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The next stage of ecommerce evolution has been building up for several years. As businesses look to keep up with omnichannel demands, they are likely reading more and more about “headless commerce” and its benefits. Companies should be aware of several aspects of this type of architecture when deciding if headless commerce is suitable for them.

Let’s dive into it: What exactly is a headless architecture? In essence, it’s where the frontend presentation layer is decoupled from any of the backend systems. All the backend systems become “headless,” with the front-end presentation layer becoming the “head.” You can have many heads: a website, a mobile app, a watch app, a kiosk in a store. 

All use the same backend systems in the same way. Backend systems include commerce, content management, product information management and order management, to name a few. The key to these backend systems being capable of operating in this architecture is that they have powerful application programming interfaces (APIs) that enable you to do everything the application can do.

Pros and cons of headless commerce

There are several benefits to adopting a headless architecture. These include greater flexibility, faster release of new features, seamless experience across all channels, security and scalability. A breakdown of these benefits and how they work:

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  • System swaps: Some systems or platforms will improve over time, and some will not. The latter will become unsupported or reach their “end of life.” Some may need improvement or upgrades as a business grows.
  • Greater agility: If a new system is needed, it can be added easily through API connections and placed in the head. An example would be a loyalty program being added to an ecommerce company. Add the system once and connect it from each head as needed.
  • More robust: Separation of frontend presentation from backend logic makes the system more robust, as changes in the front will not affect your backend logic. Each system is robust, making the complete system more reliable.

While there are several benefits to a headless architecture, there are also potential challenges that need to be addressed:

  • Cost: Separating the frontend and backend systems means each will require its own maintenance and hosting. Having good partners or an already-strong in-house IT department helps mitigate this cost, but it can still be higher than a single system. 
  • Complexity: Managing the systems independently of one another means understanding bugs in two different systems or building security for two different systems. Each team will have a learning curve as they build out and implement the separated front and back ends. 

Getting their systems to the state where the benefits become a reality can be a challenge for many companies. The benefits of headless commerce truly shine when most of the organization’s systems (or at least the systems in one area) have become headless and decoupled. As an organization builds towards this state, it will be in a hybrid world where it’s mixing old and new, working to overcome these challenges. Companies should be fully aware that the headless transition process might be challenging and time-consuming. This might leave a bad taste for those involved in the process until the entire system or a specific area has been transitioned and solved.

Don’t solve for one area; plan for digital transformation

Companies that embark on this transformation should be aware of its process. You cannot just have a headless commerce and content system to get the real benefits of headless for the customer experience. Customer service, order management, inventory, loyalty and CRM all need to be part of any transition, to mention a few. Without the entire customer experience being architected this way, you will slow down your own transformation and limit the customer experience.

Beware of evangelists

In this space, it’s very easy to find evangelists — people who are doggedly attached to their version of the future. They often disparage other systems and quickly write them off as “old” or “hard to integrate with.” This is very easy to do when sitting inside a company self-described as “modern.” The reality of digital transformation, systems and architecture is that every company is on a spectrum of transformation, and some are further along than others and have their own challenges. The right way to transform is different for everyone. While there are some poorer systems out there, buyers should be aware that claims from evangelists must be fact-checked or somehow substantiated when evaluating options.

Conclusion

To answer our original question, does everyone need headless? Organizations must weigh the pros and cons listed above to determine what best suits their needs. Organizations should be wary of the process that adopting this architecture requires. Separation of the frontend “head” from the backend “headless” systems benefits reliability and performance, laying the foundation to move fast in the future.

This transformation takes time: Many old and legacy systems cannot function inside a headless architecture, especially within ERP systems (the older they are generally, the worse they are if not rearchitected). Companies must be strategic in their investments as they decouple their systems and begin implementing headless commerce. Understanding the benefits and challenges enables organizations to create a plan that recognizes, and allows them to navigate, the bumps on the road ahead.

Gerry Szatvanyi is CEO of OSF Digital

Rob Smith is VP of Go-To Market at OSF Digital

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