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How will headless commerce change your retail experience?

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(Image credit: Image Credit: Pressmaster / Shutterstock)

Digital commerce has been a key lifeline for brands this past year, and digitally savvy retailers have been able to drive considerable growth despite the closure of stores. While the national lockdown has now come to an end, local restrictions mean many shoppers are still unwilling to visit the high street. The recent collapse of household names will be a reminder to retailers of the need for a strong online infrastructure, and many will now be rethinking the purpose of their physical real estate.

Cutting costs has become the number one priority for retailers with a reliance on physical stores, who are instead prioritizing a shift to digital. That said, online commerce should not be thought of as a completely separate business, but as an extension of the in-store experience. The pandemic has transformed the way consumers are shopping, and retailers must respond to these trends if they are to thrive in the new landscape.

Revaluating in-store

It’s vital that we start thinking of the store as a logical extension of the online environment. The new way of thinking is the visit to the store is an opportunity for the up and cross selling, rather than browsing.  But this is still quite an advanced step in most retailers’ minds right now. Most brands today will have both online and physical outlets, with many trying to make their online channels reflect their brick-and-mortar stores.

With the enforced disruption of this year, we’re starting to see the ‘flagship’ retail experience move away from the traditional in-store experience – think Oxford Street, Fifth Avenue – and onto our screens and mobile devices.  Burberry cracked this several years ago with their Regent Street flagship store, and the luxury brand has continued joining the dots between digital and physical, introducing social media and other touchpoints to their store experience.

It’s therefore almost a case of flipping how many of these retailers traditionally think – applying in-store learnings to online – the other opposite way.

The store needs to have more of a digital focus, with automation, merchandising and promotions driven by online learnings. Consumers are now generally visiting stores to purchase, collect or return, rather than browse, as many will do their research online. It’s important this customer journey is curated through all channels.

Optimizing in-store with headless

Headless commerce allows you to use the same back-end management platform to manage customer data, payments, inventory, and fulfilment systems, to reach all of your customer-facing points of sale, whether in-store, on mobile, or both at the same time. This is done through a lean microservices architecture, via APIs.

For example, a shopper might browse products while sat on a train and save an outfit as a favorite or add to their cart. As the customer then passes by a store, the brand app can send them a notification that the store has the outfit in stock, in their size and a map of the store to find the item quickly and easily.

The experience doesn’t have to end there, with the ability of auto-shopping, the app can use a customer’s purchase history or preferences to recommend additional products and maximize the value of the sale, whilst providing a more personalized experience.

The in-store checkout experience needs to facilitate self-checkout post pandemic. This has become a priority. For instance, Scan-and-Go technology can allow a customer to place products in their basket, the products can be recognized and paid for automatically, and the customer can walk out of the shop with the items they need, without the need for queuing or contact during payment. This is great in terms addressing social distancing measures post-pandemic, but also in providing a smooth, convenient experience for customers, powered by microservices.

It’s not death of the high street

It’s all about the experience you offer. Give people more of a reason to head to the store. For some retailers, this might be by offering a pre-booked VIP shopping experience. By asking questions before the booking or using previous browsing and purchasing data if they are a loyal customer, brands can prepare a curated experience with recommended products in the correct size, color, and fit, for instance.

Fitting and testing are still important factors in why many might choose the store over online purchasing. Technology such as magic mirrors allow for fitting comparisons. Customers need to know if the item is going to fit properly, suit their skin tone or match the rest of their outfit. This is a way of trying on clothes post-pandemic without having to physically touch items that have potentially been tried on by multiple people.

Fulfilment options such as click-and-collect are proving more popular than ever. Online shoppers can select a time to visit their local store and pick up their items from a locker or designated area, quickly, safely and easily. This has been extended – particularly for out-of-town locations – to options like drive-thru or curb side pickup.

Again, headless, or microservices architecture means the back-end management of inventory and fulfilment is taken care of, so brands can isolate and refine the front-end experience for customers.

Transforming the online shopping experience

For many, the reality remains that the chore of getting to the shops can be a long process, especially when you have children – how do you make this experience ideal? How do you look at the experience and bring it to life at home?

More specifically, how can we use the everyday applications on our devices – calendars, cameras, social media, TV, voice recognition – and elevate the commerce experience? Headless technology is the bridge between these front-end applications and the back-end commerce architecture.

Let’s take a common purchase for many of us parents – children’s shoes. Dragging the children to the store is painful for a parent, but they need to get their feet properly measured. Imagine 3D imagery of the feet, using that AR technology via the camera on their phone, to match the right shoes to the measurements.

Parents could order a pair of shoes they know fit properly from the comfort of their home, and the kids might even enjoy the AR experience. Retailers that adopt a headless strategy will be able to implement and refine these kinds of front-end experiences far quicker than those with a rigid technology stack.

Consider the TV probably the most used device in the house. We’re still waiting for it to really take off in the overall retail experience. But interaction through TV adverts or even TV programs, that link to a retailer’s online store, is just another part of the omnichannel retail experience that could become a focus. Amazon have made ‘shoppable TV’ a reality, and with the growth of Netflix, Disney+ and Apple in the online streaming space, retailers should be considering this as a commerce tool in the near future. Again, this has the potential for another fun, flagship experience that is only really possible with the power of headless.

Similarly, we’re still waiting for voice assistants to really take off in the commerce space. Voice recognition has the ability to help automate the journey, but this experience still needs to be fully curated and link the different channels together. For example, Alexa can help a customer add something to their shopping list, which is a common use case at the moment, but the orders don’t always pull through correctly so require checking. Headless is key here, too. A robust back-end commerce platform can take care of all the inventory, fulfilment, and payment operations, whilst the front end can concentrate on that seamless experience.

Can this be linked to a TV that is also connected to a customer’s online retailers? A TV screen is usually bigger than a laptop or tablet, so it’s easier for the family to do the shopping together and easier to select different items. We just need one or two retailers to partner with the likes of Alexa and build out some fun, useful front-end applications to make that experience more convenient. Retailers are reluctant to invest in this technology, as it’s another channel experience to tie into their strategies, but it could be a real differentiator for first movers.

Respond, adapt and win with headless

The retail ecosystem is constantly changing, and businesses that wish to thrive must constantly adapt. A microservices architecture is crucial to helping brands and retailers respond to constantly evolving trends, helping them keep ahead at every stage of the journey. 

What’s more, microservices are an essential tool to providing a true omnichannel approach for distributing content, providing flexibility that monolithic solutions simply cannot compete with. As the future of retail remains uncertain, brands and retailers must have modern strategies in place to win in the future landscape.

Paul Lynch, Area VP and MD, LiveArea