Perspective

Why use a headless commerce platform?

We asked +20 ecommerce managers what value an open-source headless commerce platform like Medusa could bring to their businesses

In the world of ecommerce, headless commerce platforms have rapidly gained interest in recent years, but what is the buzz really about? We interviewed more than 20 ecommerce managers from D2C brands to understand what elements they found to be most valuable in an headless commerce platform like Medusa. The findings are summarized below.

Additionally, we will explain some of the functional differences between a monolithic and a headless commerce platform. For more technical insights into how Medusa works, please check out our documentation or GitHub repo.

Monolithic platforms: The world before headless commerce

Monolithic structures, such as Shopify, are known for their all-in-one characteristic that link backend and frontend interdependently into one solution. Frontend refers to the visual elements of a website that users can see and interact with, while backend refers to the parts not directly accessed by the user such as order processing, customer information storage etc.

Monolithic solutions have always been popular for providing quick out-of-the-box solutions that make ecommerce easily available for everyone. However, as much as these solutions are easy to get started with, they often lead to pain points that companies realize as they grow.  Here are some of the most common pain points we hear:

  • Customizability is limited due to monolithic solutions' templated setup. Indeed, they are often built upon templated frontend designs, complicating the creation of a true on-brand experience for the customers. In a similar manner, limitations also apply in the use of outside plugins as monolithic solutions are not purposefully built for easy integrations.
  • Monolithic solutions lack the flexibility that scaling merchants need. Adapting code, adding functionality, or changing plugins take significant manpower and often lead to "hacked solutions" - i.e., suboptimal building choices that yield subsequent complications. A problematic example is multi-regional and currency support, which have caused a maintenance nightmare for businesses that need to set up individual webshops for each country they operate in because out-of-the-box functionality does not support expansions.
  • Monolithic structures are not built for performance. Due to multiple integrations and often overwhelming use of micro-plugins, many merchants observe decreasing page speed and lack of control over Search Engine Optimization (SEO) using a monolithic setup as they expand. Likewise, hosting solutions are using local servers which is not a performance-enhancing method compared to using distributed hosting possibilities otherwise available.

These traditional solutions' shortcomings have been central drivers provoking shifts from monolithic to headless setups in recent years. Let us briefly outline how headless commerce platforms work in opposition to the above.

How headless commerce platforms work

In essence, the term "headless commerce" refers to the architectural decoupling of the frontend and backend layer of an ecommerce platform. If you think of a traditional ecommerce application as a body, removing its ‘head’, or the frontend layer leaves you with the ecommerce backend. This separation ensures that each module within the application - be it a shopping cart, a payment gateway, or pricing engine – can function as a microservice that operates independently.

This decoupled and modular architecture gives several structural advantages such as:

  • Control the frontend: Being able to choose the frontend layer that seems most fit for purpose and can be customized to the extent needed
  • API-first design: More seamlessly integrate with other solutions as the backend is often purposefully made for integrations with outside solutions through APIs
  • Developer experience: Increasing developers flexibility when building custom features to the setup - which is only enhanced with open-source visibility as is the case with Medusa

Currently, there is a rapid interest from businesses in transitioning from monolithic into modular ecommerce platforms. A study by WP Engine finds that more than 90% of the ecommerce businesses surveyed that do not currently operate headless are planning to transition in the future.

How headless commerce platforms are changing the game

Building with a headless commerce platform enables you to get structural benefits such as frontend control, API-first design, and an improved developer experience. But how does it translate into business impact?

After interviewing +20 D2C eCommerce managers on their opinions about the headless commerce platforms, we have found the three areas that they see the most value from.

Customization

The separation of frontend and backend enables you to build a perfect on-brand experience for the webshop visitors and ensures integrations are tailored to the shop's individual needs. Indeed, infinite, and specific modular changes allow ecommerce stores to creatively adapt to any desired design without predetermined and templated CMS constraints. In other words, headless commerce platforms have the advantage of giving merchants the freedom of expression to build however they want to enrich the user experience. Moreover, the API-first and open-source design of a headless commerce platform like Medusa ensures that merchants can take full ownership of their tech stack to build with best-in-breed technologies that best meet their needs. This setup also makes it easier to build custom functionality due to the direct code access giving merchants the right to innovate on their own distinction. In short, headless commerce platforms offer original and custom-built possibilities for merchants to design an ecommerce site that best matches themselves and their customers.

Flexibility

Headless commerce platforms give webshops the flexibility to adjust their commerce setup as they grow. One example is the need for multi-regional currency-, shipping- and payment-support which is often not fully provided in most monolithic solutions. For Medusa, it has been essential to build this flexibility into the core to ensure that a global setup can be managed from one place and making it easy to adjust for local currency differences and shift between local shipping and payment providers. For other integrations such as CMS, analytics, and accounting solutions, it becomes smoother to shift around due to the API-first approach. We experienced this first-hand by building an extensive ERP integration in a record time of only 4 weeks; in comparison, the ERP vendor was used to these processes taking no less than 12 weeks with monolithic setups. Another place where the flexibility of headless commerce platform becomes handy is in the omni-channel setup: integrations can be facilitated to any type of sales channel from different POS systems to all types of online channels (e.g. SoMe platforms, market places, chatbots etc.) while gathering it all in one backend. To sum up, adjusting the tech setup to a merchant's evolving needs gets simplified with a headless commerce platform.

Performance

Last but not least, a headless commerce platform gives you the ideal prerequisite for optimizing your page performance. Page speed is instrumental for the user experience and some studies even suggest that a 0.1 sec. improvement is enough to boost conversions up to 8%. With a headless commerce platform, the frontend is behaving as an independent unit which enables users to get the interactive interface significantly faster. This can be done, as it allows websites to load the static content of a page (e.g., fixed images, plain text, etc.) before the dynamic and interactive components. Moreover, headless commerce platforms (especially open-source ones) will often contain fewer "quick fix plugins" as adjustments can be made directly to the core instead of requiring more plugins. On performance, headless commerce platforms also solve the problem of slow servers as they allow for the use of distributed cloud server networks that are significantly faster than using stationary remote ones. Finally, the ability to use an outside CMS allows for custom URL structure and better page control than what is possible with a solution like Shopify. URLs that contain self-explanatory keywords and that refer to one specific links maximizing search rankings along with the improved page speed. In sum, conversion relies heavily on SEO, itself revamped by headless' page speed, efficiency and control over page structure.

Business impact of a headless commerce platform

As headless commerce platforms start to be more commonly used, it gets evident that the above benefits can have a profound measurable impact on webshops' overall performance and for the most part, with limited little developer support. Here are a few industry examples:

  • TEKLA Fabrics moved from WooCommerce to Medusa's headless commerce platform and achieved a 70% uplift in conversion and scaled to cover more than 50 markets. They achieved this with only one front-end developer to manage the full setup.
  • Burrow, the home furniture retailer, observed a 30% increase in conversion rate and a 50% site speed improvement leveraging a headless commerce platform and a modern frontend. They achieved this progress only 2 months after the platform shift with limited developer support.
  • Pretty Green experienced a shift from 4- to 1-second response time on their commerce site, even during high traffic. Moreover, the shift to a headless commerce platform resulted in a +5% increase in average order value and a +6% rise in product recommendation clicks.
  • K2 Sports claimed that a shift to a headless commerce platform helped them meet their on-brand experience goal, created a site that was 75% faster, enabled them to publish content 90% more quickly, and boosted productivity by 50%, all while alleviating development dependencies.

Medusa gives all merchants the possibility to achieve similarmeaningful success. We think the best way to do this is to plan for a shift to a headless commerce platform already early in the digital commerce journey. In reality, many problems encountered when scaling an ecommerce business simply come from not adopting to a more custom commerce platform early, as merchants tried to take an "easy" templated solution from the get-go, without considering the issues that build on top as you grow.

Lowering the bar for when to use a headless commerce platform

Headless commerce platforms present numerous benefits that are not negligible anymore in a world where competition is increasing online, platforms multiply, customers' expectations rise, and technology shapes ecommerce prosperity. In this context, accessibility should not be a barrier for any ambitious business willing to invest in their growth potential and shift to a headless commerce platform. That is why Medusa made it a key priority to:

Lower the bar for when businesses can shift to a headless commerce platform

We do this by:

  • Creating a setup that is easy to use and extend, even as a smaller merchant with limited developer resources
  • Making a suite of plugins, quick starters, and migration tools available to make it easy to get up and run
  • Making it free to use our cloud solution compared to many other competing platforms starting at +20,000 USD / year

With a lower bar for entering into the world of headless commerce, we hope to make the benefits accessible to merchants of all sizes in the future. If you are interested to hear more, we are always happy to give you a product demo.

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