It's never been easier for an aspiring entrepreneur to start an e-commerce store. Technology has thoroughly democratized the opportunity to open shop. However, creating a store and succeeding with it are largely different things in an industry where Amazon is everyone's competitor.

The technology you use needs to go beyond making it possible to sell online, to making it easy for you to sell easily and anywhere. With the number of competitors you likely have, the customer experience needs to be equally easy and accessible.

You were once limited to clunky monoliths with confusing experiences for managing every component of your e-commerce site in one tool. But the shift from traditional e-commerce platforms to headless commerce solutions can empower store owners to create the custom e-commerce systems they and their customers need.

What is headless commerce?

BlueSky Technology Partners VP Dave Green defines headless commerce platforms as those that "decouple the storefront from the back-end, providing developers more freedom to customize sites and address the evolving purchasing experience." This, of course, contrasts traditional e-commerce platforms, which provide all the website functionality and e-commerce infrastructure in one solution.

Headless platforms allow stores to, for example, create more custom website experiences separate from what's given to them by their shop's website builder platform.

So instead of having your entire business hosted in one tool, you can have a content management system like WordPress for the front-end of your website, and a shopping cart tool like Snipcart for building the e-commerce back-end. Your headless commerce platform will connect to the other systems in your business via APIs, like in the case of Snipcart, or build direct integrations like WooCommerce has done with WordPress.

And then there are the hybrid solutions like BigCommerce, which is pivoting for 'commerce-as-a-service' positioning, so as to meet the needs of online retailers that start small but have their eyes on rapid growth. This innovative approach allows ambitious merchants to change infrastructure solutions as they see fit, seamlessly, thanks to a robust set of APIs, SaaS-based web management tools, multi-channel selling capabilities and a brand new WordPress plugin.

"Competition online is at an all-time high, and customers' expectations are constantly evolving," says Travis Balinas, BigCommerce's Director of Product Marketing. "The most successful brands are increasingly investing in brand identity, specifically creating content to engage customers and give them reasons to come back to their websites time and again."

"As a result," he continues, "many established brands are at a tipping point, questioning if their current e-commerce platform and systems will support delivering the next generation of shopping experiences and rich content customers now expect."

What are the benefits of headless systems?

Given that traditional e-commerce solutions position their full stacks of features as key advantages that make running stores possible for anyone, why would breaking up your store's presence between several systems put you at an advantage?

First of all, it gives you much more control over your website. Full-stack e-commerce platforms are built for functionality, leaving much to be desired in terms of custom branding and design. Using a separate CMS for the marketing part of your e-commerce business sets you free of outdated looking website templates likely offered by shop builders.

Additionally, API integrations allow you to connect your e-commerce platform to front-ends other than your own website. For example, in addition to listing product information on your own store, you can automatically send it to third-party sales channels like Amazon in the case of the Ask Perry Ellis skill for Alexa. And with the right headless platform backing you up, all of these selling channels can be managed and fulfilled within one consolidated dashboard.

"Broadly, headless e-commerce meets the challenges presented by customers' increasingly unpredictable and convenience-driven path-to-purchase," notes Graham Halling, Director of Consulting for Bench, in a recent essay. "The ability to move beyond the traditional shopping cart and checkout by embedding shopping features in a vast range of digital experiences."

How do you know if it's for you?

"Headless commerce is disruptive in that it represents a shift away from one-size-fits-all technologies to best-of-breed solutions," says Balinas. "This gives brands more control, flexibility and the ability to mix and combine technologies to more quickly react to changing market trends and customers' expectations."

Indeed, it opens up a lot of possibilities for your store, but it's a huge commitment in both cost and team hours spent on migration and ongoing maintenance. It can also require more developer attention than a full-stack solution, which will be a roadblock for many businesses.

This big investment for a big reward makes sense in the right scenarios but will be overambitious for some e-commerce sites. If you don't yet need advanced design and personalization or cross-channel listing management, it may create a lot of work for little payoff. On the other hand, it's still possible to experiment with several solutions in tandem, if they're made for maximum compatibility and flexibility.

Examine how sophisticated your current e-commerce setup is, and the extent to which your business results call for expanding your sales channel agility moving forward. Based on this assessment, you should be able to decide if going headless is right for your business.

Published on: Oct 11, 2018