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Defining Headless Commerce

Jay Atkinson
Senior Principal Product Manager, Oracle

Over the last few years in helping companies roll out new commerce initiatives I’ve run into a conversation from some of my more technically advanced customers who tell me, “We want headless!” There’s been a lot of buzz in the market as well. But what does it mean to go headless? What are the advantages and the challenges?

This is the first of a series of articles where I’ll talk with experts and examine the pros and cons of a headless approach. My goal is to empower my fellow commerce professionals to make the right choice for their team and for their business.

First, let’s establish, what is Headless?

I’m not talking about the horseman from “Sleepy Hollow.” Headless, or Headless Commerce, uses a commerce platform without a customer-facing front end. It delivers functionality via APIs and then the “head” is run by another system, like a Content Management System or a native mobile application. This is only one flavor of headless.

Another option is a hybrid headless approach where you use your commerce platform to deliver web-based experiences and then use the APIs to enable new channels and experiences like augmented reality and IoT.

Technical Drivers of Headless

Technical teams are quite often overrun with requests for new features, performance improvements, and system stability requirements as well as technical debt. In turn, they’re usually working with a legacy, monolithic ecommerce platform that makes it hard to keep up with the needs of their business users. They see headless as a way to be more agile in how they handle their workload. When they see new technologies like React, they can pick their own front-end implementation to reduce time to deploy new features and acquire new skills and talent on their teams. They also see decoupling the functionality from the experience as a way to swap in new components more easily and with less integration.

We all know the pace at which technology is changing. What is fast and cool today is slow and dated tomorrow. Technology churn is something these teams are always juggling. The move to headless gives them the power to change up components of their experience without altering others. This way, they can retain their core ecommerce system with the history of promotions and data that they have used for their success.

Business Drivers of Headless

Two main needs drive the business-side of the headless discussion: agility and differentiation. The need for agility stems from constantly changing customer expectations and the need to quickly expand into emergent channels, like voice assistants, mobile applications and third-party sales channels. At the same time, customer experience is key, so most companies want to have a unique interactive experience that doesn’t look like every other commerce store.

The average business user doesn’t care how the technical team supports them to achieve these goals. They just need them to make them happen. But, they do care about having the tools to make changes on their own, quickly. Most business teams need to make these changes on their site in hours, days and weeks, not months or years. The traditional, monolithic platforms haven’t supported the speed necessary. In addition, most of the commerce business teams I talk to tell me business tooling is just as important as making the experience customized. If the tools they have are intuitive and easy to use, it makes their jobs easier and they can focus more on what to do, not how to do it.

Speed and Flexibility

Headless can be one way to get that result but it can also have its own drawbacks. It works well for teams that have a large development staff, or a partner on retainer to assist in the development of features and functions across their multiple systems, like the Commerce platform and the content management system (CMS).

Teams also need to cover all their bases. Quite often, you may realize too late that a key piece of functionality is missing or not connected. In headless environments, business teams often find themselves playing hopscotch through different interfaces to do the simplest of site updates and changes. To launch a product on their store, they need to; add pricing and product information into the core ecommerce platform, upload imagery to a Digital Asset Management system, and then publish via a third party tool for their CMS. This can severely slow down their productivity and make it difficult to train new team members.

How can you best use a headless architecture to truly improve your customer experience without a large development team or a mishmash of site management tools? We’ll discuss this over the next few articles where I’ll answer the following questions.

  • What is the architecture for a highly successful headless approach?
  • How can I easily add new channels to my system?
  • Is my team ready for headless?
  • What is the best approach to flexibility and speed in a modern commerce team?

Click to read "What is Headless Commerce?"

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Comments ( 1 )
  • Tom McFadyen Thursday, August 22, 2019
    Great article Jay - I agree with you about the pros & cons of headless commerce. Fortunately Oracle Commerce Cloud gives organizations the flexibility to choose their approach.
    At the Oracle CommercePros user conference next week I’ll be presenting on this topic and showcasing a Progressive Web Application (PWA) accelerator that McFadyen Digital built that leverages the API-driven architecture of OCC.
    McFadyen Digital has built a couple hundred eCommerce sites on OCC and Oracle Commerce (and the predecessor ATG) during 20 years of partnership with Oracle & ATG.
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