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Why are more online retailers taking an API-first approach?


While digital transformation has been among retailers’ top business imperatives for a number of years, the pandemic and the market forces that accompanied it have sent this imperative into overdrive. Online retailers in particular have been swept up in something McKinsey now refers to as The Quickening, where e-commerce penetration saw ten years’ worth of growth in the space of 90 days. More than 75% of consumers tried different online stores, websites and brands during the crisis, creating incredible opportunities for brands both old and new to gain a stronger foothold in the world of e-commerce. 

These gains are not so easily won. Rapid digital transformation relies on a company’s ability to “package” its services into modular pieces of software that are easy to deploy, access and leverage as the situation demands. This approach, commonly adopted as part of a broader headless commerce or microservices strategy, allows businesses more freedom to manoeuvre and keep pace with consumer expectations. Rather than have each service siloed, housed stubbornly within its own immovable system, services can instead be liberated and moved around, interoperating with other in-house or third-party services to create useful, cost-effective synergies. 

APIs are what make these synergies possible, and in this article, we’ll explore why an increasing number of e-commerce businesses are choosing to take an API-first approach to digital transformation - and why you probably should too. 

What is an API exactly, and why are you hearing about them everywhere?  

APIs certainly aren’t new. They’ve been around for decades in one form or another, bridging the gap between different applications. Tightly coupled APIs are what traditionally allows one application to talk to another application, creating a sort of monolithic ‘beast’ of interlinked apps and services. Web APIs, which is what we’re talking about in this article, have a fundamentally different approach to them. While traditional APIs are tightly coupled, or bound closely to the applications they’re designed to work with, Web APIs are loosely coupled, allowing developers to take a more modular approach to software design. 

What’s more, Web APIs tend to be written in XML or JSON, freeing them from the underlying programming language used and allowing them to bridge the gap between a wider range of applications, even legacy ones. Put simply, modern Web APIs make the incompatible, compatible. 

What do we mean by an API-first approach? 

The vast majority of software that’s used by businesses today is cloud-based and accessed through a web browser of choice. It’s a wholly packaged solution that’s ready off-the-digital-shelf for businesses to purchase and use. A lot of these software providers might add APIs to their platform that enable automation or integration with other software or services, but access to the underlying function of the software tends to be quite limited. 

An API-first approach spins this idea into reverse. Instead of creating pre-built software solutions for a specific use case and then “patching it” with APIs to broaden and prolong its usefulness, API-first development puts APIs ahead of implementation. With this approach, APIs are “first-class citizens” and everything about the software’s development revolves around the idea that it will need to be interoperable with mobile devices and other client applications. In other words, it’s technology’s response to increasing demand for a true omnichannel e-commerce experience. 

What are the benefits of an API-first approach?

APIs are the backbone of digital business ecosystems that span developers, third-party partners and customers - in other words, just about all businesses in 2021. So is it any wonder the API-first approach is gaining so much traction? Let’s briefly run through some of the primary benefits:

  • Parallel development

Thanks to the consolidation of common functionality and resources for different application platforms at the service layer, different front-ends can be worked on at the same time. For instance, a team of developers could be working on front-ends for smartphones, tablets and desktop in parallel, safe in the knowledge the APIs they eventually need will be there. It also means that front-end developers can work alongside back-end developers, speeding up the development and deployment cycle considerably. 

  • Accelerated time-to-market

An API-first approach speeds up the entire development process, allowing for the re-use of existing components and infrastructure. Once an API has been defined, it’s also much easier to extend and enhance it, adding new features for improved services. 

  • Reduced risk and reduced costs

Systems that are unstable or offer an inconsistent experience are prone to failure, usually because their development and deployment come before APIs are even considered. An API-first approach ensures stability and interoperability from the outset, creating more low-risk situations for businesses that want to develop their own API-driven services. Over time, businesses will develop an ecosystem of APIs that can also reduce labour costs through re-usability and learned coding efficiencies.

  • Create entirely new strategies

Businesses that embrace an API-first approach have far more options on the table than those that don’t. API-first businesses can more readily adopt new applications and processes, and affect how channel partners and suppliers work with them. It also makes it simpler for other companies to do business with an organisation. 

To learn more about an API-first approach to development, and how your retail business can benefit from the transparency, scalability and control it offers, click here or get in touch.