Ecommerce technology is evolving quickly, and online sellers have a variety of options when choosing an ecommerce platform. One of the key decisions to make is which type of front-end architecture to choose for your site. In other words, how do you want to create and manage what customers see?
There are three main ways that companies launch sites today:
- Ecommerce site templates: Fully-formed, pre-built site architectures.
- Declarative solutions: Also known as component-based tools, drag/drop, and/or low code option, these tools allow you to move or edit components on your site or page without using code.
- Headless commerce: Back-end ecommerce functions — such as managing pricing and promotions, product catalogs, customer setup — are completely decoupled from the front-end customer experience of the site.
Each of these options has pros and cons. Below we’ll discuss them in more detail to help you decide which option (or options) is right for you.
Ecommerce site templates
Ecommerce templates are layouts (or themes) that are preconfigured to get an ecommerce site up and running quickly. Early templates were rigid and didn’t always meet the highest design standards. But modern templates are easy to work with, offer flexibility, and are used to create some of the world’s most beautiful ecommerce sites.
For smaller companies, those with fewer development resources, or companies starting a new ecommerce site from scratch, templates from your chosen ecommerce provider are usually the best choice.
One of the key benefits of using templates is that they get a site up and running fast, and at the lowest cost. Another benefit is that they are typically the standard way to build a site from any given ecommerce vendor and they incorporate all best practices related to that vendor, for example for processes like order of operations and promotion, and discount management. Plus, templates have been the standard for a while, so you should be able to find good references and examples from your vendor and your system integrator should have experience with them. In short, templates are a great option if you have few development resources, if you’re starting a new ecommerce site from scratch, if you want to get your site up and running fast, and if you want to use the standard process from your vendor.
It’s important to remember that these site templates are code. That means to make meaningful updates or changes, you’ll need a developer to write or edit this code. Secondly, the templates may not be fully supported by the ecommerce vendor in the same way the rest of the ecommerce platform is. If you make changes or customizations, you’re often on your own to fix any related issues. Plus, the more coding and customization you do on your template, the harder it is to maintain and update into the future.
Finally, building on templates can also lead to what’s referred to as a “skill trap.” Because the templates are a mix of standard web components and code that is proprietary to your specific ecommerce vendor, maintaining them requires specific coding and development resources. Developers need to be familiar with coding on the commerce platform, which may have specific code requirements and skills for front-end development. The combination of skills needed can make recruiting new resources a challenge.
Declarative solutions use a component-based, drag-and-drop approach. This means that you can edit your site and page without code by dragging components into the desired placement. Simple CMS systems like WordPress are good examples of how they work. These systems are very popular and can be a great solution for companies focusing on commonly used functionality, such as a standard checkout process.
Declarative solutions require far less IT support for the front-end customer experience. Usually you don’t have to code anything that the customer sees. This leads to a lot of speed in launching the site and agility to make changes quickly and easily.
Declarative systems can empower business, merchandising, and marketing users to launch and manage sites without having to wait for IT to make updates or changes. As a result, they may enable the company to invest less in IT resources since day-to-day site management rests more with the business users.
Declarative systems offer less flexibility and don’t allow for much in-depth customization. This means that they are not a good option for companies with very unique use cases or companies wanting extremely customized sites or bespoke experiences.
They may not support certain types of functionality, either. If you’re planning to sell internationally, for example, check to see if all foreign language characters and currencies are supported. There may be limitations in space available for product descriptions and text vs. image ratios.
In short, declarative solutions offer agile, easy-to-use drag-and-drop functionality that lets business users have more control over the site. But they generally don’t allow for much in-depth customization.
Headless commerce is the common term used when a company uses different systems for the back-end ecommerce functionality and the front-end user experience. It’s popular for companies that want to take advantage of the functionality of a certain ecommerce solution without having to conform to its design constraints.
The primary benefit of headless commerce is extreme flexibility for both the front- and back-end of the site. This can benefit large companies that have established ecommerce strategies and strong preferences for specific functionality and design.
Headless commerce is often chosen by companies that want to pair their online ecommerce experience with other customer touchpoints, such as mobile/app experiences, in-store experiences, social media, and user-generated content, or even with product experiences — most commonly done by software or gaming companies. By using different vendors and solutions for different parts of the site, companies can tailor the site to be exactly what they need for their specific use case.
There are several downsides to headless commerce. Using multiple vendors for a single site drives up both cost and complexity. Sometimes the total cost of ownership goes up significantly.
It also can make implementation and integration more complex and site maintenance more difficult. Rather than streamlining processes, you’re creating a paradigm where you’re adding complexity by committing to custom build everything. The companies that are most successful with headless commerce are those that have a relatively large and sophisticated team of developers who can take advantage of the additional flexibility without getting mired down by integration complexity.
My intended takeaway from this post is that ecommerce templates, declarative solutions, and headless commerce all have benefits and each can be the ideal option for companies selling online. It’s important to consider your use case, resources, and short and long-term ecommerce goals when deciding which ecommerce architecture is right for you. But also remember that you don’t need to choose just one option, the largest and best performing online sellers generally use elements of all three.
The good news: Salesforce Commerce Cloud offers complete B2C, B2B, and B2B2C commerce functionality. We fully support headless use cases, but also offer low code alternatives when you need to do things without the overhead of headless. Find out more.