Headless commerce is a technology approach that decouples the front-end presentation layer—your digital storefront—from the back-end transaction layer which houses your product data, customer information, and functionality.
Headless commerce architecture is growing in popularity with retailers of all sizes because of its flexibility, scalability, and the freedom it gives developers and marketers. Headless eCommerce lets you easily expand beyond the confines of your website, linking your entire commerce ecosystem together using one platform.
But migrating from a traditional monolithic legacy eCommerce system to a headless platform can seem overwhelming. While making the switch can help you deliver truly exceptional omnichannel experiences, there are a few boxes you’ll need to check before making the move. So, is it the right time to make the switch?
Below, we provide a brief overview of the headless, hybrid, and traditional commerce models, share some benefits of going headless, including a few real-life stories of retailers who’ve found success, and give you a short list of things to consider before making the final decision to go headless.
The headless commerce model
Before removing the head from your eCommerce platform, it’s helpful to understand the fundamental differences between the three main platform approaches: monolithic, headless, and hybrid.
- Monolithic commerce: With a monolithic or “traditional” eCommerce approach, the front-end and back-end functionality of your storefront are housed within the same platform. This limits developers to a single vendor which, among other things, makes it difficult to add new capabilities, channels, and features.
- Headless commerce: As noted above, headless architecture separates the front-end presentation layer (e.g., what your customers see/use) from the back-end functionality and data layers. Headless platforms use API-first architecture and microservices, giving developers flexibility with the programming environment and enabling retailers to build highly customized shopping experiences.
- Hybrid commerce: Fully headless solutions can be daunting to implement and maintain while monolithic platforms are outdated and inflexible. The answer for many retailers is a hybrid or “modular” approach which combines a headless front-end with built-in CMS functionality. Hybrid headless platforms (like Kibo’s Headless eCommerce), allow retailers to embrace a headless commerce strategy without having to rebuild their entire website.
There are some distinct benefits of the headless hybrid commerce approach that are leading to increased adoption among retailers. They are:
Easy customization with minimal down time
Developers can upgrade website functionality with minimal interruption to functionality and/or downtime. They also have the freedom and flexibility to expand to new digital channels and work within their preferred programming environment.
Deliver better omnichannel experiences
With the hybrid headless approach, marketers and non-technical users can create content and experiences independently from developers. This reduces the time involved in making messaging changes or launching new campaigns since updating content isn’t dependent on developers.
Scale and innovate with microservices
Perhaps the top benefit of the headless versus monolithic approach is that you can customize your commerce experience much more easily. That translates to adding more channels, features, fulfillment options, and payment choices for customers.
Headless commerce in the wild
Candy maker Jelly Belly was using a homegrown eCommerce system that worked well—at first. But over time it became difficult to scale across different touchpoints and audiences. Namely, they needed their site to work seamlessly on mobile devices and with both B2B and B2C audiences.
They migrated from the old monolithic system to Kibo Headless eCommerce platform. This freed up developer time which had been spent maintaining and hosting their internal system and allowed their IT team to focus on building a more responsive mobile experience.
Jelly Belly can now launch multiple websites from one account, easily make routine updates to their product catalog, and layer in promotions, content, and experiences as needed. Since switching to a headless commerce approach, Jelly Belly’s website is 2X faster. They’ve increased sales by 300% and—as an added bonus—their eBusiness team is very happy.
Who should go headless?
There’s a right time and place to lose your head, but it’s safe to say that the current retail landscape suggests that the time is now.
Enterprise companies and SMBs that benefit from a modular headless approach share a few characteristics. You should consider going headless if:
- You need to innovate quickly: Rigid technology can hamper your ability to innovate quickly, which is why fashion retailer Laura Canada ultimately migrated from its traditional platform to a headless solution. Laura Canada worked with Kibo to create a flexible order management system that allowed them to turn their stores into warehouses, fulfillment, and distribution centers during the COVID-19 pandemic then back into physical stores when people began in-person shopping again.
- Your developers need (or want) more flexibility: Monolithic platforms lock developers into one programming language or framework. Headless, on the other hand, gives developers the freedom to work with the framework and language they prefer. The headless commerce approach allowed Sun & Ski Sports, a sporting goods retailer, to integrate third-party tools into their eCommerce platform. They customized their online shopping experience, creating a modern eCommerce website that led to 15% annual growth in online revenue.
- You plan to scale rapidly: If your goal is to scale quickly, then headless technology is an essential tool. Headless commerce technology lets you speed up time-to-market because it’s so flexible. API-driven microservices mean that you can adjust to shopper preferences on the fly. This is exactly what Boscov’s, the oldest family-owned department store, did when they wanted to meet their customers’ demand for more flexible online order fulfillment. Boscov’s created a scalable BOPIS platform by integrating Kibo OMS with their own in-house solution, giving customers the ability to pick up their online orders at physical Boscov’s locations.
- You want to improve your website’s performance and speed: Decoupling the front-end from the back-end helps the machinery run more smoothly since integrations and functionality run independently on the backend, causing less lag time on the front end.
- You want to add new shopping channels: Adding new touchpoints for your customers is an important way to improve the omnichannel shopping experience. It also helps you reach new audiences and demographics, for example, through mobile apps, social media, augmented and virtual reality and marketplaces. Since headless commerce enables fast, streamlined experiences across all channels and devices, customers get a better unified shopping experience with your brand (see the Jelly Belly example, above).
The companies used in the above examples share some common characteristics which can help you understand if headless commerce is right for you. They typically sell through many channels, seek to create seamless omnichannel experiences, have a desire (or need) to scale their commerce capabilities quickly, and want to give their development/IT teams more flexibility with adding back-end functionality and features.
“With consumers’ expectations constantly shifting, headless commerce gives companies the flexibility to not only meet their demands, but also be ahead of trends, implement ideas quickly and enrich the customer experience overall.”
Shane Tilley for Retail Touchpoints
Are you ready to build a headless commerce solution?
When making the decision to build a headless commerce solution, we recommend using the following 4-step approach.
- Understand the requirements: Create a list of fixed and ongoing costs, estimated time to implementation and have a sound understanding of any added complexities such as the need to re-platform. Make sure you account for what a shift in culture from traditional commerce technology to a headless approach entails.
- List must-have criteria for the new technology: This includes supported integrations, functionality (e.g., built-in CMS, API-first, etc.), customer support, and pricing. It can be helpful to prepare a use case specific to your company to give to vendors so they can create a custom demo tailored to your needs.
- List your requirements for the transition: Map out staffing and technology needs, research platforms and approaches that address those needs, assess and/or procure resources (e.g., developers, external consultants, etc).
- Decide how fast you want to move: Some companies are ready to re-platform all at once and others want to migrate to a new solution more slowly (we call this the crawl, walk, run approach to headless commerce). This step helps you understand where you’re at with your existing commerce technology so you can create a strategy to move forward.
Moving forward with headless commerce
From a retail technology perspective, there’s never been a better time to meet shoppers where they are in the moment—online, offline, or somewhere in between. Consumers want options when it comes to fulfillment, shopping channels, experiences, and payment choices.
According to a recent NRF/IBM survey of over 19,000 consumers in 28 countries, physical stores are no longer the default, though over 70% of consumers cite stores as their primary buying channel.
Headless commerce technology gives retailers the agility they need to easily scale and deliver great shopping experiences across multiple channels. Kibo Headless eCommerce platform, built on an API-first microservices-based architecture, has the advantage of headless coupled with the usability of an intuitive site builder.
This makes it easy to modify your website’s layout and create new content quickly—no need to build a front end from scratch. Contact us to learn more about our API-first headless approach or speak with a headless commerce specialist to learn how you can get started with implementation.
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