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Headless Commerce in 5 Steps – and How To Convince Your Org You Need It

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Use APIs to separate the front end and back end of your ecommerce tools for a more frictionless, targeted customer experience.

From social media, to live video shopping, to messenger apps, the days of simply browsing for products online (or in store, at a safe distance) are over. In the age of social distancing, customers use an average of nine different channels to browse inventory, seek advice, and make purchases. The ubiquity of mobile combined with new trends emerging from the pandemic – like social commerce (social channel referral grew 104% year-over-year) – have created a renewed urgency for brands to provide a unified presence wherever customers show up. Whether business-to-business (B2B) or business-to-consumer (B2C), now is the time to bring headless commerce into your organization.

To deliver consistent brand experiences, commerce leaders are turning to headless commerce, which uses application programming interfaces (APIs) to connect the omni-channel journey across owned and third-party consumer touchpoints, such as social media, curbside pickup apps, or bespoke ecommerce storefronts. As shoppers move more to the edge (meaning shopping outside of traditional retail, such as through social media), these APIs have become more necessary. For example, during Cyber Week 2020, API usage increased 51% year-over-year, reaching more than 1 billion API calls.*

What is headless commerce?

Definition: Headless commerce is a separation of the front end and back end of an ecommerce application. This architecture allows brands – typically bigger enterprises with large development and IT teams – the freedom to use APIs to program and customize the build as they need it, resulting in a better user experience for customers and employees alike.

Headless commerce shouldn’t feel scary for those just getting started. This approach is not another developer tool or technology solution. It’s an organizational shift that allows teams to stay flexible and agile in order to embed commerce on new channels and deliver the best possible outcomes to customers. 

If you’re considering headless commerce, read on for the five steps to get your teams on board and start creating consistent brand experiences. 

Step 1: Create one customer use case

To get leadership invested in headless commerce, focus on your organization’s current customer pain points, and not the technology or the channel. Plot out exactly how a customer currently comes to your brand: search, social, or another medium. What are the steps that create friction? Does the customer have to jump to different apps or manually search for products because they can’t immediately get to the information they need? 

Make this use case your jumping off point. Map out what the future vision could look like for that customer instead. How might you streamline steps in the journey? What tools can you align to different customer behaviors? The key is to build a business case that demonstrates what is possible with a headless approach centered around the current experience.

Step 2: Get leadership emotionally invested in headless commerce

Bring marketers, merchandisers, and digital teams together, as they are the ones who will need to evangelize the approach. Many organizations see the move to headless as an IT-led decision. But as it takes many lines of business to ensure commerce success, the same stakeholders should also lead a commerce transformation.  

Present your use case. Share the pain points for your customer and the impact it has on your business. This will get everyone emotionally invested in solving the issue. Offer tangible examples, including data and heat maps that show how the customer currently interacts with your brand across channels. Include trends and industry research to strengthen your points. Lastly, project what your brand’s future may look like if you do not resolve the issue (this is known as the opportunity cost). 

Pro tip: don’t mention the term “headless commerce” quite yet. It can feel too complex and nuanced if you mention it too soon. The main objective of your first meeting is to ensure everyone understands the challenge in the context of the customer and what’s at stake.

Step 3: Find a partner to help you design a new experience

Define what success looks like for your brand. Here, you can mention an API-led headless commerce approach, but use language that your audience understands. For example, if you are presenting to the head of customer experience, show how headless commerce will elevate brand perception and convert new customers. 

Next, choose a trusted partner that can help you design a new experience. Providers like Commerce Cloud offer drag-and-drop tools, APIs, and a robust partner ecosystem to customize for your unique use case and embed commerce into new channels. These tools also allow you to offload any stress on your storefront with visibility into system status. (Many brands have seen holiday-like numbers for digital commerce since the beginning of the pandemic, so headless commerce is also a component to prepare for continued peak traffic moments in 2021.)

Step 4: Go live, test, and learn

One of the biggest shifts for your teams is in mindset. They are used to spending time perfecting each experience. With headless commerce, they need to get comfortable with agility: go live quickly, assess how customers react, and use that learning to iterate.

The key is to start small and find quick wins. Don’t try to solve every problem — stay focused on your first use case. Ensure that you stay in line with your existing scope of the project as well (scope creep will slow you down). Put a roadmap in place with key milestones and show it to leadership on an ongoing basis to prove return on investment (ROI). Continue learning and then gear up to take on your next use case. 

Let’s look at a case in point. For Under Armour, the goal of making athletes better by anticipating their needs was difficult to achieve when the majority of traffic was coming from mobile. Low conversion and average order value resulted in a $115 million gap between mobile visits and revenue. So, Under Armour worked with Commerce Cloud and Mobify (a web storefront for headless commerce that’s now a part of Salesforce) to go live with progressive web apps (PWAs) in 26 international markets, meeting athletes at key moments via compelling mobile experiences. The API-led headless commerce architecture made it possible for the team to go live quickly, review results, and keep innovating to create new web app experiences. Learn more about Under Armour’s experience with an API-led headless commerce approach.

Step 5: Deliver and refine your connected experiences

A headless commerce solution is far more than solving for a single experience. To deliver a unified brand experience, use APIs to integrate across more third-party sources, like Pinterest, Instagram Shop, or messenger apps. 

Go further by connecting commerce, marketing, service, and order management into a single source of truth for data. Your teams work off of one platform to deploy new experiences quickly and address trends and changes to consumer behaviors by weaving commerce into new and emerging channels. 

Get started with headless commerce

In 2021, there is no doubt that consumer behavior will continue to change. Digital shopping channels have taken over — and brands will likely see sustained demand on their digital storefronts. Headless commerce makes it possible for brands to stay ready and deliver the right experiences on the right channels that match the moment.

Visit the Commerce Cloud Developer Center

Learn more about the tools you can use to deliver consistent, omni-channel brand experiences in headless commerce.

 *Salesforce B2C Commerce platform data, November 2020

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