Blog Post - Craig Harper-Ashton, Mar 21 2016

Headless Commerce: when Ecommerce meets Content Management

Headless Commerce: when Ecommerce meets Content Management

If you’re well versed in ecommerce, you may have noticed a shift in the last few years. When we talk about our usage of content management and ecommerce platforms, there’s a rather obvious elephant in the room.

These two component parts often form a single solution, yet have historically struggled to mesh successfully. Integration is often patchy, falling short of expectations. We’re still in a process of learning how best to integrate the two, but we’re closer to understanding how to utilise both together to deliver an exceptional customer experience.

The route to headless ecommerce

In the early days of the single-channel internet, content management systems supported digital pioneers in constructing fairly mediocre online stores. The layout and product pages were created from ungainly nested tables, with plenty of hand-coded HTML required to achieve the desired result. This was a time-consuming way to create a successful store, but while volumes were low, it worked well enough for some. Inevitably, though, it wouldn’t work forever.

As demand and traffic increased, marketers didn’t have the time to maintain these cumbersome and complex layouts, or manually build the pages they needed to handle larger volumes. They had to look for more sophisticated solutions to support larger product ranges, and a more enthusiastic approach to ecommerce helped to drive this transformation.

Once the major players stepped in, the game changed yet again. The market had to embrace high volumes, low margins and work within a fresh, new market to drive the growth that chief executives and shareholders expected. There simply had to be a more efficient way to build these large scale stores, and this required an element of automation and a more efficient way to deploy product content pages.

At this point, when growth was accelerating rapidly, we saw two different strategies appearing. One group of marketers was thinking in terms of content pages, primarily, while the other was thinking in terms of data. These two approaches don’t directly oppose each other, and are certainly not mutually exclusive. But at best, they tend to create ambiguity. At worst, the result may be an over-engineered solution that adds overheads, rather than removing them.

Fast forward to today

We’re now at a stage where conflicts between our two different strategies have been partly resolved.

Content management platforms are increasingly used to cement and augment the user experience, while the ecommerce platform has been given the job of handling the transactions.

But the two have to be integrated, which can be expensive and clumsy. The results are sometimes substandard and fall short of what we’d like to achieve.

As ecommerce continues to evolve, the elephant in the room is proving more difficult to ignore. Today’s shopper doesn’t just expect a flawless experience; they demand it. They want enjoyable, visually stimulating, content-rich experiences, on well-engineered, fast and reliable platforms. However, old-fashioned, separate yet integrated solutions have traditionally delivered a fragmented experience, where one literally hands over to the other.

Achieving elegance with headless ecommerce

Elegance is a term that is often neglected when it comes to solution design. It’s a signpost for efficiency, fault tolerance, speed and agility; the ability to adapt and without excessive cost. In 2016, we’re getting to a stage where the content management system and the ecommerce platform often live in harmony: each doing what they do best, elegantly, and without stepping on each others’ toes.

Now, we’re seeing architectures that utilise the power and functional maturity of both underlying systems. While the content management system takes care of controlling, developing and maintaining the core user experience, the ecommerce platform can take care of the transactional ‘heavy lifting’. In the latter, we now benefit from more than a decade’s evolution, leading to impressive volumes, performance and reliability.

We’re in a better position to aim for a headless ecommerce architecture, despite the fact that it isn’t yet fully defined (or, by definition, refined). In this model, both the content management system and the ecommerce system are both elegantly doing the jobs they have been designed to do.

The content management system delivers a powerful suite of tools for merchandising, trading and marketing, so the operations team can tailor the results to both brand and product range. At the same time, the team can deliver the continual change that users expect, woven around the ecommerce platform. It provides the data, state and transactional services, which then funnels data to multiple back-office systems.

It’s not the end

Headless ecommerce architecture is still unproven, in the sense that it isn’t anywhere near ubiquitous. We still have a long way to go, and time and energy is required in the interim. But there are already some very successful examples of headless ecommerce done well. Granted, some examples are not great; some integrations not yet effective. But increased investment will prove the validity of this architecture in more cases, as we progress.

At last, it seems – even to a sceptic – we’re coming to a stage where content management systems and ecommerce platforms speak a common language. Perhaps they were never so different, after all.

Supporting clients with ecommerce technology