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eCommerce

Headless eCommerce vs. traditional eCommerce [Infographic]

Chris Powers
January 4th, 2021
11 MINUTE READ

Technological innovation in eCommerce moves at a rapid pace. Bolstered by shifting customer shopping habits due to the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses are asking more and more of their technical eCommerce architecture in order to stay competitive. The buyer’s journey is in a state of flux. Customers are engaging with businesses on different platforms. Traditional eCommerce strategies and technologies are relics of an outdated approach to online retail. These days, businesses need their eCommerce technology to have the flexibility to respond to shifting customer needs, and the stability to offer a superior shopping experience with every transaction. Headless eCommerce can deliver both.

You’ve likely heard the term “headless eCommerce” floating around. It’s a common buzzword in an industry filled with buzzwords. It’s anything but another highly-touted approach that fails to deliver. No, headless eCommerce has the potential to transform how businesses launch, maintain, and update their sites. 

Traditional eCommerce sites are built and maintained using a monolithic architecture. In this unified model, all individual components of an eCommerce site-including its front-end presentation layer and back-end commerce layer-are interconnected. Changes made to the front end-improving the UX or UI or implementing a new promotion-must also be reflected in the back-end code. This can take significant development hours, resulting in increased costs and time spent. ECommerce businesses need to stay agile and shift with customer wants and desires, and time-to-market is crucial. Enter headless eCommerce. 

Headless eCommerce refers to a commerce solution that operates without a front-end layer. In a headless setup, the front-end presentation layer is decoupled from the back end. Instead of having the front end and back end tied together, businesses can implement a base commerce layer that communicates with a presentation layer through application programming interface (API) calls. These API calls can deliver fundamental content, like product pages and reviews, as well as blog posts, branded assets, and promotional materials

Separating the front end from the commerce platform’s back end helps eCommerce businesses be more flexible and dynamic in how they develop and deploy tailored content and brand experiences. Impacting overall content management, UX, and SEO, eCommerce businesses can utilize this new, flexible front end to increase brand awareness and drive sales.

Transitioning to a headless eCommerce approach can allow your eCommerce business to rapidly develop and deploy content to attract new customers and satisfy existing ones without having to play by the rules of an old-school, monolithic platform back end.

The difference between traditional and headless eCommerce

Traditional, monolithic architecture

Monolithic architectures are not specific to eCommerce sites. Rather, they represent an established and traditional approach to designing and developing software applications. A monolith is a single pillar – the entire structure is contained within one piece. Monolithic applications incorporate multiple disparate components and manipulate them to interact to complete a predefined set of tasks. These components typically include business logic, the database layer, and much more. 

In the context of an eCommerce architecture, these individual components include back-end services that provide for the actual commerce, like product inventory management, payment authorization, shipping, and more. 

A crucial component of any application is its presentation layer, or the part that provides content for users to interact with the application. In a monolithic architecture, this presentation layer is tied together with all other elements of the application. This means that all changes made to the presentation layer must be replicated across the entire architecture. Even what might seem to be a simple content update or tweak could potentially take some serious back-end development work.

Because any front-end changes need to be reflected in the back end, real-time content updates are not exactly possible. Plus, if the back-end development experiences any hiccups in incorporating front-end changes, it could cause downtime to the site or require extensive maintenance. 

It’s no secret that the eCommerce space is hyper-competitive. Consumers have seemingly infinite options when searching for specific products online. Therefore, it’s essential for brands to craft elegant and attractive online shopping experiences to continuously attract customers. As consumer needs and desires shift, these brands need the ability to customize and manipulate these experiences with adjusted content, improved UX/UI, and other front-end changes. Customization is fundamental to the success of today’s eCommerce brands and retailers.

In a traditional, monolithic eCommerce architecture, the front-end presentation layer is typically dictated by a series of templates established when the solution was launched. Because they are wedded to the back-end code, these templates can be incredibly restrictive. They can limit what types of content can be included, such as videos or high quality images. They can also appear generic and stale to consumers. They offer little in the way of customization, and eCommerce businesses have little room to implement truly engaging content. 

A traditional eCommerce architecture operates similarly to your run-of-the-mill website. Content is created in a basic back-end content management system (CMS), and then implemented on HTML pages. This may seem ideal if your eCommerce site is comfortable implementing mostly text-based content for consumers shopping on desktop or basic mobile devices. But in this architecture, you’ll need some serious back-end development work to deploy some truly game-changing content for users on multiple touchpoints. This means time, money, and effort-all things that may prevent an eCommerce business from staying flexible and competitive in the space.

Some brands value a traditional architecture when it comes to eCommerce. Often, these are custom-built solutions that satisfy the unique needs of all elements of an eCommerce business. It’s relatively easy to launch text-based content through a typical CMS, and templates can make it easy to structure and create this content. However, traditional eCommerce architecture is rigid and any large changes to the front end will require a sizable amount of development effort. For brands wanting to stay competitive, they need something more.

A headless approach

In a headless eCommerce setup, the front end is separated from the back end of an eCommerce application. By decoupling these two elements, you are essentially isolating traditional eCommerce tasks like product and order management from customer-facing front-end content. Because your eCommerce data is not specifically tied to a single front end, it can be replicated across multiple consumer touch points-think social media, mobile apps, Internet of Things (IoT) devices, and much more. This is a cornerstone of omnichannel eCommerce.

Omnichannel eCommerce

A completely integrated and complementary retail strategy, omnichannel eCommerce strives to provide consumers with a consistent experience across touchpoints. Omnichannel eCommerce promises to meet your customers on their terms, providing them with products and services they need, exactly when they need them. The goal of omnichannel eCommerce is to deconstruct the walls between individual sales channels. By aligning your sales and marketing strategies across channels, you are creating a holistic and unified brand experience for consumers. 

According to Aspect Software, businesses that adopt an omnichannel strategy achieve 91% greater year-over-year customer retention rates when compared to businesses that use more traditional sales and marketing strategies.

Matt Warren, founder of Veeqo, writes, “In practice, true omnichannel comes when a customer can interact with your business via an integrated, seamless experience across desktop, mobile, social media, telephone or in-store.”

A headless eCommerce architecture drives this “integrated, seamless experience” by ensuring eCommerce data is readily available across all the touchpoints available to consumers. Businesses with a headless architecture can easily reap the benefits of an omnichannel strategy-something businesses operating a traditional, monolithic architecture cannot.

Why choose headless eCommerce?

Launching a headless eCommerce architecture allows your eCommerce business to rapidly create and deploy front-end content to attract new customers. An old-school, monolithic back end can’t match the speed and flexibility a truly headless setup can provide.

Customizable customer experiences

In a headless eCommerce setup, the decoupled front end integrates with the commerce platform’s back end through APIs. ECommerce businesses can then easily experiment with different front-end designs and alterations without having to make related back-end changes. A headless approach lets businesses take full advantage of a CMS to create unique experiences tailored to their customers’ needs from scratch, without worrying about adjusting anything on the back end. This also helps to ensure that customers are receiving a consistent experience across different devices and touchpoints, something that’s essential to the success of an omnichannel strategy.

Swift updates

Because companies can easily make changes to the front end without altering the back-end eCommerce layer, they can deploy updates much faster. Marketing and design teams can easily make front-end changes to the UX/UI as needed, ensuring your brand stays competitive and up-to-date with the various technologies and devices your consumers are using to make purchases.

Lower acquisition costs

Brands are facing increased eCommerce competition every day. Consumers have a wealth of opportunities to engage with brands and ultimately purchase products. Digitally-native brands using an omnichannel strategy are flooding the space with targeted ads. This drives up paid advertising costs, pushing brands to seek out more organic methods to drive consumers to purchase their products.

With a headless approach, content can be easily shifted and manipulated to drive organic traffic. Because of the content flexibility that a headless architecture provides, you can drive down your acquisition costs and ensure your tailored customer experiences increase conversion rates.

How to implement headless eCommerce

If you’ve determined that going headless is the right move for your eCommerce business, great! Now, where do you start?

First, you’ll need to select a headless eCommerce platform provider that is compatible with a headless architecture. Both Shopify and BigCommerce, two of the most popular and extensive eCommerce platforms, offer a back end that is decoupled from its presentation layer. 

Next comes your CMS. Decoupling the presentation layer of your site from the eCommerce back end allows you to use common CMS solutions to edit your store’s content without being tied to a monolithic solution. Popular CMS solutions like WordPress and Drupal can interact with your back end platform to allow for easy and timely customization of your site’s presentation layer. However, you’ll need to ensure your CMS is compatible with your eCommerce platform. While most of the big name CMS solutions can connect with popular eCommerce platforms, your business may currently use a non-traditional or custom solution that may not be compatible. You’ll need to evaluate your current solution, as well as your chosen eCommerce platform, to determine what is feasible.

Headless eCommerce platforms

As it’s a decoupled architecture, not every available eCommerce platform can handle a headless approach. Industry leading SaaS providers-and Codal partners-BigCommerce and Shopify Plus can accommodate a headless eCommerce architecture thanks to some intelligent APIs. These setups provide a significant advantage over a traditional eCommerce platform, or an outdated monolithic platform.

BigCommerce logo

BigCommerce is a flexible, feature-focused platform that is ideal for fast-growing, scalable businesses and brands. Its back-end eCommerce engine allows your business to run an online store that’s focused on transformative content and design. It’s extensive native functionality and sophisticated APIs provide the perfect platform on which to build intuitive, engaging front-end experiences. BigCommerce has partnered with big-name CMS solutions like WordPress, Drupal, Bloomreach, Sitecore, and more. These headless integrations ensure seamless integration between your eCommerce platform and your front end, meaning you have the freedom to be flexible.

Shopify Plus logo

Codal is a certified Shopify Plus partner. Our designers and developers are able to identify exactly how to tailor the Shopify Plus platform to your headless goals. Its comprehensive set of Storefront APIs and SDKs make Shopify Plus an attractive platform for businesses looking to go headless. Its APIs help integrate your existing CMS, while Shopify SDKs can help you create one-of-a-kind front-end experiences within the platform. This is conducive to creating unique touch points across web, mobile, and so much more. Be flexible and responsive to customer wants and needs on the front end, all the while ensuring that the back end will deliver with every transaction.

A trusted partner

Switching to a headless eCommerce architecture may seem like a daunting task. You are likely contemplating these questions:

  • What technologies will I need to implement?
  • What elements of my current eCommerce tech stack will still work?
  • How do I ensure there is no downtime or outages with my eCommerce site as I make the switch?

Consider enlisting the help of an eCommerce development agency to help you reap the full benefits of a headless solution. At Codal, we’ve worked with countless clients to help launch truly transformative eCommerce solutions that boost conversion rates, grow sales, and increase customer retention and satisfaction. We serve as a trusted partner to numerous eCommerce clients. 

Codal will review your pre-existing data and user journeys to contextualize our design and determine the ideal headless architecture, We’ll supplement this research with an audit of your current tech and data flow processes, working to understand all features and pain points on your current platform, and what technologies we’ll enlist to solve them. Working with our extensive set of eCommerce technology partners, we’ll craft a headless solution that delivers-and help to launch and maintain it.

The value in going headless

These days, it’s vital that companies boost organic traffic to their eCommerce sites across different platforms. In order to stay competitive, brands need a flexible, responsive front end that adapts to consumers’ constantly shifting priorities, wants, needs, and desires. This content needs to stay consistent across the web, mobile, social, Internet of Things (IoT), and other touchpoints, ensuring a consistent brand experience. 

A headless eCommerce approach helps brands stay nimble and responsive. With a headless eCommerce architecture, organizations can develop the front end independently, while easily managing logistics and commerce separately through API calls. Decoupling is the way of the future for eCommerce brands. It’s time to get onboard with a headless platform.Interested in learning more about the value of a headless eCommerce system? Talk to Codal today.

Chris Powers
AUTHOR

Chris Powers

Chris is a Content Marketing Specialist at Codal. With a background in journalism and marketing, Chris has written about a variety of tech topics, including open source, fintech, and cybersecurity. Chris loves taking on new challenges with just a pen, paper, and his brain.

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