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Retailers need to go ‘headless’ to seize post-COVID 19 opportunities

As the government prepares to ease the restrictions imposed on our movements, we’re entering more uncharted territory as we prepare to navigate post-COVID 19 waters. However, as we emerge from the pandemic licking our wounds, there are brave, new opportunities for the taking by those with the capabilities to explore and adapt quickly.

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The way businesses have managed to pivot and shift operations in order to survive – and perhaps thrive – has been evidence of the tough stuff they’re really made of. For some, it’s opened up entirely new income streams that can be pursued beyond the restrictions on how we live, work and consume. Discovering new ways of thinking and working differently requires the right operations and technology in place to support this rapid change we are experiencing. It must enable you to make quick decisions and also implement the right changes quickly. Never will this be more important than during the imminent ‘switch back’, when retailers must figure out how they will evolve and remain competitive – and at the heart of this is their digital commerce experience.

Enter headless commerce, a concept pioneered by commercetools whereby the front and backend layers of any technology application are separated – making it possible to attach all kinds of frontends (heads) from standard webshops and mobile devices to voice assistants and car commerce scenarios. A tripartite structure – frontend, API, backend – it leaves the realm of being too rigid to be functionally expandable and to adapt to change quickly enough behind and delivers a sensible approach to the fast-changing user behaviour we are seeing in today’s commerce landscape.

There are five very straightforward benefits to a headless approach for retail businesses and the first of those is customisation.

A headless solution provides independence from monolithic software that dictates how a frontend should be structured. There is no specific templating system or need to train employees to follow the exact rules of a program. Instead, it gives the ability to build the exact type of user interface needed to their precise requirements. Users have full control of what happens in the frontend and shape their brand’s identity without having to adhere to a templated layout that makes sites and apps look generic. This allows retailers who have adopted this approach to gain brand recognition and the ability to convert more customers and increase Life Time Value (LTV).

The freedom to experiment with user interaction improvements without concern for jeopardising the entire ecosystem is another benefit to headless and means users can learn faster. For example, if you want to A/B test specific parts of your commerce website, try to build an Alexa skill or a fast and shiny Progressive Web App (PWA), you can make errors in the process without affecting the backend operations – in turn saving you on development costs. In contrast, with traditional monolithic commerce solutions, you often have to modify frontend and backend code simultaneously, more often than not requiring taking your entire commerce application down for maintenance, meaning you are unable to transact for the duration.

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Having had the freedom to experiment, headless enables the implementation of new user interfaces more quickly than installing and then maintaining full stack software. With this speed and agility, development becomes much more efficient because teams can work in parallel. Due to its decoupled nature, changes can be made to the UI without having to test all the core logic in the backend and you get a reduced time to market.

Headless opens up the door to better scalability in your commerce operations.  You’re able to scale both the backend to handle large amounts of traffic and the frontend to cache and serve content faster. This translates into reduced operational costs and the ability to stabilise uptime.

A headless scenario also enables multiple frontends to connect to a single set of APIs and underlying system.  In other words, adding new touchpoints can be done with ease and without the worry of managing a software “zoo” or hacking together a way to extend functionality to cover those new touchpoints, instead gaining more efficient software maintenance and the scope to seize business opportunities.

As we emerge from the pandemic, every single one of these benefits will help retail brands and businesses along the path to recovery and growth. Over the last several months the sector’s commerce offerings have been at the core of retail survival, and there is every indication it will remain just as critical well into the future.

Joshua Emblin is Territory Sales Manager at commercetools

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