Headless eCommerce - the Architecture for Success in eGrocery

This isn’t a Halloween tale about a horseman nor a chicken running around sans cranium. Headless eCommerce is an emerging approach to digital commerce and will in time be the most effective solution for retailers to engage with their customers.

When you think of a human head, you associate it with both the face as well as the brain behind its interactions. Ironically, the head on an eCommerce site is just the user interface, the top of the tech stack where the customer interactions occur, but not where the intelligence lives. A great user experience is a really important part of the overall eCommerce offering but the underlying logic, algorithms, and intelligence that bring depth and relevance to the user experience is where the real innovations are occurring. In a headless eCommerce platform, all that intelligence resides in a set of industry specific microservices that form the basis of a set of APIs. This microservices architecture is decoupled from the head with the APIs forming the pathways to and from the head. Imagine each organ in the body operating independently - each with its own intelligence and the capability of interacting with other organs if necessary - resulting in no need for a single brain.

So what? Why does it matter if your platform is headless or not? If your eCommerce site is built on a monolithic platform (i.e. not headless micro-services architecture) it’s likely that the legacy foundational technology tightly interweaves the user interface with the platform’s intelligence making it very difficult to effect changes in one area versus another. That tight coupling means updates to either the user interface or its intelligence are painful and take a lot of time and money. That slow pace of innovation results in quick obsolescence as these platforms cannot easily keep up with the changes needed to address the rapid growth facing the eGrocery industry.    

Online grocery is complex and there is a large ecosystem of third party systems needed. Providers and platforms for product images and metadata, content management & blogs, digital coupons, rebates, in-store POS, email marketing, text messaging & push notifications, online chat and chatbot, social marketing, product recommendations, integrated CPG advertising, online pharmacy, recipe solutions, loyalty, CRM, ERP, payment processors, analytics, delivery routing, and fulfillment all have to work together and share data. That data has to be unified and intelligently organized so that your customers can meaningfully interact with it. To move quickly and meet the needs of your customers, these data aggregations have to be separated from the head where the customer interacts with them.

As an example, in an omni-channel world it’s essential that your loyalty & rewards program is integrated with your eCommerce platform. However, digitally displaying the rewards your customers earn in-store through your POS, letting them earn rewards in that program through their online purchases, and enabling them to redeem those rewards in-store or online can quickly become a nightmare. The real time updates to that display of individual account information requires touching layers of code between the user and your POS system. With a headless architecture, the POS interface is handled separately from the display of a customer’s profile, enabling independence between changes to the customer account and any updates that may be pushed out by your POS provider. That separation allows for much greater flexibility and agility in addressing the needs of both your customers and your technology providers.

Rewards & loyalty is just one example. There are operational issues like fulfillment to consider - which solution will work best for you? With a headless architecture forming the foundation of your eCommerce offering, you don’t have to let your platform factor into that decision. It can easily and seamlessly integrate with multiple fulfillment formats including robotics in the warehouse or self driving vehicles on the road.

Furthermore, with all these technology touch points and third parties involved, which provider in each category is best? Is the best provider today going to be the best provider two years from now? Will a new feature emerge that is a must have to engage your customers or improve your operation? The reality is the landscape of third party providers is shifting with many new specialized technology entrants bringing very innovative solutions to bear on meeting the needs of the rapidly growing industry.  

The term omni-channel today implies a consistent experience across mobile, desktop and your store. But what about future ordering via the touchscreen on your smart refrigerator? The Internet of Things (IoT) is coming, and who knows what user interfaces, voice, touch, or other will emerge in an IoT world. The penetration of voice based virtual assistant devices like Amazon Echo or Google Home is astounding. eMarketer Retail estimates that there are roughly 70MM voice assistant devices in the United States today and approximately 20% of users with voice assistants are using them to shop for grocery items. With a headless eCommerce platform the user interface is easily extensible from the screen of a computer or phone to a voice assistant.  

The answer is clear, in order to keep pace with the rapid innovations that are occurring in eGrocery, meet the needs of your customers and build trust with them without risk of technical delays or worse technical failures, a headless eCommerce platform will be the essential core of your overall digital strategy.