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Headless Commerce revolutionized the omnichannel

Picture of Simon Hamm, valantic CEC Germany, next to it a smartphone and stacked packages

Interview with Simon Hamm, valantic CEC Germany

Headless commerce revolutionized the omnichannel. So far, so good. But what does this mean in concrete terms? To what extent is the technology “headless”? What are the benefits and what role does SAP Spartacus play in this context? These are some of the many questions that Simon Hamm of valantic CEC Deutschland answered for us in detail.

What does headless commerce mean?

Headless commerce is always mentioned when the software architecture is decoupled. That is, the front and back end are separated from each other and communicate using standardized application programming interfaces (API interfaces). Logics such as order processes are mapped in such “headless” architectures in the back end. The front end is kept comparatively simple and serves primarily to provide an attractive presentation for the users.

Why headless?

The term “headless” has its origins in the IT architecture. The technical separation of the back end (data management and business logic) and the front end (appearance to the outside world) creates so-called island solutions. They communicate with each other, but otherwise work as independently as possible and therefore do not need a single head as a central point of contact.

How did the development of a decoupled software architecture come about?

In traditional software solutions, the front and back ends are usually tightly connected. Software is often responsible for several processes – both for storing and processing data and for presenting it in the front end. As long as you know the exact purpose of the software, this can be quite practical. However, this also creates a certain functional dependence on the manufacturer’s technical ecosystem. And this is precisely where it became necessary to change something about the software architecture.

For it is true that certain plug-ins were able extend the scope of functions. However, there was little or no room for technological innovations. And if there was, these were associated with high costs and long development times. In an increasingly complex e-commerce world, however, exactly the opposite is needed: Continuous development with minimal time and financial outlay.

Furthermore, in the area of content management, this problem was identified very early on. New approaches were needed to optimally display texts and images on all end user devices. The solution was headless CMS: Content management systems were developed that work independently of the front end.

What are the benefits of headless commerce?

Separating the actual content from its presentation provides several advantages that I would like to discuss briefly:

  1. Simplicity: As soon as individual features are to be integrated into the online shop, standardized all-round systems are often pushed to their limits. Many applications are not compatible with standard features. Headless systems, on the other hand, can be expanded as required: Third-party systems and new applications can be connected easily via APIs.
  2. Flexibility: The content relevant to e-commerce can be optimized for any platform or device with headless commerce. This makes the online shopping world much more complex. At the same time, it is also possible to bring e-commerce content to users in even more targeted fashion. 
  3. Uniqueness: The headless approach also benefits the front-end design. Developers are no longer bound by structure standards. The brand appearance can thus be separated completely from the back end, which also contributes to a better user experience.
  4. Innovation: With microservices, new sales channels can be set up and tested in a very short time. Combined with agile principles, state-of-the-art sales channels are created. These can be optimized if required and adapted to the requirements of the customer in question.

How would you summarize the benefits of headless e-commerce in two or three sentences?

Headless e-commerce can positively influence the user experience. The headless commerce approach creates flexibility and thus a clear competitive advantage. It makes it possible to benefit quickly and efficiently from the benefits of new technological developments.

Are there any disadvantages?

Yes, and these are directly related to the benefits. If you want to create unique customer experiences, you need to invest the technical and financial resources to create them. Headless commerce requires a lot of time, energy, expertise – and mostly money.

However, there are already independent headless commerce solutions such as SAP Spartacus, so that not every function has to be developed individually. Take a classic purchase as an example. This usually ends with a checkout process that is very similar in most cases: Query customer data and process payment. In this case, work required can be reduced significantly with precisely such standardized headless commerce tools.

What do I need to take into account for the interfaces of the headless system?

As already indicated, the implementation of headless commerce requires expert designers and developers. The interfaces between the front end and back end are central and at the same time critical components of headless systems. Or, more precisely, between the front-end application and the server behind it that provides the website content. If these interfaces are clearly defined, content, product data, and images can be exchanged without any problems or orders can be triggered. The checkout process and payment strategies are also mapped via these interfaces.

Whether SAP, CRM or various logic systems: Typically, these systems are tied to the site through intermediate middleware. This means that back-end systems can be updated or even replaced if necessary without affecting the front end. Conversely, the front end can also be adapted without having to make any adjustments in the back end. The result: It is possible to respond to trends quickly and ultimately to improve the user experience.

Where is headless commerce used in practice?

Playing content optimized for the channel – a challenge that is also relevant and especially relevant in e-commerce. After all, sales are usually made through multiple channels, some of which vary greatly in their user experience. Omnichannel strategies are becoming increasingly important in this context.

Some of the channels that offer potential for headless commerce solutions are:

  • Classic online shop, desktop, and mobile
  • Marketplaces à la Amazon or eBay
  • In-store kiosks & displays
  • B2B order portals
  • Voice commerce
  • Virtual & augmented reality
  • IoT devices

In this context, however, you would be looking in vain for finished standard software. I think there are two reasons for this:

  1. The channels mentioned are not standardized themselves. The question is whether they will ever be able to meet individual requirements in the future.
  2. Individual customer groups have to be addressed more and more specifically. Therefore, it is necessary to have individualized front ends that are adapted to the different channels and also meet the requirements of the respective customer groups.

Is there a concrete example of a hybrid approach from an existing solution and headless commerce?

Yes, indeed. We are pursuing such an approach with Siemens Mobility. Existing developments in the back end are reused, while the front end is re-implemented based on some headless approaches. We use the SAP Commerce Cloud as a technical basis for the so-called MoBase. This means that in addition to the existing CMS, large parts of the back end can also be taken over. By separating the back end and the front end, we ensure a consistent look and feel of the MoBase – on all channels, devices and in all resolutions.

What role does SAP Spartacus play in headless commerce?

Spartacus is a single page application (SPA) that can be operated as a progressive web app (PWA) headless. And this also closes the circle of headless commerce. SAP Spartacus consists of a set of libraries – and is thus considered the basis for an exemplary storefront. REST APIs allow you to use microservices. SAP Spartacus can also be used in conjunction with SmartEdit, the CMS tool of SAP Commerce Cloud.

So much in brief. Read more about PWAs and SAP Spartacus in the SAP Spartacus blog post.

Glossary:

Single Page Application (SPA)

The term single page application refers to a web application that consists of a single HTML document. Content is loaded dynamically.

Progressive Web App (PWA)

Progressive web apps can be described as hybrid websites. They have features of classic native apps but can be accessed via a browser.

SmartEdit

SmartEdit is the SAP Commerce Cloud CMS tool.

SAP Spartacus

SAP Spartacus is a SPA that can be operated headless as a PWA.

Headless commerce

Headless commerce is always mentioned when the software architecture is decoupled. That is: The front and back ends can act separately.

Front end

While the back end remains hidden, the front end is what users see on the various end user devices. That is, the outward appearance, which determines the quality and overall impression of the website.

Back end

Every website has a technical basis; this is called the back end. It processes and stores data and business logic in the background, hence the name.

Omnichannel

Omnichannel is a business model for companies that want to be in constant contact with their customers simultaneously via multiple channels.

Application Programming Interface (API)

Application programming interfaces are programming interfaces that connect different applications at the source level.

Content Management System (CMS)

CMS stands for content management system and refers to a web-based program for managing content on web pages.

Local storage

Simply translated, local storage means local memory. In this case, this refers to the local – and permanent – memory in the user’s browser. The size depends on the browser.

Internet of Things (IoT)

Internet of Things is a technological collective term. It refers to the linking of physical and virtual objects by means of information and communication technologies.

Business-to-Business (B2B)

B2B is a business relationship between companies, or more precisely a business relationship between one company and another.

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