Technology

The Ultimate Guide to Headless Commerce - The Future For Digital Sales

Mikko Salokangas
May 5th 2021
The long and short of it… Consumer behavior has changed drastically over the years due to the explosion of eCommerce based businesses. In many areas it’s now possible to order an item and have it arrive at your doorstep in 24 hours or less with a few clicks. This has created a highly competitive, consumer-focused environment among online retailers. With the evolution of on demand delivery, it’s important to make sure your digital eCommerce platform can stay ahead of the curve. One of the most effective ways to do that is to consider headless commerce.
Headless commerce is a term for when the front-end presentation layer (your web or mobile site) is decoupled with the back-end commerce management layer, giving developers the freedom to integrate with any platform through an API. In other words, headless commerce allows businesses to obtain technological and creative freedom. Through headless commerce, retailers will have the ability and flexibility to experiment with new functionalities to enhance overall customer experience and drive more sales, all in real time.
What is Headless Commerce Architecture? The front-end, or “head” of a traditional eCommerce platform is the user interface - what you see on your screen when you open a webpage or application. This is usually intrinsically connected to the back-end, which is the data structure and information stored on the server.
A common example of how the front end and back end work together is when a consumer clicks a button to purchase an item on a website. When the customer clicks the “buy” button, that action must first pass through the front end of the website in order to communicate with the back end.
With traditional commerce architecture, this is done through a predefined front end that is required for consumers to be able to interact with the platform. This means that a traditional eCommerce platform will only work if it is used on a device that supports the front end framework. This leads to a disconnected user experience, as every platform is essentially isolated, with a unique front end and back end.
Essentially, headless commerce architecture disconnects the front end of a commerce website from the back end layer, allowing businesses and developers to use any device or application to deliver their product or service. This is especially important as it is becoming more common for people to place orders in new and alternative ways, such as using audio functions on their phones, digital home assistants, or televisions.
How Headless Commerce Works Headless commerce eliminates the traditional predefined front-end framework, and works by using API calls to pull the necessary elements from the back end. Without the strict framework, this allows for endless customization and the use of non-traditional platforms. We are seeing a sharp increase in platforms that require headless commerce to work, such as buttons to reorder products, as well as devices that exclusively use audio, such as Google Home or Alexa.
The flexibility of headless commerce also means that you are able to not only change and customize the front end of an eCommerce platform more easily, you can also use a single eCommerce backend across multiple platforms and websites.
Headless Commerce vs Traditional Commerce Headless commerce architecture is similar in many ways to traditional commerce, with a few key differences. While the technical aspects of a purchase of a service or product remain, with a headless commerce model the user experience is much more customizable, updates are able to be accomplished faster and easier than before, and the ability to integrate the back end across multiple platforms is now a simple process.
  • Front end updates - With headless commerce architecture, front end updates are able to be done quickly and without affecting the back end. This is a huge advantage over traditional commerce, where front end updates are arduous and can take a significant amount of time.
  • Uncomplicated integration - With traditional commerce models, each platform or website is independently managed, and it can cause a disjointed user experience. With headless commerce architecture, integration becomes seamless, as everything ties into a single, centralized back end.
  • Personalized user experience - Because headless commerce architecture isn’t linked to a rigid front end design and is able to blur the lines between multiple platforms, the user experience is able to be much more customized. Traditional commerce
  • Easier A and B testing - Since the front end experience can be changed without altering the back end at all, headless commerce allows for faster, easier A and B testing. It is simple to create two different user experiences, and track which one is more successful at creating conversions. Traditional commerce, on the other hand, has a much more difficult process for similar tests, since the front end and back end are so intertwined.
  • Ability to scale - The ability to scale quickly is another reason why many businesses choose a headless commerce model. Because all platforms lead back to a centralized back end framework, headless commerce allows brands to scale quickly, and at a much faster rate than a traditional commerce model.
Most large businesses and tech experts agree that utilizing headless architecture will soon be required in eCommerce, in order to keep up with customer demand. It is simply too difficult to create, maintain and update a completely new user interface for every app, device, and platform that is released. The businesses that are adopting headless architecture early are seeing an increase in customer satisfaction, spending, and brand loyalty.
1. Break Free From Cookie-Cutter Templates To Stand Out And Create Brand Recognition With a traditional eCommerce solution, you are often confined to premade templates. Store ‘A’ looks just like Store ‘B’ with a different color palette. Should you choose to design your own template, you are typically restricted by your software vendor's design principles.
A headless solution lifts these constraints, giving you full control over your front end and allowing you to build truly customized user interfaces. Design and build your storefront based on your own design principles. Shape your brand's identity in your own terms to build brand recognition and increase conversion rates. Change your aesthetic in real time, without having to worry about how it will affect your back end.
2. Create New Content To Attract Customers And Retain Returning Customers Headless architecture frees your team to do two things:
  1. Bring your own data (CMS) Because you’re free to use any CMS, you can select one that works best for you. Choosing a CMS that you and your team want to use and enjoy using will maximize productivity. This also means that your team can update and maintain content without impacting backend functionality. When you’re not restricted by the tools that ship with your commerce platform, the possibilities are endless.
  2. Continually innovate and create new content efficiently Because headless architecture decouples your backend platform from your storefront, your team can create and deliver new content without touching the backend. Backend developers aren’t needed when delivering new content. This leads to a workflow that is both efficient and cost effective.
3. Use Headless Commerce To Deliver Personalized Customer Experiences With focus moving from brick and mortar stores to online storefronts, it’s important to be able to build and deliver unique and personalized online shopping experiences.
Since your team isn’t limited to your ecommerce platform’s ecosystem with headless architecture, you can use everything at your disposal to create bespoke customer experiences.
Calling external APIs allows businesses to get impactful information like real time shipping estimates and/or product reviews. It also becomes much easier to generate curated product recommendations. Headless commerce architecture lets companies create an experience that empowers their customers to make informed, confident purchases.
How Urban Armor Gear Went Headless To Evolve Their Online Store
Challenge Urban Armor Gear (UAG), a top international brand for protective device cases, experienced limited capabilities with their previous commerce platform. They continuously experimented and optimized, and saw that with every new feature came increased conversion rates and sales. Eventually, they started to feel the weight of the limitations and constraints imposed by their traditional commerce platform. It was time to evolve.
Solution Vincit was chosen to reimagine and modernize UAG’s online storefront. Without the restrictions of a traditional commerce platform, Vincit was able to increase usability and improve storytelling, brand expression, and performance.
Results Vincit’s team of experts redeveloped a new online platform that is as much branding and marketing as it is a storefront. Customers benefited from a frictionless shopping flow as well as content that is actionable and designed to drive sales. On top of this, the website is quick with improved responsiveness, scaling and reliability.
4. React To Evolving Customer Expectations, Capitalize On Trends And Maximize Profits As customer expectations evolve, you want to be able to innovate without restraints and experiment without fear. Traditional commerce architecture is rigid, and doesn’t allow for real-time updates or experimenting with different user experiences.
You can’t adapt and capitalize on market trends if you’re worried about whether or not your back-end platform can keep up. Headless architecture removes this constraint. With headless commerce, your front end team can continue to create new customer experiences without worrying about your back end.
Being able to quickly and easily A/B test new features and make quantitative assessments allows you to be ahead of the curve. This means improving conversion rates, enhancing performance and maximizing profits.
5. Mix And Match To Use The Best Tools A significant advantage of headless commerce is the ability it brings to mix and match different API-driven solutions to create a tech stack. This is where each tool and technology can be individually chosen to best fit today's business requirements.
A common example of this is giving the creative team and the content creators a state of the art CMS so that they can manage the user experience and the content, while keeping the key eCommerce back-office tasks focused on product inventory management, pricing and shipping in a dedicated eCommerce platform.
Perhaps even more significantly, not being locked into a single monolithic system means that the yet unknown future needs can be met with incremental changes without ever needing to re-platform the whole commerce solution all at once.
6. Future Proof Your Commerce With the headless approach comes the potential to quickly adapt to the changes and disruptions in the tech landscape. Besides being able to take full advantage of new features emerging in web browsers and mobile devices, this at the same time gives developers new, better tools that improve developer experience and productivity.
Using headless commerce with new industry standard technologies means that you don't need to find talent with specialized skill sets, but can tap into a much larger pool of capable developers and partners.
7. Capitalize On The Potential To Improve Site Speed And SEO Performance The impact that the speed of your eCommerce website has on customer experience cannot be overstated. A 2017 study by Akamai found that a mere 100ms latency can hurt conversion rates by 7%, that a 2s delay in web page load time increases bounce rates by 103% and that 53% of mobile users will leave a page that takes longer than 3s to load.
Given these implications, wouldn't you want to break free from limits set by legacy eCommerce solutions? With the headless approach, your development team gains control over the performance. They are able to implement fast and modern solutions that keep even the most impatient customers in your store.
Page speed also is one of Google's page ranking factors and improvements will directly translate into better SEO performance. What about the other important factors that affect page rank such as mobile friendliness, optimized content or links? Once again, headless commerce gives you the flexibility you need to implement beautiful mobile friendly pages and use any SEO strategy you want.
How Does Headless Commerce Support Omnichannel Retail? Omnichannel retail uses a centralized data management system across many platforms and sales channels. This may include brick and mortar stores, websites, apps, social media, among many others. Headless commerce architecture fits this model perfectly, with a centralized back end system that can be used in any number of ways by using API calls rather than a single integrated front end system.
Omnichannel retail is starting to get more attention because retailers noticed that consumers spend more money when they used multiple channels to shop. For instance, someone may notice a product online, but decide to wait before purchasing. Later, they see an advertisement for the same product on social media, and purchase the item, choosing to pick it up in the local brick and mortar store. With traditional retail, this would require several independently managed channels. However, with headless commerce, everything works with a single back-end system, making the experience much more user friendly, as all of the platforms work together seamlessly.
Headless commerce architecture is becoming more and more necessary as eCommerce and retail evolves to keep up with new technologies and customer demand. Brick and mortar stores and various online platforms are also becoming more and more interlinked, so the more that the user experience is able to stay consistent and seamless, the more retailers will be able to blur the lines between online and in-person shopping.
Not only does improving the consumer experience increase the amount of money they spend in each transaction, it also makes it more likely that they will become repeat customers. Headless commerce increases brand loyalty by making it easier for customers throughout the entire shopping experience.
How to Choose a Modern eCommerce Solution There are seemingly endless options when it comes to eCommerce solutions, so it can be difficult to discern which one is the best option for your company. Some established companies shy away from transitioning to a headless commerce architecture because they have already made significant investments into their current, traditional eCommerce platform.
What they may not know is that they are able to keep the aesthetics and functionality of their current front end, while incorporating headless commerce architecture. Since a headless commerce back end can easily be integrated into any system or platform, with an experienced design team, the user experience on the current front end is able to remain the same.
Brands that specialize in retail sales will soon find that headless commerce is essential so that they are able to adapt quickly to an ever-changing market. There is a steady stream of new devices that are implementing retail and advertising tools, and having to develop both a user interface and back end for each platform and piece of equipment that is released is not only costly, it’s an almost impossible task.
However, with any new innovation, there are growing pains. Since headless commerce is still new, troubleshooting and maintaining security can be difficult compared to traditional eCommerce architecture. Traditional platforms have been around so long that their support networks are huge, and new features are rolled out by the platform itself, rather than created by developers employed by retailers. There are also upfront design costs to be considered, which can be significant for small or micro businesses, however these are typically offset fairly quickly by increased returns.
Popular Headless Commerce Platforms to Consider
Shopify Plus Shopify Plus is a platform that many retailers are already familiar with due to their already large user base. Although Shopify is offering headless commerce options, most brands who use Spotify Plus aren’t taking advantage of the benefits of the independent back end, and Shopify hasn’t done a great job of promoting the features that are available.
If you already use Shopify or Shopify Plus, this may be the right option for you, since the transition to headless architecture may be easier for those who are very familiar with the platform. Shopify Plus also has many integrations of its own, which can be helpful when creating a seamless user experience. However, Shopify is new to creating headless architecture, and with that comes technical headaches.
You will lose many of the functionalities that draw businesses to Shopify Plus, should you choose to use the platform to venture into headless commerce architecture. The theme customizer will not work with headless architecture; neither will many of the plugins and applications that create an attractive virtual storefront. Each brand bears not only the responsibility of creating a new front end, but also of keeping their customers’ data safe and secure during checkout.
Another issue to take into consideration is the cost of Shopify Plus. Shopify Plus is not an inexpensive option, with prices starting at $2,000 per month. For small businesses, this is simply not an option, especially when you factor in the cost of your own developers that are needed to create a user interface.
However, despite the cons, Shopify Plus can be a good headless eCommerce option for mid- to large-sized brands. Once the initial framework has been established, the benefits far outweigh the negatives. Headless eCommerce on Shopify Plus gives businesses the ability to completely customize the user experience, store performance, and functionality of their website and brand across all online platforms.
BigCommerce BigCommerce is not as intuitive as Shopify Plus for beginners, but it does have some upsides that are important to think about if you haven’t settled on an eCommerce platform. BigCommerce was built to handle a large volume of API calls from its inception, while Shopify Plus was not. When you begin to look into the features of each platform, it certainly seems as though BigCommerce has been considering the future of eCommerce and how headless architecture would be used, and for Shopify it was more of an afterthought brought on by customer demand.
BigCommerce also made front-end customization a priority, so when there was a push for more platforms to offer headless architecture, they quickly stood out from the crowd. In addition, BigCommerce tends to be less expensive than Shopify Plus, but it also doesn’t have the large, global ecosystem that Shopify has.
Where BigCommerce really shines is in the business to business space. When it comes to B2B, the brand has carved out a niche that is difficult for other platforms to compete with. They also place a heavy emphasis on headless architecture, but because it is not designed to be as user-friendly as Shopify Plus, the system isn’t as intuitive.
BigCommerce is a good choice for businesses that want to focus on headless architecture and are familiar with coding, or have a development team. For scalability, ease of use, and a larger global ecosystem, Shopify Plus is a better choice.
Magento 2 Commerce Magento 2 Commerce got off to a shaky start in its first two years, due to a buggy interface and difficulties faced by retailers. After Magento rectified their performance issues, they were able to grow their platform into an industry leader.
Magento 2 Commerce offers more flexibility than some of their competitors, and like BigCommerce, they have made it a point to focus on features for B2B brands. Since they are an open source platform, Magento also has a large community of users available to answer any questions you may have.
However, Magento 2 Commerce is not an intuitive platform, and requires coding knowledge to be able to understand and use. Since Shopify Plus offers so many native integrations and features, Magento feels cumbersome in comparison. Even though Magento has a robust network of support, because of its steep learning curve and emphasis on B2B it is difficult to compete with Shopify Plus as a headless commerce platform for business to consumer retailers.
How Vincit Can Improve Your User Interface and Refine Your Image If you don’t have a development team, Vincit is able to fill in the gaps to take your company to the next level. Vincit is able to assist with:
  • Brand Identity - Developing a brand’s identity is an art form. Creating or updating a cohesive logo, voice, aesthetic and personality for a company is easier with a team of experts and a fresh perspective.
  • User Experience and Interface Design - For businesses just stepping into headless commerce, or for brands that want to improve their user experience, Vincit offers expert design services.
  • Strategy and Digital Roadmap - Vincit can help businesses define their goals, understand their competition, and create actionable plans that allow them to gain clarity and achieve success.
  • eCommerce Starter Packages - For companies that are just starting out in eCommerce, Vincit offers flexible starter packages to make expertly crafted systems and design more accessible.
  • High Volume eCommerce Retailers - For large and high volume eCommerce retailers, Vincit offers full-service solutions to turn eCommerce stores into beautiful, seamless experiences.
  • Mobile Apps - Headless commerce allows for better mobile app integration. Vincit builds apps for all major smartphone platforms, from quick tasks, to long-term projects.
  • Web Services - Vincit is able to quickly create both prototypes as well as intricate, scalable web services. Vincit has an expert team with the talent and experience to bring nearly any vision to life.
  • Embedded Systems - Specializing in Linux-based systems, Vincit is able to help with embedded systems projects.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) - Vincit employs AI experts who are able to provide assistance with the diverse and challenging projects that involve artificial intelligence.
While headless commerce has a lot of moving parts, the talented Vincit team is able to help with every challenge that this presents, from brand development to digital plans and strategies, to full-service solutions.
A Smart, Personalized Platform For Your Shopper Audience Being able to deliver a memorable customer experience is a huge competitive advantage for your business. By selecting headless commerce architecture, you have the flexibility to create a unique platform for your visitors without the technical and creative restrictions that traditional eCommerce models have.
Contact our experienced Vincit team to learn more about how we can help you strategize and drive sales with a future-proof foundation. Our unique approach at Vincit offers expert advice, state of the art technology solutions and agile teams that produce the best results for your business.

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