A Modular Approach to Unified Commerce: Why Retailers are Turning to Headless Commerce Technology Enhancements

A Modular Approach to Unified Commerce: Why Retailers are Turning to Headless Commerce Technology Enhancements


headless commerce

With the never-ending speed of technical innovations and ever-increasing demands of today’s consumers, retailers are in a state of constant evolution. From end-to-end integrated solutions, to last mile delivery speed, to incorporating Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning (AI/ML) to nearly every aspect of the business, brands are looking for ways to enhance their platforms and processes without having to reinvent the proverbial wheel every few years.  This is where a more modular approach to digital transformation comes into consideration. Should you start over and completely re-platform or gradually scale with tech stack building blocks? The goal is the same, achieving a consumer-centric unified commerce retail experience.

Unified Commerce has been defined as a customer first, centralized retail platform connecting and uniting all backend commerce solutions and consumer engagement touchpoints that form a single source of transactional truth, which are completely and seamlessly unified. But, like most things, progress is not a linear path. Rather, it is composed of short-term goals and solutions that address those goals, often resulting in a less than perfect incomplete series of separate or siloed systems.

With the pandemic-driven need for speed, retailers raced to solve for incongruent and disparate solutions to connect all aspects of their commerce for efficiency, visibility, and accuracy across retail systems, inventory planning, order and fulfillment management and other aspects of the product supply chain and the consumer funnel. These needs, coupled with the need to align all channels of commerce from ecommerce, brick & mortar, social commerce, re-commerce, marketplace, wholesale and even emerging dimensional commerce, are leaving retailers with more needs than solutions.  Here is where a headless approach to building and executing your Unified Commerce strategy might be an option.

The Headless Approach to Unified Commerce

Headless commerce refers to a type of ecommerce architecture in which the front-end user interface (UI) is decoupled from the back-end infrastructure. In a headless commerce system, the UI is treated as a separate layer that can be customized and integrated with other applications, while the back-end infrastructure handles the underlying functions such as product catalog management, order processing, and payment processing. This allows businesses to create a flexible and customizable shopping experience that can be adapted to different devices and channels.

Headless interfaces can operate independently which allows for faster development, integration, feature release, speed to market functionalities and features. Developers can run microservices and APIs to connect and deliver products and contents on the back-end while the front-end developers can work with the relevant teams to package that feature and functionality for the end user customers. Headless commerce features allow you to sell on various devices for a true Unified Commerce experience per customer preferences.

Why is this all relevant now? Customer journey in ecommerce used to be a simple and linear transactional experience but over time it has evolved with rich features and functionalities. Customers want to read reviews, browse other options, see product recommendations for similar products, expect faster search results and faster checkout process without filling in various forms and screens for their personal information to name a few options. Merchants will not stay competitive if they lack some or most of these features in the shopping portal and devices. This is where headless commerce may provide an advantage over full stack or hybrid commerce options.

Benefits of Headless Commerce

  • Better Customization: Retail sites can run some cool features with out-of-box or customized API integrations instead of developing new solutions from scratch.
  • Unified Experience and Opportunities: Customers can shop on various devices, platforms or browsers and have a unified experience. IT offers great opportunities for cross selling and marketing other products and services based upon customer preferences.
  • Better Customer Experience: Cart abandonment is a situation that every retailer likes to avoid whenever possible. Headless allows customers to pick up where they left off and complete the transaction.
  • Better Scaling: When a solution is decoupled between the front-end and back-end, it is relatively easier to scale to meet the growing business needs. When it is a complex and single solution, it could take longer or require a heavier investment to upgrade or scale the entire solution.
  • Multi-Currency and Multi Language Support: For marketing products across regions and countries, one can customize the customer experience based upon their language selection and options to pay in different currencies. One of the easiest comparisons would be the option to pay in CAD or USD for Canadian customers and with the option for sites to be loaded in English and/or French.
  • Better Conversion Rates: Customer lifetime value is very critical. A repeat customer is truly a treasure that every retailer dreams of, hence the subscription model or loyalty and rewards programs. A satisfied customer will do your marketing by word of mouth. A dissatisfied customer will negatively impact at least 5 future sales by other potential customers, with issues such as: site was too slow, site would not pull saved credit card information upon checkout, no guest checkout options, not enough checkout method options, checkout time was too long, not enough reviews or ratings on product site to make an informed decision, did not know they sold other products in that same category, etc.

Like anything else, retailers should not dive headfirst into headless. The solution may not be the right fit for everyone and knowing the challenges you might face ahead of time will allow for the best decision to be made.

Challenges of Headless Commerce

Cost of Headless: Headless commerce can ultimately be the best solution to propel a business forward, but, given the circumstances, it may have a higher cost than a single/standalone solution. This is due to possible various integrations, licensing, development, and additional support required to maintain and update those functionalities.

Complexity of Merging Systems: Some organizations have integrations and dependencies on their legacy system framework and are not in position to decouple their front-end and back-end systems easily. There are also version control and incompatibility issues, security vulnerabilities, integrations, separate release cadence, and dedicated software/hardware requirements to consider before pulling the trigger for headless commerce.

Learning Curve on New Technologies: If an organization has a small in-house technology department, then there will always be pressure and expectancy for the bare bones tech team to continue to learn the new technologies, featured releases, enterprise upgrades and other areas.

Possible Impact on Performance of the Site: One key caution is to assess a site’s page load time to avoid slow page load and site performance issues. A slow shopping experience or checkout process can amount to cart abandonment.

Limits on Integration with Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery CI/CD for Automation and Release Management: If an organization is technically mature and using the automation tools for build and release management (DevOps, CI/CD automation), then it will become more time consuming and complex to ensure that they have the right configurations in place to have the latest and greatest code and features in the production environment.

Dependency on Limitations of Agency of Records (AOR) Expertise: If a retailer has hired a digital agency to take care of their development work for front-end, back-end and middleware integrations, they will have to ensure that they have expertise in all areas of the retail technology and can work with out-of-the-box or customized integrations. If they are a full stack development agency and have experience working on a single platform, then it will be a difficult task for a single agency as Agency of Record (AOR) to manage. Instead, the need to hire multiple agencies may surface which then requires collaborating expertise and coordinating teams to align with enterprise goals.

Is headless the right solution for every retailer?

Considering all of these benefits and challenges, every retailer should assess the best solution for their unique needs. Headless offers a lot of flexibility but does require more involvement from IT teams to ensure proper integration with custom coding and API interfaces. Framework or configurable solutions may also provide a way forward but should be evaluated for costs, complexity and cultural systems adoption.

However, there are headless solutions that remove some of the burden of managing integrations such as those that contain pre-built integrations, workflows, and processes — allowing for quicker time to market and greater flexibility.

Regardless of solutions, the key to success in Unified Commerce is to clearly define a roadmap based on business needs and intended outcomes. Being diligent in sourcing experienced partners and providers is equally critical. Once there is a vision and an aligned team who can facilitate the journey, a retailer should look for Minimum Viable Product and Exceptional Viable Product (MVP & EVP) milestones and not just end deliverables. Building and evolving most viable product solutions allows for more agility and pauses to test/measure/assess and elevate in order to scale with limited disruption and minimal impact to the business and ultimately, the consumer.

Columbus Consulting

About Columbus Consulting

Columbus Consulting delivers solutions that drive true value and have been transforming the retail and CPG industries for over two decades. We are a boutique retail consulting company of industry experts.  Our approach is simple, if you do it, we do it. We are more than consultants; we are experienced practitioners who actually sat in our clients’ seats. We understand the challenges, know what questions to ask and deliver the right solutions.  Columbus offers a unique, consumer-centric approach with an end-to-end perspective that bridges functional & organization silos from strategy to execution. Our specialties include: unified commerce, merchandising & category management, planning & inventory management, data & analytics, sourcing & supply chain, finance & operations, people & organization and information technology.

Utilizing consultants like Columbus Consulting can provide immediate expertise and support to help you build a connected commerce model. In selecting a consulting partner, make sure they have practical retail experience and can assist you from assessment and strategy through implementation and training. Unified commerce consultants should be able to define, deliver and guide systems selections. They need to be able to create IT roadmaps, manage data inputs and configure a connected platform. They should also be able to integrate store systems and mobile devices. Finally, the right consulting partner will be able to work within your organization like members of your team to impact process and change management from the inside, and provide cross functional training and facilitation.

Let us know how we can help you.  To learn more, visit COLUMBUSCONSULTING.COM

Waleed AbbasAbout Waleed Abbas

Waleed is a Technology Executive and Management Consultant.  He has performed technology &  infrastructure management, capacity planning, resource management, vendor management and enterprise architectural audits for efficiencies in integration, data flow & continued process improvements for current and future state gap analysis and roadmap. Waleed has managed resource teams of cloud architects, infrastructure engineers, dev ops, QA, security & application developers. He has global experience managing a world class Tier 1 & 2 infrastructure operations & incident management teams covering systems, infrastructure, and applications support model in 19 countries with 11+ agency partners. Waleed has managed implementations of PIM, CMS/DAM, eCommerce platforms, vendor management, asset management (hardware, software license tracking), contract negotiations for SOWs and Change Orders, Support Agreements, SLA (Service Level Agreements) for enterprise-wide support, upgrades and migrations in various organizations.

Katrina MossmanAbout Katrina Mossman
Katrina is a Managing Partner at Columbus Consulting. She has been consulting for retail clients with Columbus and worked for retail companies for 25+ years. Her responsibilities have included: executive leadership, large-scale program transformation, business and IT strategic analysis, roadmap development, interim leadership, business solution selection, process improvements, system design, Unified Commerce, Digital Transformation, OMS, Ecommerce, CRM, CDP ERP, WMS, Data and Analytics, Infrastructure and Security, HCM (HR/PR), Finance. Katrina has managed, led and provided oversight in the assessment, selection and implementation of Ecommerce, OMS, PIM, DAM, Loyalty, CDP, CRM and other key components of the Unified Commerce Experience.