The term “headless,” even though it’s being bandied about as a fancy buzzword of late, should not be ignored as just another overhyped trend in eCommerce, an industry that – let's be frank – faces "revolution" at least once a quarter. The shift towards headless is real (although it’s hardly a revolution, as nothing happens overnight), and eCommerce businesses must adapt. The sooner, the better. Find out where you should start below.
No matter how hard we try to forget or ignore it, you have to admit the year 2020 really put us through the ringer, and not only because of the pandemic. But the pandemic had other consequences too; the COVID-19 outbreak undoubtedly put eCommerce at the forefront of retail.
As consumers' daily habits and consumption patterns aligned with "social distancing" policies, organizations worldwide desperately pivoted their businesses toward these behavioral changes by investing in improving their online services. Launching new digital platforms, entering niche marketplaces, and creating click-and-collect features were all considered something that could help businesses tailor their service to post-pandemic consumer needs.
Indeed, consumers – slowly but surely – have been drifting towards online commerce for years, long before 2020 happened. Their eagerness to smoothly combine the offline and online worlds was apparent, especially among younger generations, who expect brands to provide them with a seamless experience throughout all channels and devices. However, implementing omnichannel strategies was going better in PowerPoint presentations than it was in real life. Many small retailers even struggled to adapt to the mobile-first trend, which seemed a must-have from the mid-10s onwards. Therefore, any fusion between the on- and offline worlds was entirely beyond their imagination.
To be fair, it was not easy, or cheap, so, if eCommerce generated just a fraction of their profits, it was not considered a burning need. The pandemic promptly turned all that on its head.
Here are some stats showing just how significantly the pandemic changed pretty much everything.
In the first six months of the year, consumers spent $347.26 billion online with U.S. retailers, up 30.1% from $266.84 billion for the same period in 2019, according to the latest Digital Commerce 360 analysis of U.S. Department of Commerce data.
Comparatively, eCommerce sales during the first half of 2019 grew just 12.7% year over year. Online spending represented 18.6% of total retail sales for the first two quarters of 2020.
As of August 2020, 43.7% of the 245 retailers with stores ranked in the Digital Commerce 360 Top 500 offer curbside pickup, a sharp increase from 6.9% at the end of 2019.
Why "composable commerce" is the next big thing in eCommerce
Adopting new trends is always a challenge, but eCommerce turned out to be particularly resistant to change because of... technology. The "all-in-one" systems that have ruled the industry the world over for more than a decade were unable to keep up with business needs when these needs started to change at breakneck speed.
Don’t get it wrong, though; the eCommerce platforms which originated 10 to 15 years ago are, in most cases, still powerful and robust systems, providing most of the necessary functions. For years, they were the most convenient and, by the time’s standards, efficient platforms – until they weren’t. Rapidly changing consumer demands, the evolving technology landscape, and growing competition pushed organizations to search, adapt, and test innovations constantly. Many of the “all-in-one” eCommerce platforms simply failed to keep up.
These powerful but sluggish systems imposed severe tech debt on enterprises. And no wonder. When updates involve so much time-consuming, expensive labor and potentially cause the whole tightly-coupled system to collapse, managers try to avoid them. This risk prevents organizations from innovating, and – as we point out above – standing still is no longer an option.
"Headless commerce" or, to be more technical, the microservice architecture was hailed as the remedy to these woes. Still, the media frenzy around "headless platforms" should not obfuscate the essential requirement that businesses face: the need to grab customers' attention at every possible touchpoint. With that being said, it is evident that being "headless" is a good starting point. The point is to leverage the entire tech stack’s unique possibilities by first decoupling its services and, secondly, organizing them around business units. In practice, it requires choosing a suitably flexible front-end that provides full control of the UX/UI layer, a headless CMS that embraces the omnichannel strategy and third-party tools such as payments, search engines, chatbots, and so on. Headless commerce platforms are just a piece of the puzzle – a crucial one, but just one.
That is why Gartner's analysts, instead of overusing the name "headless," coined the more general and business-oriented term "composable commerce".
Application leaders responsible for digital commerce should prepare for a "composable" approach using packaged business capabilities to move toward future-proof digital commerce experiences.Mike Lowndes, Sandy Shen, "Composable Commerce Must Be Adopted for the Future of Applications," Gartner, 18 June 2020.
What are these so-called "packaged business capabilities" if not microservices? Gartner clarifies it as follows, seeing them as the foundation of much-desired "flexibility":
PBCs are independently deployable capabilities that include self-contained business data, logic, and processes to perform a business function. These interact with other applications via APIs and event channels. The appropriate granularity of these modules (they are not always "micro") is defined by business needs and must balance development flexibility/agility with governance complexity and costs.
Headless is the foundation. What is the rest?
Composable commerce is the approach in which eCommerce companies are free to select "best of breed" solutions and assemble them into a unique composition that meets their business requirements. These specific requirements involve not only a headless eCommerce platform (backend), but much more, which is perfectly contained in the MACH acronym, standing for microservices-based, API-first, cloud-native and headless.
MACH-based architecture already has its own official and prominent advocates: commercetools, Contentstack, EPAM Systems, and Valtech launched the MACH Alliance, a non-profit organization aimed at sharing knowledge of the benefits brought about by vendor-neutral, modular software ecosystems.
Today, there are hundreds of proven SaaS vendors that solve specific business problems (content, commerce, personalization, etc.) much better than the basic functionality offered in suites. Due to the near-ubiquity of support for MACH principles and how modern SaaS software works, it’s easier than ever to discover, evaluate, purchase, and integrate these vendors. As needs evolve, vendors can be easily added or swapped. We, as members of the MACH Alliance, represent the present and future of enterprise software and services and aim to be the catalyst for even more change.Kelly Goetsch, President of the MACH Alliance board
Get our eBook “MACH approach to eCommerce”
commercetools is one of the founding members and key advocate in the MACH Alliance. This should come as no surprise. It is one of the few platforms that can be considered truly headless because, unlike competitors with the “headless claim” in their banner, it was genuinely built with the API-first and cloud-native approach in mind long before it became fashionable to do so.
As API-centered architecture started to come to the fore, the appreciation for solutions such as commercetools blossomed. In 2020 Gartner, Forrester and IDC MarketScape honored the company with a placement in the “Leaders Category” in their world-renowned industry reports.
commercetools, although it provides a default front-end - Sunrise, doesn’t shy away from admitting that its main expertise lies in the backend, and instead of forcing its own bundle on customers, appointed vendors who are able to meet any “above basic” expectation in terms of the presentation layer are provided. And, given that commercetools’s target clients are enterprise-scale businesses, it is safe to assume that every one of them will have such expectations.
Customers who want to use commercetools as a backend platform have two options to choose from: build a custom frontend from scratch, which provides flexibility but takes a great deal of time, or opt for Vue Storefront, which avoids these issues entirely. Thanks to out-of-the-box integrations with all the providers in the MACH Alliance and its standalone core architecture, Vue Storefront provides just the right combination of flexibility and a shorter time-to-market. All the PWA-based business logic is provided by design, and customers remain in full control of how their store will look and “behave”.