24 Aug 2019

What Is Headless ECommerce?

The world of digital often throws unfamiliar terms that instantly pique your interest. Headless eCommerce (or headless) in general is one of those concepts. That intrigue is probably why you hit the link on this article. One would presume that without a head, something is useless and unthinking. A mad chicken running around without a noggin. But as you will see, headless eCommerce is a clever new approach to online retail that allows for a customised and flexible experience. Yet it's not for everyone. We've unpacked what is it; why you should care; and if it applies to you based on your approach to business.

Sounds terrible. What is headless eCommerce?

To consider what headless eCommerce is we need to consider how the eCommerce solution is traditionally put together. Two sides to the coin - the front and back end of your eCommerce website.

Front end

  • The code that controls the way the interface looks and behaves (the visual, pretty stuff that your customers see).

  • This also includes the ordering platform and potentially the administration system or CMS.

Back end

  • The 'system' aspect of the solution, including the database information, inventory systems, workflow, and hefty integrations. You get the gist.

  • Functions and behaviours you don't technically see, but are critical to keep the cogs working in your eCommerce machine.

Normally within an eCommerce CMS solution - like Shopify, Squarespace, Wix, Magento, xCart and so on - you would find that these two capabilities of front-end and back-end are bundled together. As an admin, you can log into the CMS and edit your content, blogs and products. Your developers have likely integrated your ordering and inventory systems into this platform. And as a user, you would see the pinnacle of this through the website where you review content and make purchases. However with headless eCommerce we 'cut the head off', and keep the body. Or more specifically, we keep the back end and disregard the front end. You're still using your hefty programs to capture orders, database information, integrations and all that jazz. But instead of that same system for the front end, you can use a bespoke system to present your product the way you want. Exactly the way you want. No themes or templates; no styling or design restrictions; just a headless system that you can code to be anything. This extends from just the website into mobile apps, kiosks, smartwatches, Alexa and a smart fridge. In this age of technology, the options are becoming endless and expansive - if you have headless eCommerce in place.

What are the benefits?

Headless eCommerce can overcome a couple of hurdles that traditional eCommerce limits you with.

  1. Customisation - As we've just touched on, traditional eCommerce systems can constrain the behaviour, aesthetics and functionality of the digital experience. Headless eCommerce frees you of these restrictions and expands your reach.

  2. Short-term pain, long-term gain - Developing and maintaining your traditional eCommerce website and its many back-end integrations can lead to a significant overhead as time goes on. You're bound to specific code, integrations and development standards that will eventually age and require ongoing maintenance. By comparison, headless requires an initial upfront cost with limited ongoing fees and much greater flexibility for omnichannel or agile marketing strategies that keep you ahead of the curve

  3. Speed - It's the word on every merchant's lips. Fast sites equal happy customers and higher conversion rates. Loading the front end of the site can be anchored to the performance of the back-end system it is reliant on. By cutting off the head, you are master of your site speed in a way that traditional eCommerce solutions can not compare.

Ultimately, headless eCommerce gives you flexibility and greater capacity to improve and stay relevant over the long term.

What are the drawbacks?

While headless can sound great, there is a reason that solutions like Shopify exist. They save time and give you a good practice solution to common problems. If you are going to go headless, you will need to invest in building the front-end presentation layer from scratch. So the initial time to market may be slower. But once established, you're poised and ready to modify your platforms untethered.

Who uses headless eCommerce?

The implementation of headless eCommerce and CMS's are becoming quite common. In Australia Koala Mattresses is an advocate for headless eCommerce:

"Most companies would kill for our velocity. The speed with which our development team is able to deliver solutions from ideation to production is triple what I’ve seen anywhere else."

Plenty of other well-known eCommerce merchants have jumped aboard the headless train such as Brevill, Impossible Foods, Gibson Guitars and Youfoodz. 

Why you wouldn't use headless eCommerce?

Headless eCommerce is not going to be practical unless you have a relatively sophisticated eCommerce practice already. Headless is not going to be suitable if:

  1. You are a start-up

  2. You are turning over a relatively low volume of sales (<$1m)

  3. You don't have a continuous change-oriented workplace culture

For many, the additional cost doesn't make up for the increased flexibility and ability.

When we recommend headless eCommerce

Headless eCommerce is definitely not for everyone. But we recommend headless for organisations:

  1. In highly competitive industries that require a high change velocity

  2. With an online turnover well into the millions per year

  3. Who prioritise digital speed

  4. Who adopt a truly omnichannel or agile marketing strategy

  5. Who need to remain relevant, innovative and competitive

Tell us what you think! If you would like to talk to us about this article, drop us a line at greg@lamb.com.au.

Greg is the Managing Director of Lamb Agency, a digital agency focused on creating industry-leading websites.

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