Consumers, and even ecommerce executives, may not know what these terms mean but shopping is being changed by headless commerce, API-first development and contextual commerce. They are all part of how retailers are developing technology that helps shoppers purchase the ways they want to as they view social sites on their smartphones.

Headless and contextual commerce, API-first: What are we talking about?

Headless and contextual commerce, API-first: What are we talking about?

It’s no secret the business world and especially technology companies love their jargon. Have you used words and phrases like “acquihire,” “content creator,” “dogfooding” or “leveraging blockchain” when talking to friends or family who don’t work in tech? Remember how their eyes rolled so hard that you thought a demon had invaded their body?

Every industry has its specialized terminology, and ecommerce is no exception. Today, there are three phrases emerging in online retail that are going to transform the industry: “headless commerce,” “API-first” and “contextual commerce.” While they probably won’t make it into the casual dinner conversation, they will affect anyone who shops online. In today’s world, that is pretty much everyone so it’s important to understand what it all means.

Rather than separating commerce into its own experience, you give people the opportunity to make purchases in the places where they are already browsing.

Let’s start with contextual commerce. For most of retail history, people have gone to stores to buy things. If you saw someone walking down the street wearing a shirt you wanted, you had to ask them where they got it and then go to the store and look for it. If you were lucky, it was in stock in your size.

Today, people spend their leisure time online browsing Instagram and Facebook. They’re just as likely to see a friend wearing that fabulous shirt in an Instagram pic as they are on a stranger walking down the street. What if you could just click on the shirt and go straight to the online store where it’s sold?


That’s “contextual commerce.”

Contextual commerce extends offline

The idea is pretty simple: rather than separating commerce into its own experience, you give people the opportunity to make purchases in the places where they are already browsing, be it social media, a blog or another website. Eventually, these types of capabilities will extend offline, and you’ll be able to just snap a picture of an outfit you like and immediately be taken to a site where you can buy it.

Many brands are already delivering contextual commerce by focusing on content first. They want to engage customers on a deeper level than a business transaction, so they showcase compelling content that draws in the audience and then provides opportunities to buy products.

That process creates a deeper relationship with customers and, in turn, builds brand loyalty. In fact, many of the brands that I talk with have spent a long time investing in content. None want to throw it away and risk losing their curation of customers.


The challenge for retailers is that the behind-the-scenes technology for presenting content is different from the back-end commerce engine, and historically getting them to work together has required heavy IT investment.

How headless commerce fits into ecommerce tech

Enter “headless commerce.” Traditionally, the front end or “head” of an ecommerce site refers to the visual elements and site experience that a consumer sees when visiting a website; the back end is all the technology that brings that experience to life. Headless commerce makes it so a merchant can connect two separate platforms to manage the front and back end, allowing them to select the platform that works best for each function.

That’s important because the commerce engine handles some very sensitive things, such as payments and customer credit card information, which must meet higher standards than what’s needed to, say, create a blog post. And, it enables a much more flexible, scalable commerce site experience. Not to mention, a headless approach to commerce allows retailers to go to market much more quickly than more traditional platforms and offers a better total cost of ownership—two real benefits for retailers looking to better compete in the crowded ecommerce industry.


Headless leads to API-first

Headless is where an “API-first” philosophy becomes important. APIs are used to connect the front end to the back end so there is no noticeable difference to customers, despite being managed through two separate platforms. Typically, developers would build product features and the user interface and then develop an API to support them. But, as the name implies, API-first means building that functionality first so you can later add a variety of features. This has big advantages for everyone in the development process as well as the end users.

  • First, it helps prevent narrow thinking about how customers will ultimately use the interface. When you start building contextual commerce site, for example, you might think you understand the customer use case, but you don’t really know until you put it in front of them. Headless offers a flexible approach to adjust quickly based on the use case.
  • Second, API-first improves the time to value because developers can start building tools and applications around the API without having to wait for a full product launch.
  • Third, it frees the team to work on the features that the majority of customers will care about first, knowing they’ll be able to go back and work on more niche features later. They don’t have to get it all done before making it available to users.

Whether the average consumer ever learns what these terms mean, each exists to provide additional customer benefit. Despite the rumors of a retail apocalypse, shopping is alive and well, and the competition for the shoppers’ money is fierce. A brand that capitalizes on the technology to improve the overall customer experience instead of just the transaction is the one that will thrive.

BigCommerce is the provider of ecommerce platform software for 17 of the retailers ranked In the Internet Retailer 2019 Top 1000.