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E-Commerce: Why Go Headless?

What is an e-commerce platform?

For those of you selling something online, you’re most certainly using an e-commerce platform of some sort. This may come as a simple out-of-the-box solution such as Wix, Squarespace, or Shopify. For companies pushing heavy volume, you might have turned to products such as Salesforce Commerce Cloud or Magento Commerce. All of these platforms have a core goal – to enable the sale of products or services. Apart from this core concept, you’ll also find handy features such as inventory management and insightful dashboards, serving to give you an analytical look into sales.

What should I expect out of the box?

Out of the box, you can expect easy-to-populate templates. Depending on the platform ecosystem, this select can be vast, giving you very granular choices. Once you’ve settled on a template, you’ll simply configure the website layout as applicable, and plug inventory into the system. With an out-of-the-box solution, you’ll typically spend more time entering inventory than actually standing up the site. These templates come pre-built with all business logic and functionality expected from a sales platform. They may require some coding, but it’s more focused on customization than development and implementation.

How does a headless solution differ from a traditional out-of-the-box solution?

With a headless solution you initially receive nothing… While this initially may sound very suspect, there are several upsides to pursuing a headless solution.

Before diving into the differences, let’s define “headless”. Headless is a term leveraged across the software development industry to define those implementations where traditionally you’d find a UI, but instead you’ll simply find the business logic and functionality abstracted and exposed through a set of APIs or other services. This concept has been around for quite a long time but has evolved into a buzzword of sorts. In modern web development, this concept is quite common. We typically split our teams into front-end and back-end developers, each with a dedicated role. The back-end team is tasked with implementing business logic and functionality and the front-end team is tasked with user interaction and input solicitation – providing this information to the back-end services. To be clear, it’s not a new technology or concept, but there are new competitors to the market, offering unique solutions.

Speaking specifically to headless e-commerce solutions, you can expect all of the same functionality as seen in traditional, out-of-the-box solutions, but it has simply been abstracted away to back end services. You’re left a blank canvas with which you can create your wildest dreams. Your product stakeholders and designers are left with endless possibilities on how they might depict and represent your brand. No longer are you tied to a template, only halfway representative of your brand identity.

Why go headless, and what possibilities does it enable?

Pursuing a headless e-commerce platform isn’t the right choice for everyone. If you’re a small business, you’re selling only a few items, or your sales process isn’t convoluted with many interlocked steps, then an out-of-the-box solution most likely makes financial sense. For many companies, they’ll face difficulties in justifying the ROI seen from a headless solution. There’s a reason out-of-the-box solutions have captured such a large market share – they are easy to implement and they simply work. 

Two main aspects of why you might elect to migrate to a headless solution are brand identity and sales optimization. Regardless of sales volume or organizational maturity, many organizations simply do not feel that out-of-the-box templates represent their brand identity well. For companies in verticals with a large number of competitors, brand identity may be a strong differentiator which justifies the use of a headless solution and custom build. For organizations with huge sales volumes, optimization of the sales process through extremely granular control and A/B testing may allow them to tease out marginal increases. When selling 100 units, an increase of 0.1% may not justify itself, but when selling orders of magnitude more, these marginal increases can easily deliver the ROI required to justify the custom implementation of a headless solution.

Another major benefit is the transition to an omni-channel sales experience. Moving to a headless solution means your business logic is neatly captured in a set of APIs which may be called by any platform such as a mobile application, website, POS, or kiosk. This means users can maintain their experience across platforms and business logic changes efficiently reflect immediately across all platforms.

What are the risks or limitations?

Leveraging a headless solution is far-more complicated than an out of the box solution. Your development teams will be responsible for materializing every aspect of the user-facing solution. Out-of-the-box solutions have been optimized and “beta tested” through the sheer numbers of clients leveraging them on a day-to-day basis. You can expect an out-of-the-box solution to be relatively bug-free. If you’re building a custom solution though, you run the risk edge-condition bugs. Additionally, you’ll need to consider factors critical to modern web development such as ADA compliance or cross-browser/cross-device support. As with any custom development, you’ll need to thoroughly test the solution before rolling it out.

Many of the limitations faced with a headless solution are not attributed to the technology itself – as it offers endless possibilities, but instead come down to your organizational maturity. Without key resources and domain-specific expertise, organizations can find a custom headless implementation more constrained than out-of-the-box solutions. A certain level of operational maturity is needed to implement such a solution.

What organizational maturity is required to undergo such a transformation?

As touched on previously, implementing a headless solution requires experienced technical resources. As an organization, this means you should already have technical teams comfortable with modern front-end development practices. Your teams should understand why you’re leveraging a headless solution. From here, you’ll need dedicated front-end developers because you’re going to be building a custom solution. This means you’ll need developers with experience in defining and maintaining enterprise-level solutions. They’ll need to think about aspects such as SEO and ADA compliance. You’ll also need a creative and UX team to ensure the content your developers materializing is intuitive and represents your brand well. You’ll need key visionaries to understand how to leverage this technology across platforms to deliver maximum ROI. If you don’t already have these resources, you should feel comfortable hiring them or turning to a consulting firm to complete the implementation. If your organization does not already have these technical resources, leveraging a consulting firm not only means you’re not left trying to figure out what resources you’ll need and how to screen and hire them, but you’ll also be able to forego all of the resources required to manage a project of this scale.

Apart from a purely workforce standpoint, organizations should display a strong brand identity prior to implementation. This does not mean your brand must be mature, it simply means that your organization should thoroughly understand your brand and what it represents. As you will be starting with a blank canvas, it will be completely up to your teams to materialize a design which represents your brand well. A poor showing here can do more damage than good.

What indicators should I be on the lookup for to determine when to make the transition?

It’s important to keep in mind that the signs indicating a shift to a headless e-commerce solution is needed are many times subtle. Other times, the necessity may become jarringly obvious. We’ll focus on the subtle indicators.

As your organization matures, your sales process will certainly mature as well. Unless you are simply selling a fixed few items, you’ll probably find yourself selling more items with potentially added sales complexity. You’ll most likely also have a growing transactional volume. These aspects are key contributors in justifying the conversion to a headless e-commerce solution. As mentioned previously, as transactional volume increases, even subtle changes may contribute significantly to conversions, and subsequently, revenue. You’ll want to make minor changes to your sales platform, and you’ll want to test and quantify these changes. Many out-of-the-box solutions offer some functionality here, but the more modifications you make to out-of-the-box solutions, the harder it becomes to maintain current versions. To truly realize full granularity, a headless solution will offer endless possibilities to modify and test.

For those organizations with ever-increasing complexity in their sales process, headless solutions may be the only option. Providing users the ability to select the size and pattern of a shirt is simple, but as you add options or interlinked products, the process can become near-impossible for out-of-the-box solutions without major modifications. A headless solution empowers designers and product stakeholders to deliver on any vision.

Should I implement this from day one as a startup or new product?

For startups, it’s incredibly important to consider your organizational roadmap. I’ve seen many startups rush to deliver a solution into production, only to be plagued by technical debts, major refactors, and the inevitable rewrite very shortly down the road. If I could offer one bit of advice to startups in general – consider technical debt and how it affects the long run. It is easy to feel rushed or constrained based on budgetary restrictions, but you may be doing more harm than good in rushing to deliver a solution. 

If e-commerce is an ancillary service, or your organization is simply selling a few products or services, an out-of-the-box solution most likely makes sense. If your primary focus is e-commerce and business growth driven by the number of products sold and general sales volume, taking the leap into a headless e-commerce solution may justify itself. 

Do I have to do this all at once?

For new organizations or startups then the answer most likely is, “Yes”. If you have no legacy code base, there’s not much of a business case for a partial implementation. I would recommend committing fully to this approach in the majority of cases where a startup has deemed a headless e-commerce solution justifiable. If you have an existing out-of-the-box e-commerce solution though, you may have some flexibility in slowly rolling this out – capturing high ROI areas first. 

Much of this incremental rollout will depend on the functionality provided by your existing e-commerce solution. Maintaining two e-commerce solutions rarely is justified. As such, if your existing solution provides a headless implementation and you wish to retain your current solution, you can simply begin the transition to the headless instance on some of your pages. While an incremental implementation may be feasible, the granularity at which this occurs may be beyond your control. The implementation must be strategic, and interlinked sections must transition at the same time to ensure coherency.

When can I start seeing benefits?

As with any large endeavor, projected timeline and ROI will be a key focus. For some organizations, the benefits may be more tangible than others. New organizations or startups implementing a headless solution may have no existing benchmarks to which they can compare. As such, it is certainly much more difficult to quantify your efforts. For these organizations, your justifications for a headless solution from the start should be your primary quantifiers.

For existing organizations, it may be easier to gain small wins through an incremental implementation. Taking this approach may provide some immediate gratification, helping to justify further efforts. As you’ll want to target high ROI endeavors first, your wins should be immediate, but these small wins are just the first in a series of long-term wins.

Meet the Author: Sean McQuay, UI Practice Lead

Sean is the lead of our UI Practice. His focus for the practice is guiding teams in writing enterprise-level, sustainable code to provide pleasant and intuitive user experiences anywhere there is an interface between user and machine. Sean is dedicated to not only understanding the client’s immediate request, but also to understanding how the solution fits into the business roadmap.

Prior to joining Saggezza, Sean was focused on front-end development and the evolution from hands-on coding to defining and implementing best practices to enhance developer efficiency and deliver sustainable solutions.

Saggezza is a proven technology and consulting partner that delivers personalized, high-value solutions to accelerate business growth.

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