A little over a decade ago, retailers applauded that they could move away from self-hosted, licensed e-commerce platforms with high development and support costs and painful upgrade paths. Many made the move to all-in-one SaaS platforms at a lower cost, with basic functionality for e-commerce, and app or plug-in marketplaces to add more features.
Fast-forward to today: Brands’ ambitions have outgrown traditional e-commerce approaches. Platforms that once liberated business by providing a digital channel designed specifically for selling through a website are now limiting their potential to sell everywhere else they operate in the digital realm.
The next phase of e-commerce will be defined by a checkout experience that can take place anywhere. Brands will be looking to add shopping capabilities to front-end customer touchpoints that span online, offline, voice, social, Internet of Things, and more, while integrating with all of the back-of-house systems that run the brand’s operations.
In a sense, retailers will begin to deconstruct their technology stack, unbundling solutions to move from all-in-one to a modular approach where functions like the product catalog, search and checkout solutions are assembled into a commerce experience tailored to their business. Make way for headless commerce.
What is Headless Commerce?
The concept of headless commerce is gaining momentum, and while it might seem complex, it’s pretty straightforward. “Going headless” means separating the consumer-facing user interface “head” from the backend of an e-commerce platform.
By making commerce functionality, such as checkout, independent from the platform, it’s now possible to innovate and transform any digital user experience into a unified transaction experience, and to essentially put your checkout anywhere. This means businesses are no longer limited to selling from a website, or held back by disconnected online and offline user experiences. Retailers can now turn shoppable moments into revenue in any digital channel, without having to build or modify back-end functionality to cater to it, or needing to migrate to a new platform entirely.
And while we can blue-sky endless possibilities for headless commerce, let’s talk about everyday capabilities that have been on the priority list for many brands for years. Here are five checkout capabilities that seem like they would be simple, but are complex for brands that don’t have a headless checkout:
1. Unifying shoppers’ checkout experiences and history across all shopping channels.
Seamlessly moving information across store channels is something that retailers have been talking about for so long that you might assume it had been achieved long ago. Alas, this is not the case.
Without headless, data around individual customers and their transactions will remain siloed by channel, and brands won’t be able to see the full picture of a shopper across multiple channels. This limits their ability to personalize promotions based on known interactions or implement seemingly basic improvements like frictionless in-store returns for online purchases.
For example, say an apparel brand offers appointments with stylists both in-store and online. In the ideal scenario, the experience in either channel would be informed by information captured and accessible in either channel. All of the information stylists enter into the checkout in-store, such as billing information and address, would show up when the stylist helps that same customer virtually. Alas, this too, is often not the case. If the same customer is shopping online, more than likely they will have to re-enter their client and billing information at checkout.
Because a headless checkout is API-based rather than hard-wired and channel specific, capabilities are unlocked to move this information seamlessly between in-store and online channels, and the customer would be able to log in online and purchase with one click. Furthermore, the brand would be able to easily access information about the customer and her history across shopping experiences, enhancing content personalization based on shopping behaviors and preferences.
2. Serving up different checkout experiences in different channels.
How customers engage with brands in different channels should also inform how they check out in those channels. Today, 88 percent of online shoppers are abandoning their cart during checkout. With headless checkout, brands don’t have to serve up the same experience in every channel. They can customize the checkout flow to make it easier for shoppers to move quickly and efficiently through checkout, reducing cart abandonment.
There’s obvious examples of tailoring checkout by device type, like reducing the number of data fields to complete when checking out on a mobile device, to displaying taxes and shipping charges earlier in the process, but the possibilities go well beyond this. Offering one-click checkout directly from a product page on mobile for quick impulse shopping, defaulting the ship-to-store address to the customer’s usual store for ease of online checkout, or providing a streamlined, convenient in-store kiosk checkout flow for regular vs. first-time buyers, all improve and differentiate the shopping experience.
Headless checkout is also key to bringing commerce to new channels such as video, voice, social and augmented reality. Using voice commerce to order groceries, or shopping outfits while streaming videos, and connecting customer journeys across channels will be enabled through headless checkout. Creating a checkout experience that caters directly to the channel where a consumer is browsing will enable a customer to complete a purchase when they’re most engaged with a product.
3. Offering buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS) and other cross-channel experiences.
E-commerce’s acceleration over the past year has forced retailers to adapt every part of their business to a digital-first retail landscape. The only way for brands to compete is to be flexible and agile — not only in their mindset, but also their infrastructure.
During the height of lockdown, many multichannel retailers were forced to address gaps in their infrastructure that made it difficult to adapt quickly. For instance, retailers clamored to introduce BOPIS and curbside pickup to local customers when in-store shopping was either closed completely or simply not preferred by consumers. This seemingly simple concept revealed some serious cracks in the operational armor.
The challenges to getting BOPIS up and running for many started with the fact that the online and in-store checkout experiences are typically disconnected. Connecting these experiences relies on the ability to retrieve inventory information and display in-store availability by location on the website. Shoppers also need to know when, and how, to pick up their order. Information must be real time, accurate and paired with personalized communication throughout to build trust and customer satisfaction. Of course, consumers have no idea how complex this process is, so their expectations of brands were another source of pressure.
In this scenario, brands had two unappealing options: implement a clunky, manual process that was likely to be a less-than-ideal experience for customers, or invest in a long and expensive development cycle in an effort to modify their current e-commerce platform.
Brands with headless commerce, on the other hand, were able to adapt quickly to the new environment by modifying their checkout to meet the new circumstances with less time and effort — and then quickly modify again when the next challenge, or opportunity, arose.
4. Experimenting with different checkout experiences.
Checkout is critical to every e-commerce site — it’s the last touchpoint brands have with their customers. Yet for many brands, evolving checkout is off limits based on their rigid technical architecture. Savvy brands are experimenting with changes to the browsing experience, such as serving up products or search results based on shopper behaviors or preferences and using A/B testing to inform how they merchandise their stores in an effort to persuade customers to add more to their carts. Why not keep this mindset going through checkout to boost order completion?
Headless checkout allows retailers to A/B test which checkout experiences work best for their customers without the risk of impacting the backend. Retailers can test one-page or multipage checkouts, add in cross-sell and upsell recommendations, trial pay with points, and more, all while measuring results to inform the optimal checkout experience. This kind of experimentation also allows retailers to continue to iterate their checkout to keep up with customers' ever-changing needs.
5. Giving shoppers the ability to purchase in the digital channel they’re in — whether that’s during a workout or watching television.
Brands are typically bound to e-commerce and in-store checkouts with traditional platforms. With headless, any customer touchpoint can be a checkout — there's no limit. Consumers now have a new level of expectation when they interact with a brand, and they want to buy what they’re engaging with at the time, rather than breaking from the experience they’re in to go to open an e-commerce site in a web or mobile browser.
Take, for instance, a consumer that's working out with interactive home fitness equipment like Peloton or the MIRROR, and sees the trainer wearing an outfit they’d like to buy. Headless technology can enable checkout on the fitness app, so the consumer can buy after, or during, their workout.
There are hundreds of other digital customer touchpoints that will redefine commerce, but can only be brought to life by headless technology. Brands will win through building loyalty with customers by joining them during the experiences they love, and inspiring checkout at their “highest point of interest.” However, they need headless checkout technology to help them do so. Identifying where consumers are most engaged with retailers and enabling them to convert during that experience will allow brands to stand out among their competitors, build customer loyalty, and drive revenue.
Yvan Boisjoli is the CEO and co-founder of Bold Commerce, a software development company that provides industry-leading e-commerce solutions for the world's most innovative brands.