5 Painful Truths About Headless Commerce

A revolution is coming; don’t lose your head.

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Suddenly, everyone’s going headless — or, at least, that’s the way it often seems: throw a stone in Silicon Valley these days, and the odds are pretty good that you’ll hit a software entrepreneur working on some new headless product.

But despite the ubiquity of headless tech, it remains remarkably hard for non-experts to figure out what headless really stands for, or to make sense of why and how it’s so useful. Experts who start trying to explain the logic of headless commerce, meanwhile, can quickly start to sound a bit silly. As one vendor recently explained, “You need headless commerce because there are so many heads you need to do commerce on.” 

That’s technically true, of course. But it sounds like nonsense, and it’s hardly a compelling pitch if you’re trying to demystify e-commerce for non-technical decision-makers. Precisely because it’s so hard to explain clearly, conversations surrounding headless often spiral into hype and hyperbole. People have a sense that headless is super-important, but struggle to articulate the ways in which headless technologies actually help their businesses.

To start untangling that problem, I sat down with Forrester senior digital commerce analyst Joe Cicman — a guy who knows better than anyone what makes headless tick — for a recent episode of B2B Commerce Uncut.

So, is headless just a bunch of overhyped malarky? Not exactly, Joe said.

“Headless is real, but it’s a little bit difficult for people who aren’t technical to wrap their heads around,” he explained. 

Demystifying headless, though, requires both vendors and buyers to face up to a few painful truths. Here are five key takeaways from our conversation: 

  1. Headless doesn’t make you special. While every vendor talks up their headless tech in their marketing materials, the reality is that headless is no longer a differentiator for today’s e-commerce platforms. These days, no investor is going to fund a tech company that doesn’t have headless capabilities, and any vendor that wants to stay in business has at least some headless capabilities. So if your vendor tells you their solution is the best because it’s headless, be careful: they might be counting on your confusion instead of making a convincing case for their product.

  2. Not all headless tools are equal. The ubiquity of headless tech doesn’t mean that all headless solutions are the same. As always, some vendors are doing it better than others. Anyone who’s produced an API for their platform has technically gone headless — but as we all know, some APIs are more powerful and more productive than others. If you don’t know how to weigh the merits of different APIs, find someone on your team who does before committing to a headless solution.

  3. Headless is impossible to explain. Trying to explain how headless works to someone who doesn’t understand the nuts and bolts of your technical infrastructure is almost impossible. Try pitching headless tech to a CFO and you’ll wind up feeling pretty ridiculous. “I’ve never heard a single pitch for headless that would work on a nontechnical audience,” Joe says. Instead of piling on technical detail, vendors should focus on explaining the value that headless adds for a customer’s business. 

  4. Headless isn’t for everyone. As a corollary point, it’s important to understand that headless can’t solve every problem, and isn’t the right tool for every B2B digital commerce need. When a company comes to me asking for help getting their catalog online and making it searchable, for instance, I don’t immediately tell them to go headless — because going headless really has nothing to do with digitizing their product listing. Headless might come later, but it shouldn’t be the default response to every challenge. 

  5. Headless is a tool, not a solution. Perhaps because headless is overhyped, it gets treated as a silver bullet. But the reality is that headless is just one way of getting things done — it isn’t a panacea, and it won’t automatically solve every problem. For B2B companies, headless can be a powerful approach: it enables B2B2C implementations in which disparate B2C components are connected with a unified B2B backend, for instance. But extracting value from headless means truly understanding the problems you’re trying to solve, and using headless as a means to an end.

The risk is that B2B commerce brands will fall into the trap of trying to prioritize headless at the expense of developing other capabilities, and solving the many other problems that are in need of innovative solutions. Yes, we need to use headless tech to drive B2B e-commerce forward. But we need to use it appropriately, and not invest all our resources in headless tech without any consideration for the specific problems we’re trying to solve. 

As vendors, we also need to develop a better bedside manner, and stop trying to push headless tech on our customers at every opportunity. Our goal shouldn’t be to use headless as a buzzword or a bogus differentiator — instead, we should be trying to help our customers understand what this powerful but complex technology can and can’t do for them, and whether it’s the right solution to the problems they’re actually facing.

The great decoupling

That’s especially important because headless really is a big deal, and it’s part of a bigger movement that’s reshaping digital commerce and software design in profound ways.

Companies are increasingly moving away from software that’s tightly coupled to a fixed set of touchpoints, and toward looser and more flexible approaches.

“Headless is the first step in the great decoupling,” Joe told me, and I couldn’t agree more. 

In months and years to come, headless will only grow more important — but it will do so as part of a broader shift toward more flexible and dynamic ways of using software to elevate and innovate the e-commerce space. As such, it’s important not just to ask whether you should be going headless, but also to consider what lies beyond headless, and how you plan to get there.

That starts with understanding both the potential and the limitations of headless — and thinking clearly about how to treat this as an opportunity to make digital commerce better for everyone.

Yoav Kutner is the co-founder and CEO of Oro Inc. 

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