As the eCommerce industry continues to evolve, a growing number of businesses, from clothing retailers to airlines, are adopting the headless commerce model. Implementing a headless architecture involves separating a website’s front-end presentation layer from its back-end eCommerce functionality.
This gives marketers more freedom when creating content-experiences for consumers visiting their website, mobile app, etc. And it also gives developers better control over the back end, allowing them to communicate and integrate with external platforms and devices—a task that used to take months—in a matter of hours.
By providing greater flexibility to eCommerce brands, the headless content management system (CMS) facilitates simpler and more meaningful digital experiences for customers, leading to higher conversion rates, increased customer retention, and so on. Plus, merchants can spend less time managing back-end issues and more time customizing and innovating. With these advantages in mind, it’s easy to see why so many businesses are abandoning traditional eCommerce platforms and implementing headless architecture.
In other words, headless commerce is here to stay. But is it the right move for your business?
In this article, we’ll discuss examples of eCommerce merchants who recently implemented the headless model, why they decided to make the transition from traditional eCommerce, and how it has improved their business.
But first, let’s make sure we fully understand the difference between traditional and headless commerce.
TRADITIONAL VS HEADLESS COMMERCE
Let’s get one thing straight: The term “headless” doesn’t exactly mean that the CMS has no head. In fact, it actually means that the CMS has multiple heads, as opposed to just one.
Picture a human body. The traditional CMS has a standard HTML website that users visit, which acts as the single “head.” The “body” underneath contains the interface where content is authored and edited, as well as the database where information is stored.
With a headless CMS, you still have all the same back-end functionality in the body, but you can pick and choose which type of head you want to send content to. Depending on your strategy, one of those channels could be a typical online storefront, while another could be a smartphone app or Alexa Skills.
In the early days of the internet, software and hardware were inextricably connected. For example, if your company used Dell computers, you were limited to using Dell’s software. This gave birth to the monolithic approach of traditional eCommerce, which is still being used by many enterprises and well-known organizations today.
Under this model, the front end is tightly connected to the back end, leaving little room for customization. Since it’s all part of one monolithic structure, any changes made to the customer-facing front-end content may also have an effect on back-end eCommerce capabilities, such as order management and data storage. Traditional eCommerce platforms can only deliver content in particular forms, such as through a website or a native mobile application, which are often created with a template. Unsurprisingly, this approach is not ideal for businesses in the IoT era.
Today, merchants have a much wider range of options. By decoupling the customer-facing side from the technical side, brands can develop a unique and optimized front end, while letting an eCommerce platform like BigCommerce or Shopify Plus power the back end.
As new technologies emerge and consumer trends constantly change, businesses must be able to make swift decisions regarding their eCommerce strategy. Only with headless architecture can marketers and designers make real-time changes to their UX/UI, without causing problems on the back end.
THE ROLE OF APPLICATION PROGRAMMING INTERFACES (APIS)
Through application programming interface (API) calls, developers can deliver things like written content, videos, and payment gateways to different programs on various devices, such as laptops and smartwatches. For example, when a user clicks “Buy Now” on a retail app, this sends an API call from the presentation layer (or front end) to the back-end system. Then, the back end sends an API call to the front end, showing the user the status of their order right there on the app.
Headless commerce platforms use a representational state transfer API (REST API) in order to pass messages or requests between programs. So if a front-end developer wants to make changes to the design of a website, all they have to do is create a standard API call. If that front-end developer was working with a traditional eCommerce platform, this small change would require much more time and effort, as they would need to go in and update the underlying database and code.
Talking about software can get complicated, so here’s a helpful analogy: Let’s say you buy a regular car, but then decide you want a convertible. You can cut off your car’s roof with a chainsaw, but that probably won’t look good, and you won’t be able to reattach it when it gets cold out. This represents the traditional monolithic eCommerce approach.
Trading in the car for a convertible, on the other, represents switching to a headless model. Implementing headless architecture allows you to specialize your CMS, digital experience platform (DXP), application, or custom front end without compromising commerce functionality.
HEADLESS COMMERCE EXAMPLES
We’ve selected 20 brands that made the switch from traditional to headless commerce, separated them by industry, and provided details about each project below.
- Walmart: One of the first big retailers to adopt headless architecture, Walmart was driven to secure their position as an industry giant via eCommerce. They wanted to give their customers a faster, more intuitive online shopping experience. By decoupling their front-end online storefront from their existing back-end eCommerce solution, they were able to do just that. This contributed to an increase in Walmart’s online sales, and paved the way for other retailers struggling with a traditional eCommerce setup.
- Amazon: The biggest online retailer in the world, Amazon started with a monolithic architecture. Back then, they just sold books. But as they expanded their focus and started bringing in more traffic, they quickly found that they needed a more versatile solution. Creating a decoupled tech stack connected through APIs led to reduced bottlenecks, increased productivity, and overall greater flexibility for their developers and users. Switching to headless ultimately allowed them to put more time and resources into big-picture projects, like Amazon Web Services.
- Best Buy: The company adopted headless architecture in order to simplify their extremely complex and taxing deployment process. If they ever needed to create a new feature for the online store, it had to be planned out months in advance. Best Buy also had over 60 developers working around the clock to get projects finished. Once they decoupled the front end from the back end, the team could work at a much faster pace and be more responsive to market changes and customer needs.
- Ebay: In 2011, Ebay had 4 billion pageviews and 97 million active users. The immense amount of traffic they were dealing with could not be sustained under a traditional eCommerce model. In order to stay competitive with sites like Amazon and Bonanza, Ebay needed to create a perfectly-optimized customer experience, and be able to make improvements to their site in real time. Adopting headless architecture allowed them to address complex coding issues more quickly and easily.
- Target: Through market research, Target learned that most of their customers begin the shopping process on one device and end up making the actual purchase on another. In order to merge these experiences into a single customer journey, Target had to implement a headless architecture. This yielded positive results and kept the brand in close competition with other eCommerce retail giants like Amazon and Walmart.
FASHION & BEAUTY:
- Zalando: A German fashion retailer founded in 2008, Zalando had to switch to a headless architecture in 2015 as a result of their speedy growth. By trading in their legacy eCommerce platform for a headless model, their internal teams could work independently of one another. This resulted in more innovation, productivity, and of course, business growth.
- Michael Kors: As they began to expand internationally, the team at Michael Kors realized that they were in need of a serious website redesign and a new, omnichannel sales strategy. With the headless approach, they were able to solve this issue and provide customers with a unified shopping experience across various channels. This also led to a significant decrease in their costs.
- Feel Unique: As the leading retailer of beauty products in Europe, Feel Unique was compelled to give their customers the most immersive, personalized shopping experience possible. Implementing a headless architecture generated faster and easier browsing, purchasing, and product searching, which ultimately led to an increase in online sales.
- Pandora: A popular jewelry brand, Pandora implemented a headless architecture system that allows for sophisticated personalization and customization. Whenever a customer revisits the website, they are presented with items they viewed during their last visit, as well as product suggestions based on other items they’ve clicked on or purchased. This has yielded increased sales and repeat purchases.
- Cosnova: A German beauty brand, Cosnova was motivated to create a system that would allow them to edit and make additions to the front end of their online store. In order to do this without causing problems on the back end, they teamed up with Mobify and Salesforce to set up a reliable headless architecture. Mobify provided the decoupled presentation layer, while Salesforce powered the back-end eCommerce layer.
- Eurail: As a company that exclusively interacts with customers online, Eurail needed an eCommerce platform that could support a flawless purchasing experience. Their main concern with making the transition to headless was the potential for website outages. But with help from the right team of eCommerce specialists, they were able to make the transformation without a single disturbance occurring on the customer-facing website.
- Icelandair: The Icelandic airline wanted to make it easier for customers to buy plane tickets on their website. However, after doing some tests, Icelandair realized that their CMS could not support the specific changes they wanted to make. So they switched to a headless CMS, which allows them to easily add new features and content to the website.
- Princess Cruises: With the goal of facilitating a unified digital experience across many different touchpoints, Princess Cruises turned to the headless commerce model. This gave them the ability to quickly deliver personalized content in a variety of languages. Now, by simply downloading the Princess Cruises app, their guests have the freedom to access itineraries, book on-shore day trips, and order food using their mobile device.
- United Airlines: The US-based airline switched to headless in order to improve their booking process for customers. From the moment the customer is planning their trip to the moment they arrive back home, the United Airlines progressive web application (PWA) makes the experience fast and easy. This resulted in an immediate spike in bookings and fewer customer support issues.
- Carnival Cruise Line: Similar to United Airlines, Carnival Cruise Line was looking to refine the experience of booking. They implemented a headless PWA, which led to higher customer engagement with push notifications and an increase in bookings.
- Spotify: Since its inception in 2008, Spotify has taken the music industry by storm. With millions of users, they require an advanced eCommerce solution that can continue to scale as the business grows. Migrating to a headless architecture allowed them to reduce bottlenecks and other scalability issues. It also gave them the freedom to experiment with new features, without the fear of causing a massive system failure.
- Netflix: The video streaming service was an early adopter of headless commerce. Back when they were still using a monolithic approach, the website would often crash and not go back up for several days. It’s clear that Netflix wouldn’t be as successful as they are today if they kept this system in place. After switching to headless in 2009, they were able to greatly reduce outages and bring in millions of more subscribers.
- Redbox: In order to boost their conversion rate, Redbox needed a storefront that was more engaging and aesthetically pleasing. By migrating to the headless approach, they were able to swiftly add new content and features to their homepage. After the relaunch, they noticed immediate improvements to the page’s performance.
FOOD & BEVERAGE:
- Coca-Cola: This is a global brand that’s constantly coming up with new initiatives. Before making the switch to headless, Coca-Cola was stuck with a legacy system that couldn’t deploy these changes to multiple platforms at a quick enough pace. Once they migrated to a loosely coupled, API-driven system, they noticed better collaboration and transparency across teams.
- Pure Formulas: A company that sells vitamins, supplements, and other healthy foods, Pure Formulas has seen great success with the headless commerce approach. Since the relaunch, they have experienced higher conversion rates and fewer abandoned carts. They were also able to add a “Recommended For You” feature to make the shopping experience more convenient for their customers.
IS HEADLESS RIGHT FOR YOUR COMPANY?
While it does depend on a variety of factors, the answer is most likely yes.
There’s no denying that the eCommerce industry played an important role in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic forced brick-and-mortar shops to shut down and people to remain quarantined in their homes. Now, all across the globe, people rely on online shopping more than ever. And studies show that this trend will continue to grow, even once Covid is a distant memory.
According to BigCommerce, eCommerce sales are projected to exceed $740 billion by the year 2023. This growth is a result of many factors, including the increased use of smartphones and the ease of mobile shopping. In order to stay competitive in the changing landscape of eCommerce, brands must be able to create a holistic shopping experience for consumers across all platforms.
This sales approach is known as omnichannel marketing, and it’s imperative for any business looking to compete in the already competitive eCommerce space. Maintaining a unified brand experience on all channels, from websites to mobile apps, leads to lower bounce rates, higher sales, better customer reviews, and so on. If your company wants to embrace omnichannel marketing and become a real competitor in the eCommerce space, going headless is essential.
BENEFITS OF A HEADLESS COMMERCE PLATFORM
Still not convinced that switching to headless is the best choice for your brand? Here are some more benefits to consider.
OFFER PERSONALIZED EXPERIENCES
There’s been a lot of talk recently around personalization and consumer data collection. It’s quickly becoming a crucial piece in the eCommerce sales and marketing puzzle. A survey by Infosys revealed that 86% of retail consumers believe personalization has an impact on their decision to purchase. What’s more, 44% said they have come to expect a personalized shopping experience, whether it’s in a physical store or online.
Headless commerce is ideal for implementing personalization. Developers can seamlessly add new content and features that cater to a hyper-specific audience. For example, when a consumer visits your online store for the second time, you can show them the products they viewed the first time, allowing them to pick up right where they left off. You can also present suggestions for products they might be interested in, based on what items they’ve already looked at or purchased.
CAPITALIZE ON IOT
It’s common for the average consumer to spread their shopping experience over several devices. Let’s say they’re looking for a new pair of shoes. They might ask their Google Assistant to help them find a cheap, stylish pair of sneakers. Then, to learn more about a specific brand, they might look at the company’s website on their smartphone. Finally, once they’ve decided to make a purchase, they might do so on their laptop.
Headless commerce helps brands offer this omnichannel shopping experience across all kinds of consumer devices, like smart TVs, voice assistants, and other cutting-edge devices that will soon be available. And remember, when modifications are needed on a specific channel, developers can simply make those changes through API calls, rather than having to overhaul the entire system.
MAKE LIFE EASIER FOR DEVELOPERS
Developers working with traditional eCommerce platforms often have to use one specific programming language. This can slow down the process of building and making changes to an online store, especially if the developer isn’t as familiar with that particular software. The headless model, on the other hand, gives developers the freedom to use any programming language they want to.
GET MORE CONVERSIONS
We’ve touched on this a bit already, but it cannot be stressed enough. Brands that adopt headless architecture, like the ones discussed above, often see an increase in sales. By creating a personalized, omnichannel shopping experience, online shoppers are much more likely to convert into paying customers.
LOWER CUSTOMER ACQUISITION COSTS
Brands with an effective omnichannel strategy that prioritizes content and consumer experience will see an increase in organic traffic to their online stores. As a result, they don’t have to rely as heavily on paid advertising, which brings down their overall customer acquisition cost. With the price of pay-per-click steadily increasing, especially among industries like real estate and construction, there’s no better time to focus on building up organic traffic through published content.
HOW TO GET STARTED WITH HEADLESS COMMERCE
Once you’ve decided to transition from traditional to headless commerce, there are two important decisions to consider: Which CMS you want to act as the presentation layer, and which eCommerce platform you want to power the back end. There are many different ways to move forward here, so let’s look at a few different options.
CHOOSING AN ECOMMERCE PLATFORM
It’s important to pick an eCommerce platform that not only accommodates a headless architecture but also jives with your company’s goals in regards to scalability and customization. We recommend working with our partners BigCommerce and Shopify Plus, as they are pioneers in the realm of headless commerce.
BigCommerce offers a sophisticated back-end eCommerce engine that works seamlessly with all kinds of front-end presentation layers. With BigCommerce managing back-end tasks like accepting payments and managing data, you can focus your development efforts on front-end transformative content and design.
Shopify Plus offers extensive APIs and software development kits (SDKs), helping to create any kind of online store imaginable. You can build and modify a front-end experience that is perfectly tailored to your customers, with confidence that Shopify Plus’ eCommerce engine will effectively process each transaction.
As a certified partner of BigCommerce and Shopify, we love helping our clients get their headless architecture up and running with these platforms!
CHOOSING A CMS
Most of the big-name CMS solutions will be compatible with headless eCommerce platforms, but you’ll want to look at a few options before settling on one. Figuring out which CMS is right for your brand will depend on a wide variety of factors, such as which industry you’re in, how many developers you have on staff, and of course, the size of your budget. Regardless of your particular circumstances, you’ll want a CMS solution that provides an expansive library of website themes, an intuitive publishing workflow, SEO support, analytics tools, as well as solid customer support.
If you’re looking for a one-stop-shop, both BigCommerce and Shopify Plus offer CMS solutions. However, there are many other platforms that can work in tandem with your back-end eCommerce engine.
WordPress is the most popular CMS. It’s responsible for powering around 35% of all websites currently on the internet. People love WordPress because of the freedom it provides. With thousands of themes and plug-ins available, any type of website you can think of can essentially be created with this platform.
Another popular option is Drupal, which is used by many large companies and universities. Drupal offers an easy workflow and has the ability to handle lots of data. They also have a great customer support team for when assistance is needed.
Headless commerce is the way of the future. It allows merchants to have greater control, responsiveness, and overall flexibility in developing online stores. If your business is still working under a traditional monolithic eCommerce model, you’re likely missing out on competitive advantages that can help take your company to the next level, such as increased conversion rates and lower customer acquisition costs.
That being said, the process of switching from traditional to headless commerce can be daunting. That’s where Codal comes in. We’ve helped businesses across all industries adapt to the changing landscape of eCommerce, and we’re always up for a new challenge. As a trusted partner to both BigCommerce and Shopify, we can help launch transformative eCommerce solutions for your business, using the most sophisticated technologies available.
Our expert team will get to know your business and your customers, help establish goals for the future, and analyze your current eCommerce model’s strengths and weaknesses. We’ll then determine the perfect headless architecture for your needs, ensuring a smooth and effective customer journey across all platforms, applications, devices, and other channels. Interested in learning more about making the switch to headless? Reach out to Codal today!