Biggest challenges of headless commerce and how to resolve them

Content Marketing
March 28, 2022

The world of eCommerce is evolving. Shoppers have gotten used to seeing products and making purchases just about everywhere they visit online, leaving legacy eCommerce platforms struggling to keep pace. Advances in technology are giving consumers new ways to discover new items, read reviews, and order goods.

Consider the different ways eCommerce has gotten more accessible (voice shopping) and engaging (video shopping). You can even shop in VR and try on a pair of sunglasses without leaving your home.

However, with this expansion of eCommerce selling channels there is a need for a better way to make them work together efficiently. For example, a buyer needs to be recognized regardless of what channel they show up on – and switch to later. Customer information needs to be available across platforms. Product information needs to come from a single source of truth.

If you consider the underlying technical requirements, each part of the system needs to remain flexible and data needs to be continuously shared across these platforms so that customers can engage in the way that works best for them. This is where headless commerce comes in. 

Headless commerce has gained headwind the last few years, thanks to boosted performance, more flexibility, higher adaptability, and proven conversions. In 2020, nearly two-thirds of retailers said they had already gone or planned to go headless in the near future. As headless commerce continues to grow both in popularity and in accessibility, now is the time to assess whether it’s right for your business and become an early adopter to reap the benefits and get a leg up on your competition.

However, implementing headless can also go very wrong when not done correctly. It requires a build approach that can go wrong due to multiple consultants, and other moving pieces. This article will go over the biggest challenges of headless commerce and how to address them.

What is headless commerce?

Headless commerce is the decoupling of the front-end experience (what shoppers see and interact with) from the back-end services that handle stuff like order processing and fulfillment so that they can be independently managed. 

Headless commerce is growing in popularity for a couple of reasons. The headless approach makes it much easier to support omnichannel commerce.  In omnichannel, merchants are attempting to sell not just on their ecommerce store but across additional platforms like Smartphones and point of sales, each with its own unique user experience.  Without headless commerce each platform has their own tech stack to handle orders, check out, payments etc. This adds a lot of cost and complexity to the business and makes it very difficult to 

Traditionally, you might have used a theme or template to create the “front-end” of your eCommerce site. But that approach doesn’t work across channels that offer dramatically different engagement methods such as a smartphone or Point of Sale system. In the headless model each of these sales channels have their own set of tools specifically built 

The back-end is where — the systems that run all of your processes from checkout to fulfillment, inventory management, and beyond. 

The commerce APIs – such as shopping cart, personalization, and such fit in the commerce API layer.

This means that the storefront that shoppers would normally see has been decoupled and served separately, whereas the back-end is separated and somewhat more hidden so it’s easier to do maintenance or make changes without bringing the front-end down.

Headless commerce vs. Traditional commerce

There are several key differences between headless commerce and traditional commerce infrastructure.

Front End Development

With traditional commerce, front end capabilities typically run into design constraints since existing systems were not designed to be very flexible. Often, changes made to the front-end of a custom-built site require time to edit the database, the code, and platform. Developers are also limited in what can and cannot be updated or edited without risking warranty void or preventing future upgrades.

With a self-contained front-end platform and headless composition service, headless commerce can free up developers to create a user experience from scratch that aligns perfectly with the brand experience you want. There’s no need to modify databases in the backend with every change.

Customization

Because traditional platforms are equipped with a predefined experience both for you and your customer, they leave little space for your brand to customize or personalize the experience.

With headless composition platforms, you can  customize your design and toolsets more easily, since you can maintain a seamless front-end experience while you switch out back-end systems

Adaptability

In traditional eCommerce stores, your entire store is tightly coupled—changing one thing on the back-end could have unforeseen consequences on the front-end, and making one small tweak on a product page could disconnect something on the back-end. This coupling leaves little room for flexibility or adaptability over time.

By adopting a headless model where the front- and back-ends are already decoupled, you can make changes and test functionality quickly, from adding new fields to recreating your checkout flow.

This helps you remain adaptable to the market as new top solutions emerge.

When to use headless commerce infrastructure

Themes and templates make it easy to create a visually appealing eCommerce website and experience for your customers. With this in mind, you might wonder why you’d ever switch to an infrastructure type that requires more?

Decoupling the front end, commerce layer and backend  systems does a few things;

  • Makes your website and shopping experience lightning-fast, showing proven boosts in conversion.
  • Enables you to stay flexible and agile whenever they want to switch out a tool or service since headless enables a best of breed approach.
  • Supercharges multi-channel sales since you can add new sales channels at scale, by using the same de-coupled back-end systems to support all sales – specifically wiring in orders from any source into the order management system which many headless platforms include or are partnered with.

Here are a few signs it’s time to go headless:

If you have slow website load times

A slow website is a big no-no in today’s day and age as customers expect breakneck speeds whilst browsing online. As a merchant, avoiding slow websites is critical to help you avoid:

  • loss of website traffic which can lead to losses in sales and revenues;
  • a drop in your website’s SEO ranking;
  • poor customer experiences, which in turn lower engagement rates, or;
  • an increase in bounce rates and reduced conversions.

With headless commerce, your website and shopping experience are lightning-fast which has been shown to boost conversion rates and provide customers with a better experience.

If you lack flexibility

Traditional commerce with templates and themes makes it difficult to make changes on the fly as processes must be rebuilt to handle these changes. Take for example selling on new channels, marketplaces, and retail.  Headless commerce allows you to remain agile and flexible.

If you need to scale business

It can be difficult to support new sales channels at-scale with traditional models due to front-end constraints or the lack of support on the native platform. Headless commerce supercharges multi-channel sales since you can add new sales channels at scale, by using the same decoupled back-end systems to support all.

Biggest challenges of headless commerce

If headless commerce is so clearly the way of the future, you might be wondering why every eCommerce merchant isn’t already using it.

Although it makes for a flexible, scalable solution, headless commerce isn’t quick and easy to set up. Both the system and the implementation comes with unique challenges that must be considered and mitigated. You may be able to set up a Shopify store in days, but headless platforms often take months to implement. 

Headless commerce is expensive to implement

You can think of headless commerce a bit like a luxury vehicle with all of the bells and whistles. Just like that high-end vehicle, headless commerce not only has better performance and customizations, but it comes with a higher price tag, too. In fact, the average implementation cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Don’t have millions to spend on your eCommerce site today? Don’t panic! Most merchants are in the same boat. While it’s true that implementation can be exorbitantly expensive, the good news is that more cost-effective and streamlined solutions are now in the market to allow you to make the most of the technology.

Consider this: the “old” way of implementing headless commerce was to have a full development team take over and create from scratch. This is pricey. But, if you can’t afford (or don’t want to hire) a full technical or development team to handle the implementation and ensure it goes smoothly, you can leverage apps and services that can manage this for you.

The most important thing to remember is to take only what you need.

Some of the more expensive systems and service providers will offer and charge for functionality and features that you don’t need. Avoid these additional costs by adopting the simplest solution available. Remember – you can tack on more as-needed over time!

When done incorrectly, headless commerce can cause more problems

If you’re seeking a faster website and more flexibility through a headless model, we get it. But, if you don’t get it right… things will go very, very wrong.

Fulfillment can be especially tricky in adopting a headless commerce solution because you’re trying to pull apart many of the existing and often long-standing processes that comprise fulfillment. In worst-case scenarios, this can create a failed system and cost you time, more money, and even business if you leave customers in the lurch.

The important thing to remember here? Go slow to go fast.

Take the process one step at a time and continue to run your existing system in parallel.  Many headless platforms allow you to use a component at a time, so you can chart out your migration in steps. Once you’ve confirmed that parts of all of the new, headless system is running smoothly you can fully transition. 

There is an inherent lack of connectivity in the industry

Integration in eCommerce is everything. If the ecosystem in which you run your eCommerce business can’t integrate with a headless solution, you’re in for it. You’ll need to ramp up development in order to build out additional features which creates exponentially more work. No thanks. Further, when integration isn’t set up properly, you end up with blindspots or broken processes which leads to unhappy customers, lost sales, and a mess for you to clean up.

Fortunately, integrations aren’t impossible and with the right solutions in place, you can have a unified system that is conducive to and compatible with a headless system.

Pipe17 addresses this challenge by easily connecting your front-end selling channels to your back-end fulfillment services, 3PLs, and everything in between without the need for code and IT support. With a set of connectors and built-in automation services, you can remove friction from your business and stay on top of fulfillment no matter what type of eCommerce model you’re running.

Further, Pipe17 can deliver the infrastructure you need to ensure that each piece of your tech stack fits perfectly to bring you a comprehensive solution. By intelligently bridging the gaps between eCommerce platforms, including headless models, it allows for critical operational data to flow freely back and forth so that your processes execute seamlessly and automatically. In short: you can focus on your business and allow your backend to run the show.

Wrapping up — Where is eCommerce heading?

As the eCommerce industry continues to evolve and grow, the ways to generate new sales will, too. The innovations in headless commerce mean that merchants can create more unique omnichannel shopping experiences which serve to differentiate brands from the competition and breed customer loyalty. Although headless commerce is becoming more prevalent, the time to get ahead of the growing trend is now!

For companies who want to create a truly omnichannel experience for customers, headless commerce is the way to go. The front-end experience can be delivered on a web browser, mobile devices or even in-store to provide a personalized experience by instantly and automatically connecting secure personal data in the back-end to deliver exceptional product and service offerings, pricing, and other content tailored perfectly to your customer’s individual needs. This helps customers feel that the brand is personalized to them which boosts customer loyalty.

Separating development cycles between your front- and back-end means you can react faster to market changes and also reduce time-to-market when you enhance or change the features of your commerce offering. By selecting a solution like Pipe17 as the backend to headless,, you can ensure fast and reliable integrations across a range of applications to help you grow your business. In today’s ever changing economy, agility is – and will continue to be – critical for merchants who want to succeed. 

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Rachel Go
Content Marketing

This is an article by Rachel Go. Rachel is a remote product marketer with a background in building scalable content engines. She creates content that wins customers for B2B eCommerce companies like MyFBAPrep, Pipe17, and more. In the past, she has scaled organic acquisition efforts for companies like Deliverr, Skubana, and Hubstaff.

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