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GUEST COMMENT Setting headless expectations

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James Brooke is CEO at Amplience

In the world of online retail, ecommerce managers are focused on building customer experiences that use content, not code. The delays inherent with developer time impact speed and flexibility so to eliminate this, many retailers are opting for a ‘headless’ approach which decouples the frontend from the backend. 

Going headless uses APIs to connect the content, data and logic – the commerce functionality – with the ‘heads’ or presentation layers.  The main advantage of this more modern approach is the flexibility it provides for retailers to choose the components they want, such as personalisation functionality or search tools and update or change these easily without the rest of the tech stack being affected. Retailers can build an evolving suite of tools that specifically suits their business.

There is much to be said for the traditional commerce-led approach, which is less complex and easier to maintain, however, today’s retailers need to be able to respond to customer demands quickly and this is a challenge if the customer experience is closely entangled with the rest of the company’s architecture. 

Why headless makes sense

  • Headless allows for constant iteration, not long sprints. Updates can go live in hours or days not weeks or months, enabling real-time optimisation and innovation.
  • A fast ROI is more realistic because retailers can migrate to headless in stages, rather than opting for a full replatform. This also makes it easier to learn on the go and apply the knowledge to other parts of the migration.
  • Decoupling frontends improves their performance. Sub-second load times, even with increased traffic, will become normal and this will improve the retailer’s rankings on search engines. 
  • Solutions can be scaled individually without response times being affected. This means less risk and more confidence for the growing retailer. 
  • The agility of headless means retailers can react to the market and to business needs, be more experimental and learn and adapt more quickly.
  • Retailers are no longer obliged to upgrade their platform or even remove it entirely. Each vendor and component is dealt with individually.
  • Developers benefit from headless. They can select the frontend tools, frameworks and languages they want and which suit the business’s needs and build the architecture of choice. 
  • There are no more prescribed templates and no user experience (UX) design. Retailers can build, design and customize their online brand presence as they want. 
  • It is easier to integrate automated functionality that offers contextual and personalised content, products, search results, etc, using real-time data, artificial intelligence and machine learning to deliver bespoke experiences and make data-driven decisions. 
  • Technical teams and business teams can work alongside each other causing less bottlenecks.  
  • A headless tool such a headless CMS, give business users useful content creation tools, and they no longer have to rely on developers for coding.  
  • Multiple frontends mean operating across multiple channels, including social, mobile apps, kiosks, IoT, etc, is easy and they can all use the same powerful data and backend logic for full consistency. 

Who’s going headless?

A growing number of retailers are opting for headless, including Liberty London, which integrated a headless CMS and achieved a 66% reduction in content production time, and by streamlining asset management were able to boost SEO and mobile traffic and accelerate conversion growth, particularly in overseas markets.  Another example is leading BBQ grill manufacturer Traeger Grills, which moved to headless to deliver commerce experiences for its customers and achieved site loads that are twice as fast, an increase in site conversions and the ability to push web releases daily, not the quarterly updates that they were pushing previously. 

What’s the right approach?

Going headless doesn’t mean guaranteed success or an immediate ROI. It’s important to set goals and have a full understanding of the migration, how it will affect the business, the costs involved and how value can be achieved. Setting the level of headless is the first step. 

The beauty of a headless approach is that retailers don’t have to go all in unless they want to. They can pick and choose certain components within their architecture and just go headless with them individually. The level of headless needs to be assessed against the individual business and technical needs, and the business goals. They can then decide the right technology to support those needs. 

Retailers also need to understand the appetite for change within the business and whether the technical teams (both internally and externally) have the skills required to deal with a full headless architecture. Everything must be achievable and realistic, but this is made easier by being able to take it all step by step. They can bite off smaller bits of architecture (and see the value of those) while on their way to a fully headless stack, and even run old and new platforms in parallel as the headless implementation evolves. 

An example of this, should a retailer not want to replatform their entire commerce solution, would be to look at integrating a headless CMS with their current ecommerce stack. The business users creating and managing content will then be more empowered to deal with complex content needs across multiple frontends. They’ll have the tools they need, while developer bottlenecks will likely be eliminated. The content production workflow will also be more streamlined as the need for a lot of coding and frontend developer lessens. 

What to expect

While adoption of headless makes sense, there are some myths that are important to dispel. It won’t necessarily save loads of money, although if it is well executed it can lower costs. If that is the only success measure, then a retailer might want to look at other options. Headless does, however, give retailers more flexibility and control over their costs in the longer term. Headless is also more complex than traditional ecommerce architecture. This is becoming less challenging but implementing a full headless approach takes time. Going headless alone is not a magic bullet for better performance, and it is crucial to diligently go through each layer of architecture to make sure there are no bottlenecks. It is also necessary to manage more platforms and vendors – although they can be worth their weight in gold – and to make sure everyone within the organisation is on-board with the headless approach. This is a change that will affect processes and it might require different skillsets from teams.

Final word

Any retailer considering a headless approach should do their research. Ask questions, set out a detailed plan, get everyone on board and ultimately be prepared for what’s ahead. Each business is different and unique and there is not a one-size-all approach or solution. If they take time to outline what they want to achieve, why they think this is the right approach for the business and what the roadmap will be for getting them there, this is a good place to start the journey.

James Brooke is CEO at Amplience

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