What is headless commerce—and is it right for you?

May 26, 2022 | 7 minute read
Shad Stalians
Principal Product Manager, Oracle Advertising and Customer Experience
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ecommerce buyer shopping via various devicesOne of the most discussed and debated trends in digital commerce technology is the idea of using a headless architecture for ecommerce experiences. We’ve certainly mentioned it before.

But what does it actually mean to go headless? What are the advantages and the challenges?

If you find yourself searching for answers to these questions when a co-worker, partner, or technology vendor brings it up in a meeting, we’re here to help.

With this post, we want to add some clarity to what can be a very confusing topic. We hope you’ll find it helpful in understanding what all the buzz is about, identifying the key components of delivering a headless commerce experience, and determining if a headless approach is right for your business.

What is headless commerce?

“Headless” as a descriptor is pretty murky. If I’m being honest, it’s terrible. But the entire industry is stuck with it for now. To understand what headless commerce actually means, it’s helpful to look at the history of ecommerce.

In the 1990s, when the internet began taking off for consumer use, there was really only one way for a shopper to buy online: using a desktop computer to access a company’s website. In this scenario, the website is the “head” (also known as the digital storefront or experience layer) that the customer interacts with directly. The head is “attached” (or tightly coupled) to the commerce engine that operates all of the backend services required to actually make ecommerce function. (Think data operations across catalog and inventory, personalization, payments and tax, fulfillment, etc.)

Fast forward a few decades, and there’s no longer a single point of entry. Today, we access the web through mobile apps, voice assistants, wearable tech (smartwatches and VR consoles), smart TVs, gaming systems, vehicle infotainment systems, and more.

Each of these channels are experience layers (heads) that modern digital commerce practitioners may evaluate to reach their target audience. But they all have their own requirements for how content is used to ensure that the user interface is intuitive, accurate, and enables conversion—connecting with all of those backend services.

Headless commerce is the idea that rather than committing to a packaged deal—a head tightly coupled with the associated backend services—you can instead decouple the commerce engine from the experience layer and deliver functionality via API into the head(s) that are right for your goals. By separating the UI layer, commerce functionality can be inserted quickly and efficiently into any system without disrupting the overall approach and architecture.

Both tightly coupled and headless architectures have their benefits and their challenges, depending on what you as a merchant hope to achieve.

Are there specific considerations when evaluating the benefits of headless commerce?

Two primary drivers motivate teams to choose a headless commerce approach.

1. Technical Considerations

Technical teams are often overrun with requests for new features, performance improvements, and system stability requirements, as well as technical debt.

As a developer, if you’re working with a legacy, monolithic ecommerce platform that lacks the flexibility and agility required to keep up with your users’ needs, then you’re likely struggling to keep up with the expectations of your organization.

You might see headless as a way to be more agile in how you handle your workload. With new technologies like React, you can choose your desired front-end implementation to reduce time to deploy new features and acquire new skills and talent on your teams.

Headless commerce gives technical teams the ability to change parts and swap out new components more easily without impacting the whole solution or its other pieces—and with less integration complexity. This allows the team to retain the core ecommerce system with the backend workflows and historical data you’ve used for success.

The decoupling of elements in a headless solution can enable faster innovation without the need to re-platform, even as needs change over time.

Oracle Commerce self-assessment tool

2. Business Considerations

To meet new, ever-changing buyer expectations, merchants are continuously evaluating new channels as they strive to create unique, engaging experiences that customers crave.

As a business user, rather than relying on technical teams, you’re more effective when you own more of the experience management capabilities so you can respond to changing customer needs and business goals quickly. (Think hours and days, not weeks and months.) Such efforts require agility and flexibility that most traditional, monolithic platforms simply can’t support.

Headless commerce platforms allow you to make changes to the experience without impacting the services layer, so you can be nimble while your developers are innovating and enhancing the overall functionality.

Additionally, business tooling for employees is just as important as customizing the experience. When tools are intuitive and easy to use, it makes work easier and allows more time to focus on what to do next—not how to do it.

Is headless commerce right for your organization?

While going headless has some attractive benefits, it’s not always an easy or straightforward decision.

Headless works well for teams with a large development staff or a partner to assist in developing features and functions across multiple systems. But these skilled developers, partners, and the entire implementation process often comes at a price.

A WPEngine survey found enterprise organizations spent on average $2.6 million implementing their headless architecture. Additionally, 68% of those enterprise businesses required or desired external assistance with adoption and implementation.

You may also realize too late that a key piece of functionality is missing or not connected. If your IT capacity is insufficient, your business process isn’t flexible enough, or you have reservations about heavy upfront investment, a headless approach may not be right for you.

Most vendors in the market today offer an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to architecture, which makes the decision even more fraught. Choosing to go fully headless grants flexibility, but it also means that a head must be maintained apart from the backend services. Even with the ability to extend those services into any head desired, the vast majority of vendors still want and need a website as a primary interface, so it begs the question: What’s the actual value of no head at all? Do you really want to build everything from the ground up?

To maximize the ROI on your ecommerce platform, consider the strategies, benefits, and costs associated with what you’re trying to achieve today, as well as where you believe the market (your company, customers, competitors, technology vendors, etc.) will be in 5 to 10 years. Then weigh your options. Wouldn’t it be great if we all had that level of insight into the future before making such a crucial decision?

Going headless with Oracle Commerce

This is where Oracle Commerce shines.

Oracle has been in the commerce business a long time. We’ve seen many trends come and go and some that have truly revolutionized the market. As a result, we know that your ability to adapt and evolve requires the flexibility to choose the deployment option that’s right for your business without getting boxed in.

Oracle Commerce is cloud native and contains a broad range of enterprise functionality in one solution, including core commerce, storefront, Search, and AI, yet it’s flexible enough to integrate with third parties. It leverages API-first design from inception with 100% coverage, and the head uses the same headless APIs allowing you to go fully integrated, fully headless, or take a hybrid approach.

With a modern, fast, flexible, and personalized Open Storefront Framework built on React, Oracle Commerce allows you and/or your partners to deliver optimal front-end experience across channels quickly. Strong extensibility capabilities can be leveraged using the elements of Oracle Cloud Infrastructure (OCI), so you can rapidly extend and customize to meet the needs of your business and your customers, even as they change over time.

Finally, by running on OCI, Oracle’s Gen 2 Cloud infrastructure, Oracle Commerce achieves performances gains, unmatched governance, and security controls, which consolidates your operational costs, so that you can reinvest in innovation and deliver stellar customer experiences.

Deciding if headless is right for you is a big decision, but choosing Oracle can help you better prepare to serve your customers today—and for whatever comes next.

Additional Resources

See why Oracle earned the highest score in the Current Offering category and was named a Leader in the Forrester Wave™ for B2B Commerce Solutions, Q2 2022.

Learn more about Oracle Commerce’s flexible headless deployments and our other benefits from the 2021 DXP Forrester Wave.

See how Oracle Commerce can help you build personalized buyer experiences, innovate faster, and boost sales with a quick product tour.

Oracle B2B Commerce product tour

Shad Stalians

Principal Product Manager, Oracle Advertising and Customer Experience

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