Dec 1, 2023

Headless Commerce Explained

It’s an exciting time to be building, or reshaping, your commerce stack. But what’s the right way to go about it? What’s the right technology stack?

Headless Commerce Explained

In today’s increasingly crowded e-commerce realm, everyone from pre-revenue startups to well-established brands faces similar challenges when it comes to leveraging technology to deliver a truly differentiated customer experience. The technology or platform choices they’ve made along the way are often at odds with a brand’s desire to stand out, deliver sub-second page loads, and leverage first-party data correctly. This struggle has led a growing number of businesses to explore a move to a headless stack – an API-first, technology-forward approach that is picking up steam.

The opportunity is massive, and the tools available today that make headless commerce possible are better and more diverse than ever before. According to Businesswire, a recently conducted study of enterprise IT professionals conducted by Vanson Bourne found that 90% of those not using a headless approach today will evaluate headless systems in the next 12 months. Additionally, 92% of respondents agreed that a headless approach to content management makes delivering consistent content and brand experiences easier.

It’s an exciting time to be building, or reshaping, your commerce stack. But what’s the right way to go about it? What’s the right technology stack to achieve your business goals?

What’s Wrong with the Current Approach

Let’s start with the off-the-shelf commerce options on the market. On the plus side, you can get established with a template-based site and order management system with a relatively low-tech lift (a small, or maybe even no, in-house tech team). It’s less expensive than building a technology stack from scratch. And for many businesses, this might be enough.

However, for high-growth companies, the actual cost of customization quickly adds up. And because you don’t own the technology behind the apps enabling out-the-box functionality, there is only so far you can go to customize. The typical result: increasingly bland (hello, annoying newsletter plug-in pop-ups) customer experiences. If you’re struggling to stand out from the crowd, there’s a good chance that your out-of-the-box setup is holding you back.

A differentiated experience is only effective if it’s fast, too. This is another area where the template + apps trade-off can have a negative effect. Usually, the more apps or third-party javascript you add, the slower you go. More importantly, though, you must adjust your business to the constraints of the app(s). A willingness to bend your business to the platform’s limitations buys you time, but constant bending will eventually lead to breaking when you can least afford it.

What you need is a commerce platform that you can evolve and shape to keep up with the pace of your business. That’s precisely the type of flexibility a headless approach should yield.

Headless 101

A traditional headless tech stack

At its core, a headless approach separates the presentation layer (the “head”) from the tools used to create and manage the content and transactions (the body). This is a great start! It allows developers to use modern frontend tools to create bespoke experiences that are fast, optimized for mobile, and most importantly, deliver the kind of customer experiences that will meaningfully improve the economics of your business.

With a headless or API-first approach, your technology stack does the flexing, bending to meet the needs of your business and your customer, giving you the foundation you need to be nimble and stand out. You can rapidly iterate and test without disrupting your core functionality. An API-first architecture can evolve as your business does.

Why Headless Makes Sense

A headless stack is suitable for any brand, regardless of stage, when they realize that their technology approach is no longer just something not to screw up, but something they have to compete on. They want to up their game and adopt a customer-first approach. They want to have a single source of content truth, enabling them to syndicate that content everywhere. They want to be able to have a deep understanding of their customer. They want to have portability. They want to make an infrastructure investment today that they can continue to bend as their business grows and scales but never need to re-platform. And the way to do that is to lean into headless.

By removing the direct connection between your frontend and backend (the head and the body), you’re enabling the flexibility to deliver superior customer experiences. You can have a truly omnichannel approach by publishing your content and selling across any platform that exists, or will exist, thereby futureproofing your tech stack. Add to this, your brand is consistent across all channels, and by centralizing your customer data, you can meet that customer on any channel with a consistent and personalized experience.

Whether you’re creating landing pages, new sites, or making merchandising choices, a headless approach allows for hyper-agile marketing. In terms of additional integrations, you can interface with and quickly switch out best-in-class point solutions while remaining in complete control of your first-party data.

And then there is performance. Progressive Web App (PWA) technology, made easier with the emergence of the Jamstack, will blow your mind with its speed and conversion improvements, especially on mobile devices. (I say this with the caveat that before long, everyone will have a fast website. That will be solved, and it won't be enough to have blazing page experiences. The content is going to matter much more. The experience is going to matter much more.)

Finally, headless can reduce the burden on your technical teams, which improves your capacity to focus on customer-facing projects and initiatives.

The Limitations of a Basic Headless Setup

That all sounds great, right? It’s not that simple, I’m afraid. A headless approach requires careful planning, the right design, and development resources to stand up and to maintain. Done incorrectly, headless can be challenging to maintain, costly to implement, and, worse, will slow your business down.

“Having the tools is half the battle. Knowing what to do with them is the other half.”

And then there’s data. All of this talk about headless and the flexibility and performance it can unlock, and we haven’t mentioned what is arguably the most crucial part: the commerce brain.

We’ve already met the head (the presentation layer) and the body (content and transactions). Typically, brands that have embraced and built a headless approach must quickly get to work on their data infrastructure – the brains of the operation. Google Analytics is an impressive piece of software, but it’s not enough. To complete the stack, you’ll need to consider a way to collect and synthesize customer data, configure a warehouse to store that data securely, and implement an intelligence or reporting tool to surface the insights.

Additional tools and software are added to a headless stack to support mission-critical capabilities

Implemented correctly, these data tools unlock the true promise of a headless commerce stack, giving operators actionable insights and a unified customer view that can be leveraged to create personalized experiences across all channels. Costly and complex to implement, and at the same time necessary, getting the design right comes with a significant amount of risk.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re hopefully bought into the idea of building your custom business logic around key infrastructure pillars you’re buying. All that’s left is figuring out which ones to buy and how to get the most out of them.

The Chord Approach

With Chord’s commerce as a service platform, we’ve made the move to headless more accessible and cost-effective. We also solved the most critical aspect of a commerce stack by providing integrated data tools, a customer data hub, and a built-in insights engine. Designed from the ground up to work together, they’ll future-proof your stack and give your team tools they’ll enjoy using. Your customers will feel the difference.

“Instead of asking what you can do within the constraints that the suite of apps that you’ve chained together will allow you to do, now you can listen to your customers and then respond to them.”

The integration of these features alongside the core headless architecture allows for greater ecommerce capabilities for less cost and less effort for a company’s tech and data teams, and significantly less cognitive load for the leadership team.

You Don’t Need to Reinvent the Headless Wheel

I hope what I’ve gotten across by now is that you will need all of the benefits of a headless approach, but it's not just as simple as identifying and buying all the various elements. If you take it on yourself, it can quickly become overwhelming. The architecture that puts these tools together and makes them good at their jobs is quite complex. This is how Chord is forging a new path for today’s entrepreneurs: the ability to outsource your commerce stack.

And we should know, we built this product initially for ourselves as operators, so we made it the way we would want it to be, not in a lab. It was built on the street, as it were. We believe that we can offer all commerce operators, whether you’re a legacy brand that needs to figure out how to be online in a more meaningful way or an insurgent entrepreneur with a crazy vision, the freedom to focus on what you do best. We’ve got your commerce stack covered.

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