Optimization glossary

Headless commerce

What is headless commerce? Benefits, platforms and examples

Headless commerce is the process of carrying out commerce in environments where people can interact without having to go through a website. It's a way to remove the middle man, giving consumers and sellers direct access to each other.

The concept of headless commerce has been around for some time, but is only just starting to gain traction in the retail world. Why? Because it's a good idea for both consumers and retailers, and new technology is making it possible to do things that were once considered impossible.

What is headless commerce?

The term "headless commerce" describes a form of ecommerce where the traditional frontend presentation has been uncoupled from the backend fulfillment functionality. The "headless" part of the term refers to the fact that there is no "head" -- no website where customers shop for items. Instead, the commerce is carried out in other environments: the mobile web, social media platforms, voice assistants, even other non-retail websites.

Headless commerce is ideally suited to consumers who are less tethered to the web environment. These consumers interact with products and services through a variety of touch points, from mobile apps to Internet of Things (IoT) devices to interactive kiosks located in traditional brick-and-mortar stores. 

With headless commerce, a direct link to a specific product is presented on a given platform. The customer places an order on the platform, and that order is transmitted directly to the retailer's backed ecommerce solution via a dedicated API. There is no frontend shopping layer, only a presentation layer that passes requests to the retailer's application layer. The retailer's billing and fulfillment operations can thus be accessed from a variety of platforms through a single API. The platform or app developers determine how the product is presented to their users. 

Headless commerce examples

One of the key benefits of headless commerce is the ability to present products on virtually any service or device. There are many examples of headless commerce in action today. 

App stores

The Apple App Store and Google Play Store are both headless environments where users interact with merchants without having to go through a separate website. One tap of a button initiates the purchase process, sending the order to the app developer. It's a great example of the power of headless commerce, with more than 500 billion apps having been downloaded to date.

Mobile apps

Mobile apps themselves represent a healthy platform for headless commerce. All in-app purchases classify as headless commerce, enabling purchases with a single tap.

Social media

Social media platforms enable users to interact directly with products and retailers. Users can tap or click a product link on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter or TikTok to place an immediate order, totally bypassing traditional retail websites.

Websites

Many retailers offer affiliate programs where participating websites display quick links to specific products. When an order is placed from one of these affiliate links, the API passes the ordering data to the host website for fulfillment. (The participating website typically earns a percentage of the sales amount.) Amazon Associates is a prime example of this type of affiliate program.

Voice assistants

Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and similar intelligent voice assistants are burgeoning platforms for headless ecommerce. Amazon in particular makes it easy to order from its marketplace via voice command. Juniper Research predicts that there will be more than $164 billion in transactions via voice assistants and other smart home devices by 2025. 

Benefits of headless commerce

Consumers appreciate headless commerce, as it enables them to interact with brands and products in a more direct fashion without having to endlessly browse through retail websites. Headless commerce also offers many benefits to merchants and product brands.

Reaches customers directly

Headless commerce lets merchants directly interact with shoppers as they go about their day-to-day lives. Instead of forcing them to stop what they're doing to visit a website, headless commerce lets them interact with and order products in the environments they use on a day-to-day basis. 

Delivers a more personal experience

With headless commerce, the user experience is personalized to the user's environment. The presentation changes based on the specific touch point. 

Expands exposure

Retailers are no longer limited to presenting products on their own websites. Headless commerce exposes products and brands to potential customers who might never have visited the merchant's website. Products can be presented virtually anywhere and everywhere -- it's truly an omnichannel experience.

Enhances agility and competitiveness

Headless platforms enable merchants to update products and product information almost instantaneously, without changes to the backend platform. Changes don't have to wait until a scheduled monthly update -- they can be made as soon as the customer experience needs change, or when products are enhanced. This speeds time to market and helps retailers stay competitive with rapid market changes.

Save website costs

A retailer going exclusively headless can save the time and expense of maintaining a costly website. The merchant's fixed costs are only in backend fulfillment, not on frontend presentation.

What to look for in a headless commerce platform

Headless commerce platforms use APIs to connect a retailer's existing backend functionality with a variety of touch points. Many ecommerce platforms and CMS platforms offer APIs and tools for headless commerce, and there are also many third-party solutions available. 

If you're looking to implement headless commerce in your organization, look for a solution that offers the following features:

  • Ability to push content to a variety of platforms and devices
  • Offers content modeling and designing
  • Works with a variety of frameworks
  • Workflow integration
  • Multilingual
  • Manages all digital assets
  • Easily scalable
  • Customization

Let Optimizely serve your headless commerce needs

Optimizely's Digital Experience Platform offers a full set of APIs that can be used for both traditional ecommerce and headless commerce. It enables you to connect your existing backend to a variety of touch points to present the most customer-centric experience for your products and brands. Optimizely features best-in-class content management, robust commerce and intuitive data and personalization solutions for businesses of all types. Contact us today to learn more.