There was a time when retailers, even those with a proven track record in brick and mortar operations, faced an uphill battle when it came to expanding their business to an e-commerce platform. After all, custom web development can be both slow and costly and, post launch, an equal amount of time and money are needed to maintain the site and ensure it performs optimally. Fortunately, e-commerce platforms built using a monolithic architecture – which has long been the standard of web development and itself an unwitting barrier of entry – is losing ground to an arguably superior approach to development: headless architecture.
Using monolithic architecture, everything – from inventory and customer data to transactions – resides on a single server. The virtual storefront of the business, or “head” also resides on this server. A “headless” architecture simply means that these front and back-end resources are separated from one another; the same functions will persist on the back end, but a new, separate front end is built. The front-end is then hosted in the cloud, pulling data from the back-end as required via APIs.
Though it may seem like an inconsequential change in methodologies, there are significant advantages for retailers to build their websites using a headless architecture, particularly when considering the three pillars of any successful e-commerce platform: speed, localization, and logistics.
Page load times and performance are intrinsically tied to conversions and sales. Consider for a moment a distillery in Ireland that sells a variety of spirits including whiskey, vodka, and gin. Their website looks great and loads quickly – at least it does for the locals, since the data center is located in Dublin. To a customer living in the United States however, the experience may be far less seamless if the site was built using a monolithic architecture. That’s because the data – code, inventory, images, etc. – needs to physically travel from the data warehouse to the customer’s computer via their local ISP. Suddenly the user experience is diminished and, even though the delay can be counted in seconds, each second that passes reduces the likelihood of conversion.
Using headless architecture, the customer experience will be the same regardless of where the customer is located because the user facing storefront is generated statically and deployed using a global Content Delivery Network (CDN). This framework also ensures the site will continue to perform optimally even during spikes in traffic (as one might experience during Black Friday).
Any business that sells outside their own geographic area knows that buying patterns, behaviors, and preferences will differ from one place to the next. Additional factors including income, culture, and even weather will also play a role in a demographic’s buying. Using monolithic architecture, it is much more labor intensive to localize promotions to suit the people of a given area. That is because any changes to the storefront are more complex and the entire monolith must be redeployed regardless of the size of the change. Having a separate front end under a headless architecture, it is much easier to tailor the homepage to appeal to visitors from a specific region. This means the distillery can promote product A in a region that has shown preference for product A while simultaneously promoting similarly appealing products to various regions.
The more a company broadens their economic reach, their distribution and order fulfillment capabilities will also change. Delivery companies and pick up options can and will vary by region or even by product. Using monolithic architecture, this generally means that custom logic in the form of a third party plug-in or a modification built in-house to facilitate logistics. While this might be an effective approach on a smaller scale, for businesses that are truly embracing globalization each plug-in will have an impact on processing time. As mentioned above, each second is vital and a site with a complex and bloated processing time will invariably lead to a negative impact on conversions.
The advantage to using headless architecture as it pertains to logistics, is that the front end can be programmed to only display products available based on a customer’s location or data points. This simplifies the distribution and fulfillment process and results in fewer frustrated customers trying to purchase an item that cannot be delivered to their home due to logistical gaps
Headless E-Commerce is About Balance
Like anything else, implementing headless architecture is not without its challenges; more resources will be required up front for development and it will generally be a more complex endeavor than simply building an e-commerce platform using an out of the box solution. Having said that, when you consider the limitations of a conventional monolithic approach relative to the adaptability, speed, scalability, localization made possible by headless architecture it is easy to reconcile the investment costs.