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What Brands and Retailers Need to Know About Headless Commerce

The industry can probably collectively agree that it’s past time to retire the term “omnichannel”—but now there’s a new phrase in town: beyond just a buzzword, “headless commerce” is redefining how brands and retailers should design their digital footprints to meet the consumer wherever she is.

Jennifer Sherman, SVP of product & strategy for commerce platform Kibo, described headless commerce as “the ability to sell on platforms that are not your website”—from social networks to text messaging and anything in between.

According to Jamus Driscoll, CEO of microservices solutions provider Moltin, “headless commerce is an architecture designed to give more speed and flexibility to retailers who want to go ‘off menu’ and build creative experiences beyond traditional channels.”

Unlike traditional e-commerce wherein the front-end user experience is tethered to the back-end commerce platform, headless commerce “decouples” the two altogether, instead leveraging “microservices” that manage specific business functions like the shopping cart, order management, checkout and inventory, Driscoll explained. The kicker is that each of these separate functions must have its own API so that they can independently communicate with each other.

“As a result, microservices can run independently of each other, hook into any consumer experience or commerce platform, and be assembled in a ‘pick and mix’ style to serve a retailer’s specific objective,” Driscoll said. “Fail any one of these three conditions, and it’s not headless.”

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More brands and retailers are choosing the headless approach largely to provide convenience for shoppers and to serve them where they are, Sherman said. “From stores to kiosks in airports to shopping links on Instagram, we’re all looking for innovation that puts the merchant top-of-mind when and where the consumer is browsing for products,” she explained. “For example, 10+ years ago we realized that shoppers weren’t going to make the effort to go to our brick-and-mortar stores, so we offered websites.  Now we are realizing that shoppers may not be going to retailers’ websites as their first shopping stop, so retailers are going the extra mile to meet consumers on the platforms they are on.”

Speed to market is yet another factor contributing to the rise of headless commerce, Driscoll said, pointing to the steady arrival of new consumer technologies as ushering in new devices, channels and experiences. “Retailers must keep pace with consumer innovation, or miss opportunities to grow their revenue through these new channels,” he added.

“How we shop is also changing,” Driscoll continued. “It was simple enough for retailers to engage consumers in a store or on a website, but consumers are now finding products they love on social media, in interactive displays, etc. Marketers need to rethink retail and how they engage consumers.

“Today, nearly half of consumers (46 percent) are unable to make a purchase at the moment they identify a need or fall in love with a product,” Driscoll said, citing data from a survey that Moltin conducted.

Serving such consumers with a regular e-commerce approach generally presents a technical challenge, according to Driscoll. “Traditional commerce platforms, while optimized for browser-based commerce, add longer development cycles, and limit creative freedom with rigid templates, programming languages and steep learning curves,” he explained. “This is where headless commerce shines. It breaks up the platform monoliths, and arms retailers with simple, powerful tools to make creative ideas a reality.”

Retailers that have speed and innovation on their agendas would be wise to consider opting for the headless commerce strategy. “If you want to bring cutting-edge retail experiences to market faster, test new channels quickly and engage consumers at the moment they fall in love with your brand, headless commerce is for you,” Driscoll said.

Plus, added Sherman, “the more options you give for your consumers to interact with your brand, the more likely they are to convert, to remain loyal and to tell their friends.”

With its lower risks and costs, headless commerce enables retailers to remain nimble and flexible, experimenting with and deploying new ideas quickly. For example, Moltin has developed a number of futre-forward commerce projects, from Stance’s app-less mobile self-checkout to a social commerce application to monetize Instagram influencers to commerce embedded into smart mirrors so customers can check out right from the fitting room.

“It’s about real, practical problem-solving in the new age of retail,” Driscoll added.

So what’s up next for the world of digital commerce where nothing stays the same? “I’m not sure anyone knows,” Sherman said. “As we have learned with headless commerce, though, the point is to be prepared for anything.”

Driscoll, however, sees the web evolving from a destination into something much broader. “People have learned to shop the traditional website,” he said. “We’re now entering the next wave of commerce where the web is not just a destination, but a communication channel.

“It allows us to engage customers wherever they come in contact with a brand, regardless of the medium,” Driscoll continued. “Commerce should be present in any application with an internet connection—whether that’s a smartphone or smart watch, television, car, voice assistant, video game or social media platform.”