Headless e-commerce has become a popular option for digital brands. Over the past two years, investors have poured $1.6 billion into headless opportunities, and any number of startups and established e-commerce players have launched new technologies or products intended to ride the wave.
After navigating three generations of e-commerce technology at both startups and Fortune 100 companies, I believe headless can be transformative. However, that transformation won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen easily.
Headless tech offers the rapid, flexible deployment of new front ends on legacy platforms, but most companies will pay a price for the flexibility and independence they achieve. In fact, many online brands would do better to wait for next-gen deployments, as headless tech matures and integrates more fully into the broader end-to-end e-commerce ecosystem.
The key is for brands to look at these new technologies with clear eyes, and to weigh the good and the bad as they chart a course forward. Let’s take a closer look at where we are today, and what lies ahead for headless e-commerce.
To start off, let’s acknowledge that there are plenty of reasons to love the idea of headless e-commerce. Separate the front-end interface and the back-end infrastructure, and you gain flexibility to draw on best-of-breed technologies, while still delivering customized experiences that align with your brand and your customers’ needs.
For those of us who cut our teeth with N-tier computing paradigms, decoupling felt like the only sane way to develop applications. That’s been complicated by the rise of monolithic “web deployments,” but the reality is that headless fusion of power and flexibility remains a developer’s dream. I often talk with engineering and product teams about implementing “escape hatches” that prevent us from coding ourselves into a corner, or “out of process” options that allow the user or customer to achieve goals that the product manager never originally imagined.
What we now call "headless" springs from the same desire for flexibility and rigor. Whether you want to spin off a new storefront, create a dedicated website for a niche audience, or create customized experiences for a new marketing campaign, headless lets you present the customer experience however you want, while using the tried-and-tested e-commerce back-end you currently rely upon. Sounds awesome, right?
Unfortunately, headless e-commerce comes with strings attached. As every developer and agency knows, the very thing that makes headless implementations appealing — their flexibility — also makes them a massive headache to use and maintain.
For starters, rapidly deploying headless architecture is a contradiction in terms. By going headless, you’re committing to stringing together different solutions with custom code or no-code frameworks via APIs. No-code frameworks and integrations are seldom feature-rich enough to achieve the needed results, forcing brands or retailers to connect existing systems of record, build the required user interface, and fine-tune infrastructure.
If headless is hard to implement, it’s even harder to maintain. You’re left handling a mountain of middleware, and you’re responsible for managing updates to all the apps you’ve connected to your online store. All too soon, you can find yourself running an IT infrastructure operation instead of following your passion and growing your e-commerce business.
Future changes are also on you. In the 1990s, people joked that when you bought a Jaguar, you had to hire a mechanic before leaving the lot. It’s the same with headless: yes, you get power and control, but you also get a whole heap of new headaches.
Ultimately, headless is a tradeoff. Would you prefer a tightly integrated solution that just works, at the expense of your ultimate creative expression? Or do you want the flexibility to create anything your imagination can conjure, at the expense of potential breakages and significant building and maintenance costs?
There are excellent reasons to pursue either path. In my experience, though, the vast majority of ascendant brands prioritize delivering polished, bug-free experiences, with continual SaaS-style upgrades and quality production environments. When push comes to shove, most retailers and brands would rather rely on professional engineering and technology operations, and focus their own energy on building their brand.
As things stand, then, headless isn’t right for most organizations. That could change, though, as we find new approaches that blend dependable, streamlined tech with a helpful dose of headless. Finding that sweet spot could allow virtually the entire e-commerce operation to operate using tightly coupled capabilities from an e-commerce platform vendor, while simultaneously tapping into platform APIs for specific use cases.
That could be a powerful approach for “micro-commerce” applications, where brands meet consumers where they're using landing pages, partner portals, mobile apps, rich email formats, OTT streaming devices, or even smart speakers. Such a strategy allows brands to maintain streamlined and bulletproof core e-commerce operations, while still using headless deployments to better serve customers and expand into new areas.
Don’t Rush In
The reality is that e-commerce is about striking a balance between flexibility and simplicity. Headless promises to let us reimagine customer experiences — but it also places demands on our teams and adds complexity and costs that make it harder to grow our brands.
Integrating e-commerce remains the right approach for most brands because it eliminates the hassle of keeping countless outside partners pulling in the same direction. Brands should be able to leverage the benefits of headless, tightly coupled experiences as part of a hassle-free, one-stop solution that keeps the productive benefits and streamlines away the distraction and noise.
In the near term, headless will be a powerful option for enterprises with significant resources. For smaller brands, headless still has enormous potential — but finding ways to integrate headless frameworks into sleek, scalable solutions will take a balanced approach and continuing innovation.
So as you evaluate headless e-commerce options, think not just about what headless offers, but also about what it demands of your team. As things stand, headless requires significant time and energy to deploy and maintain, so it’s important to be clear-eyed about what lies ahead.
Mike Svatek is chief product officer of Cart.com, the first end-to-end Ecommerce-as-a-Service (ECaaS) company.
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Mike Svatek is Chief Product Officer of Cart.com, the first end-to-end Ecommerce-as-a-Service (ECaaS) company. Previously, he was CEO and head of product at Rivet Works, a cloud software platform powering DTC engagement for online brands. A veteran product executive, he has also served as Chief Product and Strategy Officer for Bazaarvoice, helping scale it to $160M revenue and a successful IPO. Earlier in his career, he served as VP of product management at ecommerce merchandising platform Baynote, prior to its acquisition by Kibo Commerce, a Vista Equity portfolio company.