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The Definitive Guide to Headless Commerce

Headless commerce is changing the way companies run e-commerce. With technology rapidly changing the way people shop, companies are forced to adapt while still providing a seamless customer experience. Monolithic architecture is quickly becoming an archaic technology, limiting innovation scalability. But what is headless commerce and how can it help your business transform? First, let’s learn the history of e-commerce and how headless commerce has changed the way companies build their technology.  


The earliest recorded instance of what we now refer to as e-commerce took place in 1979, when an entrepreneur connected a television to a real-time transaction processing computer via a modified telephone line. It would be a quarter of a century before true e-commerce was made viable thanks to the internet, and the rest is history. Today, more than a third of the world’s population choose to shop almost exclusively online; a figure that’s only likely to increase over the coming decade. 

Innovation, however, never stops. The gradual move to e-commerce, ramped up in recent years, is merely laying the groundwork for what’s to follow. The conversation has already moved on from basic e-commerce and monolithic architecture to API-driven multi-touchpoint experiences. Today’s market is one that’s fueled by consumer demand and expectation, and no technological blueprint comes closer to meeting those expectations than headless commerce.  

In this article, we’ll explore everything your e-commerce business needs to know about headless architecture. We’ll explain what it is, how it works, and how it can help your business stay agile, scalable and future-proofed, while significantly improving customer experience and engagement. First, let’s set the scene and explore why more than 60% of online retailers are now making active plans for headless commerce. 

Consumers and the multi-touchpoint experience 

Change in e-commerce has always been driven by consumer expectation, but that’s more true now than at any other point in our history –partly because customers now have more choice than at any other time in our history.  At the time of writing, mobile phones account for 73% of all online sales, and 80% of customers expect to be able to start a purchasing journey on one device and finish it on another seamlessly. This is important, because headless commerce is one of the greatest enablers of the multi-touchpoint experience, and it’s one of the key reasons so many businesses are interested in it as an architecture. 

To find out more about how headless commerce is driving change in e-commerce, check out our blog post here

What is Headless Commerce?

Instead of simply playing a numbers game and getting as many visitors to their online stores as possible, businesses are able to establish a much longer-term and more engaging relationship with customers –in some cases increasing the average ‘lifetime value’ of a customer by more than 30%. In other words, connected multi-touchpoint experiences designed using a headless model can help to increase customer engagement, encourage repeat purchases, and make your brand more agile and accessible – all while being easier to manage and keep up-to-date. So what exactly is headless commerce, and how does it make this possible? 

Headless commerce is an e-commerce solution where the front-end (the head) of your business is decoupled from the backend functionality, hence a ‘headless’ solution. To better understand headless commerce, it’s important to outline the distinction between frontend and backend. 

Front-end (head) - this refers to anything consumers see and engage with, including your website, social channels, apps, voice channels and more. Any channel a customer can use to engage with your business, from live chat to browsing your products on their tablet, is a front-end experience. The ‘head’ is any internet-connected device through which a customer can engage with your brand. 

Back-end (body) - The back-end is what goes on under the hood. It’s where your ‘business logic’ lives, from the code supporting your website, to your back office CRM system. It’s where microservices are maintained and deployed (we’ll get onto those soon) and where you manage your inventory and process payments. Everything that defines you as a business sits here. 

This decoupling should shed some light on why we call it ‘headless commerce’, but why is it useful?

It’s useful because it moves businesses away from tightly coupled frameworks, such as PHP, that do not facilitate Web APIs. This limits a company’s ability to make on-the-fly changes to their front-end user experience or their back-end processes without causing a lot of downtime or even breaking a critical process. 

To find out more about how headless commerce is driving change in e-commerce, check out our blog post here

As you might well guess, this kind of architecture is more or less the opposite of what’s needed for a contemporary multi-touchpoint experience. It is part of the reason businesses are now flocking to headless architecture in droves. 

How can a business keep up with customer demand, orchestrate a number of channels, and stay highly competitive if it can’t make basic UX changes and add in new features on the fly? Headless commerce largely solves this problem, and it’s all thanks to microservices and an API-based approach. 

APIs and Microservice Architecture

These days, it’s difficult to talk about headless commerce without referencing ‘microservices’ somewhere. If headless commerce represents the overall structure, microservices are the building blocks and APIs are the cement holding everything together. 

A microservice is a small piece of individual software that is designed to do one thing and one thing only. In online retail, for instance, a microservice might be employed to manage a product catalog or accept payments. These are things that would otherwise be tied together under one monolithic roof, where making one small change would be akin to gently trying to remove a Jenga piece and hoping the tower didn’t fall. It was fine for its time, but times move on and this monolithic way of doing things simply won’t cut it in the age of agile, multi-touchpoint commerce. 

Microservices in action: Amazon

Amazon was one of the first companies to truly master microservices and it’s often hailed as a great example of things going right. It’s hard to imagine that Amazon was first founded as an online bookstore in 1995, when e-commerce was just beginning to find its feet. In the early 2000s’ Amazon encountered a lot of teething problems as demand for its services started to skyrocket and e-commerce became more viable. One of its biggest problems was development delays due to interdependencies in its monolithic architecture. They simply couldn’t scale services or add new features fast enough to keep up with demand. If they removed one feature or added a new one, the entire platform would come under strain and grind to a halt. It was slow, cumbersome, and quickly falling behind the competition. 

Sound familiar? 

Instead of having to steer the entire ship and work hard to keep it afloat every time it wanted to make a small change to its front-end user experience, Amazon broke all of its monolithic processes up into small, independently-running applications –or microservices. What that meant was that each and every UX touchpoint, from the “buy” and “search” functions to checkout and delivery options became their own independent services. That meant Amazon could make on-the-fly upgrades to various elements of its website and app, and introduce new features and options for customers without risking any downtime.  

We’ve established that microservices can be independently deployed, removed and edited without upsetting the business as a whole or interrupting the customer experience, so what’s the glue that holds everything together? That’s where APIs come in. 

Pushing content through APIs

An API is effectively a ruleset that governs how one microservice communicates with another. APIs can also be used to enable the delivery of content stored in a back-end system to a variety of different channels and endpoints. Where a monolithic approach would mean relying on different static “themes” to push out content manually to specific endpoints like apps or websites, APIs can push this content out to all channels –already optimized. While the back-end is simply used to store content, the APIs do all of the heavy lifting in terms of translating that content into whatever format it needs to be, whether it’s being displayed in a web-based product catalog or as part of an update to a mobile app. 

Of course, headless commerce is about more than just content. There are transactions to process, data to store and campaigns to optimize. Thankfully, APIs can assist here too. 

Let’s take payments, for instance. A secure payment system is needed for selling online, and while a small number of companies develop their own payment systems, the vast majority enlist the help of a third-party platform and integrate it into their current system. Once a transaction is actioned from the user, the API in a headless commerce architecture will facilitate communication between inventory management, payment processing, the CRM, and any other systems that need to be updated as part of keeping the business going. This allows information to be shared seamlessly among systems for a true omnichannel retail environment. If a business wants to include a new payment option, such as PayPal, Stripe or something else entirely, it can simply add it as a microservice and configure the APIs accordingly without any impact on the wider business. 

Organizing e-commerce infrastructure in this way makes upgrading and scaling services much easier, and it also frees up front-end developers to create highly customized and appropriate front-ends to engage and impress customers. To clue you into what’s possible, consider that Amazon automatically updates its front-end roughly once every 11 seconds to perfect its user experience and ensure everything is up-to-date. 

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What are the benefits of headless commerce? 

Headless commerce and API-driven microservices architecture are soaring in popularity, and with good reason. They can best be described as the perfect engine to drive modern e-commerce, catering to all consumer habits and customer needs. So what are the tangible benefits to your online business? 

1. Supports a true omnichannel experience 

The future is an omnichannel, multi-touchpoint experience, and no platform is more suitable than headless commerce to get your business there. The headless approach allows you to work on various front-end channels and back-end services independently of one another, making it easy to edit existing experiences and add new ones into the mix. Once set up, APIs can be configured to push content out to all of these channels seamlessly, ensuring customers get a consistent brand experience no matter which device they choose to pick up. 

2. Allows for rapid scaling and expansion

Just like Amazon did, businesses tend to hit their own natural ceilings when it comes to expansion. When their old monolithic systems are simply too inflexible to allow a business to move in the direction it wants to, that business will either have to close its virtual doors or upgrade its entire system. 

Headless commerce effectively removes this ceiling, allowing businesses to integrate new services and serve new channels and customer bases long into the future. Learn more about the scalability of headless commerce here

3. Caters to an “always-on” generation

No business can afford downtime these days. If your website takes too long to load or a user gets a 404 error, they’re not going to wait around for you to fix the issue –they’ll simply go to a competitor. Legacy systems are inherently vulnerable to downtime, particularly at a time when pushing out regular updates and adding new features and services is critical to commercial success. 

A headless commerce system uncouples the back-end from the front-end and uses microservices to keep everything siloed, allowing businesses to push out as many updates and add as many new services as they like without risking any downtime. 

To find out more about how headless commerce is driving change in e-commerce, check out our blog post here

Innovating your e-commerce platform

Headless commerce is the new e-commerce frontier. If you want your online businesses to be dynamic, agile and cater to rapidly changing consumer needs and customer demand, it’s an absolute necessity. However, it’s important to note that headless commerce isn’t a one-off project. It’s living architecture that requires a careful and phased implementation, so choosing the right headless commerce partner is absolutely essential. 

To learn more about adapting to headless commerce and how it can help your business stay competitive in 2021 and beyond, click here.  Or simply get in touch with Emporix here.

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