A headless approach decouples the individual elements of a website, enabling retailers to use the content management software or digital experience platform of their choice to deliver unique front-end experiences, while relying on an commerce platform to handle the back-end tasks. Here are some success stories.

Meghan Stabler, vice president of global product marketing, BigCommerce

Not even a year ago, “headless commerce” was a concept questioned by many people in online retail. While it didn’t take long for the unconventional term to become a buzzworthy topic amongst industry experts and influencers, the true definition of headless in a retail context remains fuzzy for many.

Brands looking to drive increased engagement on their sites through content experiences are often best serviced by a headless commerce platform and approach, especially when forced to compete against a myriad of successful digitally native vertical brands (DNVBs) that have focused solely on establishing a lasting connection with consumers.

Content and commerce have most definitely collided and it has created new expectations for ecommerce.

By examining the rapid rise to fame and growing number of highly successful DTC retailers, we’re able to illustrate the mechanics of a headless commerce system as well as demonstrate how the flexibility and ease a headless architecture provides can help propel any size or type of retail operation to notable ecommerce success.

Even large brands and holding companies are updating their playbooks, creating startup studios and mimicking popular direct-to-consumer (DTC) marketing strategies, to compete with the growing crop of agile DNVBs.

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It’s no surprise that DTCs have recently earned the status of ecommerce industry darlings—taking the road less traveled and forgoing conventional approaches to getting things done always make for a good story. By choosing to focus first on selling direct to their customers and putting less emphasis on marketplaces and wholesalers, DTCs are taking control of the entire customer journey, and the timing couldn’t be better. Shoppers are more sophisticated than ever, and technology has finally caught up.

Consumers today are on a constant hunt for cool digital experiences, including when they shop online. They’re eager to try the latest applications like AR, VR, engage in social shopping, and they expect everything to work well and look even better (38% of online shoppers will leave a site immediately if it’s not attractive).
In order to compete, DTCs are on the hook to deliver on these high customer experience expectations while maintaining a seamless backend operation where all the complicated commerce activity tasks take place.

What is headless commerce?

A headless approach essentially decouples the individual elements of a website, enabling retailers to use the content management software (CMS) or digital experience platform (DXP) of their choice to deliver the unique front-end experience that shoppers desire while relying on their preferred commerce platform to handle all the complicated back-end tasks.

Decoupling the presentation layer from the ecommerce platform allows for more flexibility in content management, UX and SEO. Merchants can easily implement website updates while the ecommerce platform remains intact, connected to all back-end needs via APIs.

Traditional ecommerce platform approaches are extremely costly, and by design, struggle to keep up with today’s rapidly changing consumer expectations. If a retailer wants to make even a small change to the design or functionality, a rigid infrastructure would require substantial adjustment to refine how everything works with the ecommerce platform.

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With a headless implementation, merchants can easily deliver an exceptional and compelling online shopper experience, plus the flexibility of a headless system makes it simple to create new experiences in the future. It is future-proofed for change and growth. Meanwhile the decoupled ecommerce platform provides endless options for merchants to integrate best-of-breed vendors for equally important back-end needs including payments, security, compliance, ERP, shipping and more.

Behind the success of digitally native brands

The most popular DTCs won their way into the hearts of consumers by being unique, innovative and present rather than relying on the status quo for launching brands and selling products. They deliver an experience that’s worthy of talking about and sharing. While there is no special formula or secret sauce to ecommerce success, a quick review of some of the fastest-growing DTC brands reveals they have most of these customer experience elements in common:

  • Impressive UX: flawless design and functionality
  • Great customer service
  • Multichannel marketing strategies
  • Multiple choices for how customers engage
  • Smooth commerce operations from purchase to delivery

A great example of these elements coming together is the innovative modular furniture maker, Burrow. It found a way to make the act of “building” your own furniture when it ships to your home almost enjoyable. That pleasing experience is also reflected in their sharp website design, unique content and 5-star customer experience. Headless helped make that happen.

Another example of headless hard at work is Zwift, an at-home training app for cyclists and other athletes. Zwift is literally selling content, so the site has to be on point and representative of the quality users can expect from the product. Headless commerce helps Zwift make that connection and maintain it as the company grows and changes.

The recent digital transformation at Carluccio’s, the UK’s popular high street Italian restaurant business, demonstrates how moving to a headless architecture can be a successful strategic move for long-established brands as well. The restaurant industry survives or dies based on customer service and Carluccio’s wanted to ensure that online visitors were getting the same stellar experience they’d grown to expect in the restaurant. The new site, seamlessly marrying content and commerce, means visitors get a modern site, frequently updated with fresh content.

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It wasn’t until relatively recently that the technology existed to enable ecommerce merchants to effectively deliver all of these ingredients to success at cost and scale. In step with our commitment to flexibility and choice at BigCommerce, there are many platforms and vendors now offering headless commerce options that support a range of CMS’s and DXP’s (including WordPress, Drupal, Sitecore, and Adobe Experience Manager, to name a few).

This industry shift has opened up limitless possibilities for online merchants to adapt and grow. Content and commerce have most definitely collided and it has created new expectations for ecommerce. As the cloud around headless continues to dissipate, it will be an exciting time to see how merchants will use this new era of endless options and agility to innovate next.

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

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