Headless vs Composable Commerce: The Origins of Modern Commerce

When digital commerce first emerged, brands operated two separate sales streams: in-store and online. As digital grew in popularity and the role of digital experiences in people's lives matured, business models were slow to shift and digital commerce began lagging behind. This made it difficult for brands to see consumer trends coming, and even when they could, the technology supporting their digital experiences didn’t have the flexibility to capture the trends in time.

To solve this, retailers started separating their back-end services from their front-end experiences. The thinking was that if the technology stack was too rigid to serve the changing market, then separating parts of it—making it more flexible, and accessing their back-end through APIs—could fix that.

This decoupling of services from experiences is known as headless commerce. It allows brands to keep their complex commerce back-ends and build a more flexible front-end to meet changing market realities. For example, if content model constraints make writing about new products difficult, headless commerce allows for a different content management system with customizable content models to be connected to the current system, easing that pain point.

Monolithic e-commerce

Headless e-commerce

Composable e-commerce

This change in architecture—a headless front-end driving digital experiences and the big, all-in-one back-end continuing to support the commercial operations—gave brands the ability to create more memorable customer experiences. With the emergence of headless, brands could update their sites with better copy and imagery or even extend their platform from websites to mobile apps. This was a leap forward for digital experiences, but alas, digital commercial models kept evolving.

Evolving commercial models: Digital commerce is happening everywhere

The biggest problem with a headless architecture built on an all-in-one platform is that it’s difficult for brands to innovate their business models. Retailers continually faced disruption from competitors with more flexibility, and as the demand for things like subscription services, same-day delivery, and buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS) increased through pressure from up-start direct-to-consumer brands who weren’t tethered to traditional retail models and outdated systems, retailers on all-in-one platforms were challenged to keep pace.

How were the newcomers able to carve out inroads so easily? By using a new approach called composable commerce.

Headless commerce and composable commerce are often viewed as the same thing, but there are important distinctions between the two. Headless commerce simply means that a service that was previously coupled with an all-in-one system has been decoupled, that front- and back-ends are able to operate independently. But with composable architectures, every component is independent, and they’re brought together in a curated, best-for-me system, which means brands can choose each element of their digital services to best meet their specific business model needs.

Learn the 3 things to ask before investing in composable commerce

Composable commerce components

Composable commerce is often likened to the use of LEGO® bricks. With LEGO®, you’re able to join pieces together in any configuration or pattern you’d like. Whether you want to build your own version of a diner, a dinosaur, or the Death Star, you can use a virtually infinite combination of pieces to create your vision. The only caveat is that it’s up to you to craft the most structurally sound and efficient build.

The essence of composable commerce is the idea of optimizing your commerce ecosystem through the use of discrete, API-connected modules, each targeting a specific business need.

Composable commerce operates under three guiding principles:

  1. Business-centric solutions, which empower you with tools to address your specific business needs.
  2. Modular architecture, which creates flexibility through the use of microservices.
  3. Open ecosystem, which provides you with useful support, guidance, and integrations for crafting your solution.

Modern commerce for modern brands

Composable commerce ultimately addresses the challenges of the modern brand, whether that means scaling in new markets, providing a more seamless customer journey across touchpoints, becoming more responsive to market changes, or improving performance. It leverages a number of powerful technologies like MACH (microservices, API-first, cloud native, and headless) to provide a truly best-for-me architecture.

What are the building blocks of composable commerce?

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