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Mind the headless experience management gap

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(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Jirsak)

eCommerce sites are up against it and not just because of global pandemic challenges. Responsive digital storefronts are not achieving mobile sales conversion at the rate they should, instead languishing at around 50 percent compared to desktop devices. At the same time, if consumers go ‘social-first’ on Pinterest or Instagram to seek-out trends and products, they break the traditional eCommerce conversion funnel by entering at product-detail-pages – the end, not the beginning of the shopping journey. What they miss out on is a whole storefront’s worth of content, offers and promotions. The net result, they are not so engaged, and they spend less. 

The global pandemic hasn’t helped. Online traffic is on the rise, but conversions are not following suit and with in-store shopping opportunities fluctuating, brands can no longer rely on sales assistants to help shoppers navigate high-involvement, complex categories. To compete, retailers are expected to deliver mobile-optimized, content-rich online shopping experiences that consumers demand, at a competitive cost, or be left behind.

Facing complaints about poor page load performance, complex navigation and stale content, retailers are trying to take control of the customer experience and have turned to voice-of-customer feedback to analyze what they need to do to improve their digital customer experiences. What stands out as the key challenge, particularly for mobile-first interactions, is page load performance.

Analysis of Real-User-Monitoring data reveals that sub-second page load performance eliminates pre-bounce – the measure of how often users abandon a session before the first page is even loaded – and results in more pages being viewed. All of which has a dramatic impact on mobile conversation rates.

Achieving lightning fast page load speeds requires front-end architecture based on web technologies optimized for mobile experiences. To get this right, and ensure existing navigation, layout and taxonomies don’t get in the way, changes also need to be made to back-end systems where data is configured and stored. This can become complex because a typical back-end is an all-in-one monolithic eCommerce platform, and these often use decades-old web-content management technologies to define the experience. Even simple changes can require long development cycles as many retail technology teams have found when trying to accommodate mobile (and other channels). No wonder that disenchanted shoppers are abandoning eCommerce sites, often before the first screen loads.

Headless commerce to the rescue?

To gain control of the way they build and manage digital experiences, retailers have turned to ‘headless commerce’ solutions. By decoupling the front-end presentation layer (the head) from the back-end eCommerce capabilities (which coordinate tasks like maintaining and updating a product catalogue, processing payments and handling orders), these headless platforms expose functionality via an API, delivered from the cloud. This makes them ideal for driving Progressive Web Apps that support lightning fast mobile-optimized storefronts and solves the problems of monolithic back-end complexity.

The headless and microservices approach breaks down the traditional eCommerce monolith into its component pieces, such as content, product information management, and order management, and replaces them wholesale, or incrementally, in a low-risk migration pattern.  For retailers, going headless represents an opportunity to achieve enhanced agility and significant improvements to front-end performance for a much lower total cost of ownership. Marketers, merchandisers and operations teams, on the other hand are more cautious.

Headless commerce solutions don’t yet offer tools for managing the storefront experience that are comparable to those contained in legacy eCommerce platforms, which impacts on the productivity of business users.

Headless commerce, the unexpected consequences

The traditional web-CMS model allowed business-user-friendly administration of the storefront experience. Legacy eCommerce platforms have tools that support page composition with drag and drop UI widgets and content modules. The more advanced platforms include functionality for site/storefront management, navigation, layout management and component registries, and this ensured that experience management was completely in the hands of business users.

Implementing a natively headless commerce platform means losing the in-built web CMS and associated tools, forcing developers to hard code the experience elements into the front-end app. Suddenly, the eCommerce team loses control of the core experience management functionality that’s needed on a daily basis to market and merchandise the storefront. ‘Headless’ has become the problem, rather than the panacea.

Retail technology teams find they’re trying to sell the transition to a headless architecture to skeptical eCommerce business and creative users, with an incomplete set of experience management tools. If merchandisers and marketers lose the intuitive visual tools they need to configure the experience without the need for code change and business users are stuck with an old-school web-CMS to drive the front-end experience, these projects are not going to get off the ground.

The answer lies in a digital experience management platform

There is, however, a way to achieve a truly headless commerce solution without these flaws. It comes in the form of an API-first, headless CMS, DAM and Digital Experience Management platform that makes it easy to schedule, produce and deliver customer experiences on any device. By utilizing a headless and microservices approach, platforms of this kind enable a better way to execute headless experience management – one that puts power back into the hands of content creators, and without resorting to the clunky and slow web-CMS technologies that hold back performance and experience management.

It’s a revolutionary approach that has several distinct benefits: It separates experience configuration from presentation rendering; abstracts the structure of the experience from the front-end; and stores the configuration data as content in the headless CMS content graph. This approach retains all the benefits of Progressive Web Apps and headless architecture by moving the key experience configuration data into content, not code. It also makes it manageable by merchandisers, marketers and content managers using intuitive tools in the headless CMS.

Some of the world’s biggest brands, including Liberty London, New Look, Sweaty Betty and Halfords have adopted digital experience management platforms and the success of their eCommerce sites is testament to the power of a headless and microservices approach. The key is to understand that all the challenges of Progressive Web Apps storefront experience management and delivery can be solved provided that the Content Delivery APIs are queryable and high-performance, that the content graph can be extended to model experience elements, and to include 3rd party data via references to external APIs such as a product catalogue. In this way, these solutions are closing the experience management gap for headless commerce and paving the way for a high-performance storefront future in which retailers have the freedom to do more, faster and with less complexity.

James Brooke, founder and CEO, Amplience