Strategy

Headless Commerce: what it is and why it’s growing so fast

Robert Poratti
Robert Poratti December 9, 2020
Headless Commerce: what it is and why it’s growing so fast

Headless commerce is rapidly becoming the go-to approach for businesses to architect their commerce systems and customer experiences. In IDC’s NRF 2020 wrap-up, they stated that “headless commerce” became the top buzzword for commerce technology, and almost all of the vendors were framing solutions under this perspective. But not all headless platforms are created equal and businesses find themselves trying to cut through the marketing jargon to determine if headless is right for them and the difference between headless platforms. 

What is Headless Commerce?

The term “headless commerce” refers to the decoupling of front-end customer experiences from the back-end functions of a commerce platform, like the shopping cart, product catalog, promotions, check-out, and so on. In effect, a headless commerce architecture separates the logical, business-centric layer of a storefront from the content-oriented experience or presentation layer.

This decoupling is achieved by exposing back-end commerce functions and business objects through APIs, enabling both the customer experience and back-end commerce functions to operate and evolve independently of one another. A headless commerce approach gives companies the flexibility to build and manage their commerce experiences through external providers (CMS or DXPs) or other technologies and forms of user interfaces (mobile apps, totems, voice assistance, etc.).

By separating front-end experiences from back-end commerce functions, businesses can create new experiences without impacting existing ones and front-end developers can continuously innovate the customer experience without any dependency on the back-end commerce platform.

Headless technology eliminates the constraints that all-in-one commerce platforms place on organizations with highly templated commerce experiences. Although businesses now have the freedom to realize their own, unique vision for commerce experiences and commerce enable any customer touchpoint, headless commerce does come at a cost.

Is Headless Commerce for everyone?

Although a headless approach gives business tremendous flexibility to build unique experiences, it also comes with developer and technology dependencies that should not be taken lightly. According to Forrester, 84% of firms are at a beginner or intermediate level of digital maturity1, which means they may not be ready to take on the rigors of a 100% headless approach.  

When companies choose to go headless someone will need to create, build, and maintain this new head and account for the management overhead of the entire project. Such things as front-end infrastructure, development environments and tools, cloud-ops, CI/CD pipelines, routing CDN traffic, and building redundancies will need to be top of mind. 

This doesn’t mean that headless is not the right solution for you or there are not viable headless options for organizations that are at a beginner or intermediate level of Forrester’s digital maturity model. It simply means that organizations should clearly understand their business goals, motivations for headless, and align with a headless technology partner that matches their own digital maturity.  

How do Headless Commerce platforms differ from one another?

With the rise in popularity of headless commerce, seemingly every commerce technology provider claims to be headless. However, not all headless commerce platforms are created equal. Let’s look at the different types of headless commerce platforms.

  1. Monolith wrapped in APIs: Many legacy, all-in-one commerce platforms with tightly coupled front and back ends have added APIs to their system and offer a “headless mode”. Since these platforms were not originally architected to be headless, they may carry additional overhead when used in “headless mode” or not fully deliver on the promise and value of headless.
  1. A collection of services: Some providers never intended their solutions to be end-to-end platforms, but instead a collection of services that can be leveraged by sophisticated development teams to build custom commerce solutions and experiences. This DIY approach is typically recommended and reserved for only the digitally mature.
  1. All-in-one SaaS: Multi-tenant SaaS providers that offer end-to-end commerce platforms with pre-built front-end experiences may also offer APIs for headless use cases. These vendors have built their business on platforms with basic commerce capability and store templates that are easy to configure and fast to deploy. Most limit customizations and organizations may find they don’t offer the commerce services and APIs that are critical for their business.

So which approach is right for me?

Delivering platform flexibility can be at odds with speed to market, and achieving an optimal balance of both is needed to succeed.” – Gartner, Composable Commerce Must Be Adopted for the Future of Applications

A 100% headless approach – where every element of every customer experience, or head, is built from scratch, and organizations are required to manage front-end infrastructure – will sacrifice speed for flexibility, and add complexity. However, most organizations don’t want to build everything from scratch and only need to customize specific elements of the customer experience.

Fortunately, for organizations like this, a new breed of headless has emerged. One that simplifies headless and makes it accessible to organizations across the digital maturity spectrum. By combining pre-built front-end components with custom-built elements, organizations can focus on the parts of a customer experience that differentiate and deliver value to the business.

VTEX delivers on the promise of headless technology while achieving the optimal balance between speed and flexibility with the first commerce specialized low-code development platform, VTEX IO. By combining pre-built VTEX commerce services with custom-built elements using VTEX IO, organizations can deliver remarkable customer experiences faster and simplify headless commerce for their business.

To learn more about VTEX IO, the world’s first commerce specialized low-code development platform, read our whitepaper: Headless Fatigue – the rise of the Composable Enterprise.

  1. How To Derisk Your Commerce Replatform, Joe Cicman, Senior Analyst, Digital Transformation, February 6, 2020

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