facing components of a storefront, such as an organization's website, mobile applications, self-service kiosks, in-store tablets, wearables and more. The back end consists of behind-the-scenes systems, processes and technologies that enable operations and process transactions, such as inventory management, payment information, orders, carts, etc.

A headless commerce architecture allows teams to make changes to these two layers independently of each other through an API middle layer that connects to all microservices and digital experience management tools. For example, if IT wants to switch payment processing solutions, they can do so without having to rebuild the entire website.

The modular nature of a headless commerce architecture gives organizations the freedom to build experiences exactly how they want using best-of-breed tools and platforms.

Headless commerce versus traditional commerce

The key difference between headless commerce and traditional, monolithic commerce architectures is the separation of the front end and back end. Whereas a traditional, monolithic commerce architecture binds the two layers together, headless commerce separates them into two distinct components for greater personalization and customization through a decoupled architecture.

Traditional commerce is typically faster to implement but provides leaders with less flexibility, making it harder to scale and provide personalized experiences. This can make it difficult for organizations to grow, scale and evolve to meet their customers' needs.

On the other hand, headless commerce requires more intensive architectural planning, content planning, upfront development and deeper technical capabilities. The pay-off is that organizations can build fresh experiences that exceed customer expectations and make changes on the fly without causing massive disruptions. They also get a solution that can scale and adapt to growth at the pace of the business while maintaining the ability to easily swap out infrastructure components as needed without affecting the entire e-commerce stack.

Headless commerce benefits

There are many ways a headless commerce architecture can help organizations differentiate themselves and stand out in the market. Key benefits include:

  • Increased flexibility and agility: Respond to market changes by rapidly launching new web designs, features and experiences with minimal impact.
  • Better scalability: Easily upscale, upgrade or replace back-end platforms and technologies to support business growth and enhance performance, including increased site speed.
  • Time and cost savings: Empower web development, marketing and CX teams with best-in-class, intuitive platforms that enable seamless collaboration and reduce deployment time and labor costs.
  • Personalized customer experiences: Tailor digital experiences based on customer segment and channel to deliver the right content, recommendations and promotions to the right person at the right time and increase conversion rates.
  • Ability to enable seamless omnichannel: Leveraging APIs and microservices, organizations can push consistent digital experiences across channels in one fell swoop instead of designing separate experiences for each channel.

Headless commerce in action 

World Wide Technology (WWT) has designed, executed and optimized headless commerce architectures for clients across industries, from retail to banking to healthcare.

A great example of a successful headless commerce implementation is our work with Schnucks Markets, one of the largest Midwestern grocery chains. We helped Schnucks develop and execute a digital strategy that included a headless commerce architecture, mobile application and rewards program to enable frictionless customer experiences and drive loyalty and personalization.

We designed Schnucks' headless commerce architecture to meet their needs today while giving them a foundation on which they can continuously add new e-commerce, analytics and personalization functionality as the expectations of their customers evolve. This has resulted in:

  • Increased loyalty: Rewards customers are more engaged and spend more than non-rewards members.
  • Optimized shopping carts: The grocer can deliver relevant content, products and savings to the right shopper at the right time and place, enabling a more efficient experience and driving shoppers to deals and higher-margin products.
  • Accelerated digital growth: Consistent, intuitive digital experiences across web, mobile and in-store channels have yielded more valuable interactions and engagement with customers.
Interested in how we helped Schnucks achieve these outcomes? Read full story 

Headless commerce best practices 

A successful headless commerce implementation requires organizational alignment, deep technical expertise, architectural planning, data strategy and insight into your customers' needs. By adopting these best practices, e-commerce leaders can ensure a smooth migration from traditional commerce to headless commerce.

Understand your "why" 

It can be tempting to jump straight to selecting specific solutions, tools and platforms for each area of your headless commerce architecture. But before doing so, it's worth taking time to understand the challenges you're looking for headless commerce to solve.

Do you need to offer a more customized and personalized CX? Are you trying to gain operational efficiency or reduce the time-to-market of new features and services? Are you planning to expand into new digital channels and want to ensure a consistent omnichannel experience?

Whatever your challenges and goals may be, identify them early on. This will help you determine where investments should be made and build alignment across the organization so everyone understands why specific tools are selected.

Align headless commerce platforms and tools to key outcomes

From e-commerce platforms to content management systems (CMS) to front-end framework tools, the possibilities are endless when it comes to building your headless commerce architecture.

Using your organization's desired outcomes and business requirements as your "North Star," you can narrow your search from thousands of solution options to a handful of platforms and tools that can meet your needs.

In addition to costs and security requirements, be sure to explore the solution's customization options, integration capabilities, developer experiences and resources, omnichannel support, and analytics and reporting capabilities. These are just some of the factors that can make or break your ability to achieve key business outcomes.

Create a detailed roadmap for migration

Plan, plan, plan. Transitioning from traditional commerce to headless commerce is a big transformation with several small-yet-critical steps along the way.

Being prepared for each step of the journey and anticipating potential obstacles along the way can save significant time, costs and resources. Leveraging a partner like WWT, with extensive experience designing and implementing headless commerce architectures, can help you avoid major delays and disruptions.

We recommend developing a detailed roadmap with current- and future-state technical diagrams and operational workflows to ensure a clear path forward.

Get started today with headless commerce

A headless commerce architecture can unlock a treasure chest of opportunity when it comes to delivering a fresh CX. The ability to pivot, innovate and adapt quickly to evolving market conditions and customer needs is critical to winning in today's competitive market. Headless commerce is one way that leaders can increase agility and deliver the brand experiences their customers expect.

But leaders beware: Headless commerce should not be built in a vacuum. To be successful, it's important to understand how your headless commerce architecture will fit into a broader unified commerce strategy. This requires alignment and coordination among teams and technologies to get the most out of your investments and CX.

From strategy through execution, we can help you adopt the best practices discussed above and guide you on your journey to a headless commerce architecture and unified commerce strategy.

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