If you’ve not heard of headless commerce, your head has probably been stuck under a rock for the last few years! It’s become such a big and misunderstood buzzword that we thought it was high time to drop some knowledge on how NOT to do headless on the Commerce Talk with SmartOSC podcast.
To dive into what headless can and can’t do for your business, host Adrian Wakeham spoke to two experts who come at this from slightly different angles: Paul Williams, Director - Solutions Engineering, APAC at commercetools and Australian technology and retail leader Shane Lenton, the CIO at Cue Clothing.
Paul is a digital innovation leader with expertise in digital experiences across a range of industries. Having started as a developer, he has maintained a focus throughout his career on technology and its application to improve the customer experience.
Shane is a technology and retail leader, with over 20 years of experience across a variety of industries. As the founder of Unified Commerce, he works with retail leaders to understand changing consumer behaviour and how to best leverage technology.
You can also check out this Q&A from the episode (edited for clarity and brevity) for all those yummy headless insights.
Adrian: First things first, how would each of you explain headless commerce as if you were talking to a child or a golden retriever?
Shane: For me, it's decoupling the front-end of a website from the back-end of the website. So traditionally, we have an eCommerce platform, where it's all encompassing, that's one platform and one stack. Headless is that journey to decouple.
Paul: It's interesting that you use the point around a child because fundamentally children or millennials, the connected sort of age, that's really what’s spurring a lot of the headless commerce approach these days. We're so connected in so many different ways with different devices, different endpoints, different ways of interacting both with each other and with retailers and that's what's really spurred the change to a headless approach. Shane rightfully pointed out that it is about decoupling, from the traditional monolithic solutions, but it's really about enabling organisations to be able to tap into the plethora of different technologies, devices, services that people in this day and age are using in order to transact and work with each other.
Adrian: To get into some headless horror stories, what can happen if you dive into headless potential without having the right infrastructure in place to use it properly?
Shane: This is changing by the second almost, meaning the headless conversations and the technology and the solutions around headless. I'm one of the last ones standing with Cue on a ASP.net eCommerce environment. That’s provided the opportunity for us to do whatever the hell we want to do, when we want to do it. It means when it's made sense, we've been able to be first in market, it means that we've had complete flexibility. Realistically, the downside of that is, you're not getting the shared benefit, if you look at a platform like Shopify, and what can be spun up, more or less out of the box, plug a theme in, upload some products, install some very cost-effective apps, and you can really deliver a great customer experience for the vast majority of businesses on a platform like that.
In the past businesses have gone 100% down a bespoke path and potentially underestimated the development effort. On one hand there’s huge agility and speed benefits. On the other hand, if you don't have the right talent, you don't have the right people involved, you're somewhat opening Pandora's box. So for me for headless, there's got to be the right reasons.
Paul: Don't do it, because you've got FOMO, don't do it because big brands are doing it. Do it because you've completely outgrown your existing platform. It's fundamentally stopping you from being able to evolve to new different areas, or it's run its course, from a platform perspective, or you're looking to move into new segments, whatever the business value reasons for making change is what should be driving you to consider going to a headless approach, not because someone else did it.
Adrian: Do you think that headless as a phrase having been on trend for the last couple of years has hurt the perception of the technology?
Paul: Yeah, I think there are certainly sceptics in the market. I know in this region, particularly Australia, everyone's quite sceptical of buzzwords. The actual term was coined by our CEO back when he kind of invented the commercetools platform, and he wasn't really a big fan of the term when it came out. Headless is something that everyone's now put into the bucket of separating the back-end and front-end, what we said at the start of the conversation. But what it's really about, I think, is taking things in a more composable approach. And I think the term headless has become synonymous with that. Because it's a nice, easy term to use, and everyone's now familiar with it. But the headless part of modern commerce architecture is just one part of it. The big part is really around being able to pick and choose the best of breed technologies and compose those together in a way that suits your organisation.
Shane: I think at the moment there are a lot of traditional eCommerce platforms that are talking about the iterations of headless. But essentially, you've still got some of the legacy controls or limitations around the back-end. It’s fantastic to be able to make the front-end look sexy, any designer can do that. But if you don't have the underlying architecture to support that with the back-end, you don’t have headless.
Adrian: Are there any particular business challenges or problems that headless would not be able to fix?
Shane: Ultimately, if you don't have your house in order, what's considered baseline, best of breed retail, you can't just plug this in and think it'll solve things, in fact it'll create more challenges. It'll create a lot more opportunities, but it's going to create more challenges. When you have your house in order and you introduce a way of thinking and approach like headless, it does open up so much opportunity where you're not waiting for platforms to play catch up, or to have commercial agreements in place, and all these sorts of things, for businesses to be able to evolve and capitalise on opportunities. But in its simplest form, it's not a silver bullet. I just think it needs to be part of the strategy and needs to be architected across your total environment. It's not a whole approach that can just be bolted on, it needs to be very thought through.
Paul: We're talking about how your entire business runs. Fundamentally everyone working from home more so and being online in those digital channels is what you're affecting, so it shouldn't be about someone looking to replace technology, it should be “we need to grow, we've outgrown what we're on”. You’ve got to think through all of that very, very thoughtfully to make sure that you don't create more problems than opportunities. This is really about organisations making that leap. Equally, it’s about being an organisation that isn't KPI-ed on just getting a little bit more than they did last year. This is about organisations that want to go beyond KPIs on just 10% more than last year, their KPI-ed on being innovative, opening up new digital channels, rolling out into new regions, and also, being able to fail. The headless approach enables businesses to fail fast and fix and repeat and then roll out new changes. But equally, the business has to be accepting of that and not be afraid or slap people on the wrist because it didn't quite work.
Adrian: Are there types of businesses or situations where taking a more traditional monolithic structure actually makes more sense?
Shane: Sure. For me, we're talking the vast majority of retailers in Australia it can be a very sensible approach that when executed well, with limited resources, they can have very, very, very successful businesses. But I think it's when those businesses or brands, whether it's a business, its size or opportunity, whether they need flexibility to capitalise on opportunity that doesn't exist in some of the traditional approaches, or to size and scale. That’s where headless really starts becoming interesting.
Paul: There's absolutely a space for so many SMB organisations that are still working their way through this, especially in B2B, that are just really tapping into the digital commerce side of things, that this really plays out and enables them to go through those learnings and get that back office in order because they don't have to think about the various different ways or the technology involved. The headless or composable approach is really for mature organisations, the ones who have outgrown those traditional platforms and it's part of their vision to grow and go beyond that. Equally, there's so many businesses that don't need that scale. When you get enterprise scale, when you grow beyond that near the sizes of the likes of the Kmarts of the world, they're a unique proposition of their own. They've got investment and it's a need rather than a want.
Adrian: What are your absolute top tips for knowing when headless is going to be the right fit for your business?
Paul: Mine would be get educated. Go into these conversations, ask lots of questions, do your research around what it is, and make sure you're well-informed. The other is do it for the right reasons. So your platform is absolutely burning, maybe you're losing staff because of it, or your current development team are looking to further educate or move beyond the technology stack you’re on. Potentially not just the stack itself, but everything that surrounds it is burning on you. You can help invigorate an organisation by looking at new technology and enabling that. The other is make sure you've got your back office in order and that you're a business prepared and ready to make this kind of change. Because as we pointed out, it opens up so much more opportunity, but it also creates so many more challenges through that process.
Shane: I always say to people when I'm when I'm talking around technology, particularly retail, people say to me, “I need to change platforms because my stock’s a disaster”, as an example, but moving to a platform is not going to fix your people and processes.
I had someone interested in headless and when I asked them why they were heading down that headless approach they said the main driver was speed. And when I sort of challenged him a little bit around that I said, “Well what exploration, have you done on the current platform to understand where the bottlenecks are, what the challenges are?” Whether it's catalogue, size, images, or content, whatever it is. Just because what you're seeing today isn't necessarily perfect or working well, doesn't mean that suddenly you're a perfect customer for headless.
You need to understand, firstly, what the challenges are that you're currently having, and to understand if they can be overcome on your existing platform, but also have a look at headless and, to Paul's point, have an informed view. I think it's about understanding all the individual sort of requirements or challenges or things that you can achieve to then validate changing to a whole different approach.
I just think that idea of headless as a silver bullet is probably one of the biggest disasters waiting to happen. Sometimes a change in technology can alleviate a lot of problems. But you need a clear understanding of what the issues are and if headless will solve them, if your current platform can't solve them, and really have that clean matrix of things you want to achieve that headless will deliver for you. I think it's a dangerous misconception just to find the buzzword and think that it's going to be easy.
It is a massive opportunity and the right informed decision can transform businesses. There is a genuine opportunity in reviewing your tech stack and executing headless with a real microservices approach to your architecture that as a whole can take some businesses to world leaders in a space.