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Creating a Winning Commerce Strategy with API-First Commerce

As Vancouver-based Elastic Path, the API-based ecommerce middleware provider launches a cloud-based service this week, Computer Business review heard from the company's Senior Director Ana Milevskaja about the benefits of a "headless" API commerce platform. 

By CBR Staff Writer

Traditional commerce platforms just aren’t working anymore. Plagued with several inherent limitations that I will discuss, many top brands looking to differentiate, innovate and compete are moving towards headless API-first commerce platforms as they offer more tangible benefits to both the business and its customers.

API-first commerce, also known as ‘headless commerce,’ is very quickly becoming the talk of the town among many commerce teams.

This is because it extends beyond traditional webstores and incorporates shoppable videos, kiosks, magic mirrors and Alexa, as well as virtual and augmented reality use cases to elevate the customer experience.

Ana Milevskaja, Senior Director, Elastic Path

There are even trailblazing early adopters that use API-first commerce for a checkout experience via Facebook chatbot and a major cruise line offering wearable medallions that act as a room key as well as a form of ID and payment for services onboard the luxury ship.

The possibilities are endless. Business leaders are recognising the benefits of a headless platform over the monolithic full-stack platform, and as a result API-first commerce is gaining momentum and traction across a range of industries.

So why should you ‘lose your head’ now?

Maintain Tighter Control over Front-End Experiences

Perhaps one of the most pertinent reason brands are moving away from traditional full-stack commerce platforms is the tendency for the technology to limit companies to a particular front-end experience. This results in a customer experience driven by the system’s capabilities and constraints, which in turn impedes innovative experiences from being implemented and maintained with future product releases. Over time, single-stack solutions grow larger and too complex for developers to comprehend or implement changes without breaking the system’s functionality.

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On the flip side, the advantage of a headless API platform is that the front-end layer is completely separate and offers maximum flexibility of the experience presented to the customer. Also, any front-end layer works, whether that’s a content management system (CMS), custom development or a digital experience platform. All customisations are containerised as well, meaning that they do not need to be rebuilt with future upgrades. For instance, an airline has employed a headless API platform to customise its rewards directory. The company was able to amalgamate hundreds of partner products into a single catalogue and add extra languages when needed, without sacrificing flexibility or their existing transactional database engines.

With this approach, businesses can unleash their marketing teams to create and deliver next-generation customer experiences without the limitations imposed by pre-built templates in traditional platforms and content systems.

Experiment with New Touchpoints

While monolithic single vendor, full-stack solutions provide adequate implementations when just one or two touchpoints are required (e.g. the web store and mobile friendly sites), adding more customer facing channels to the experience isn’t so seamless. Many companies are required to replicate or use separate commerce solutions that support every new touchpoint, which creates commerce silos that cannot be easily connected back to systems of record. Ultimately, this increases the potential for inconsistent customer experiences and overtime creates a recipe for an unsustainable system with a high risk of failure.


However, headless commerce platforms decouple the front-end from the back-end, which enables businesses to innovate without the need to replicate the commerce logic for individual touchpoints. As a result, leveraging emerging touchpoints, like IoT, bots, point-of-sale (POS) interfaces and screenless devices becomes easier than ever and allows back-end systems to evolve as time and budgets permit.  A good example is Carnival Corporation, a British-American cruise operator, which now employs an ‘ocean medallion’ device that streamlines the transaction process on board and connects with IoT devices all over the ship.

Provide Developers with Flexible Architecture

As mentioned, when the front-end and back-end are tightly coupled, every change to the front-end impacts the back-end and vice-versa. They are too reliant on each other. Even if the architecture has an API layer in between, changes to the external customer experience generally require changes in multiple places by different developers at the back-end, making them extremely expensive, time-consuming and error-prone.

If the back-end of the platform experiences performance issues or requires maintenance, there is a high chance that it will create downtime for the live website. And, because full-stack systems are slow to change, the business will not be able to respond as quickly to market opportunities or even meet customer needs.

In stark contrast, any changes made to the back-end do not impact the front-end in a headless API-first platform. Rather, the change is required in only one place and doesn’t need multiple updates across the system.

Create a Unified Selling Platform

For many business leaders, their key priorities are to gain business efficiency and transparency across different business units, brands and geographies. However legacy platforms hinder businesses from gaining a holistic view of the customer and pivoting the company towards a customer-centric model. Many global enterprises have multiple siloed instances of commerce platforms and a disjointed approach to commerce. And, with rising maintenance costs for each platform, it’s becoming harder than ever to create and deliver one unified brand experience.

However, businesses that adopt a headless API-first platform enjoy unrivalled flexibility when it comes to creating a unified commerce platform. This means that if they wish to replace one commerce functionality after another e.g. the pricing or shopping cart, they’ll be able to unify their selling platforms with minimal risk to the business.

With the limitations of monolithic commerce applications and the many benefits boasted by headless API-first platforms, it’s no surprise that business are opting for this best-of-breed architectural approach. A headless commerce solution provides businesses with the power to develop new ways to engage and interact with customers, and monetise customer experiences without the laborious and expensive back-end development. The full-scope of headless commerce is leading to a commerce revolution, as B2B and B2C businesses now have the flexibility to integrate multiple touchpoints to their platforms. Those that innovate and differentiate themselves in their respective industry will thrive, while those that don’t risk their profit margins.



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