The eCommerce space constantly evolves as businesses strive to keep up with dynamic consumer trends. The need to stay current is further accelerated by the ever-increasing number of digital touchpoints (even refrigerators are digital these days). This pressure has given rise to a new architectural pattern known as headless commerce that decouples the frontend from the underlying backend commerce services. The frontend communicates with the backend through an API. The goal is to give businesses the flexibility they need to deliver innovative digital experiences to improve overall customer satisfaction.
However, despite its flexibility, the headless eCommerce architecture is still limited because all of the eCommerce services are bundled together into a single system (i.e. Shopify Plus, Commercelayer, Crystallize, etc). As a result, if one part of the puzzle is causing inefficiencies, the business can either suck it up or move its entire solution to a different platform.
This is where composable commerce comes in. The idea is that microservices are used to drive a modular architecture where dedicated services can be connected to the broader system.
Instead of using Next.js as the frontend and Shopify as the backend, the architecture now evolves to using Next.js as the frontend, Stripe as the payment gateway, Commercelayer as the order management system, Segment for analytics, Nostro for A/B testing, etc.
There’s a large overlap conceptually between composable and headless commerce, so the aim of this article is to expand on both and make the distinction crystal clear.
What is composable commerce?
Composable commerce architecture consists of independent microservices that can be combined and configured to create a fully featured solution. It's often spoken about in the same breath as MACH (Microservices, API-first, Cloud-native and Headless) architecture. Note that every component is independent, not just the frontend as is the case with a headless commerce platform.
The modularity of composable commerce allows businesses to choose the best-of-breed solutions for their needs instead of being locked into a single vendor or technology stack. This approach also enables businesses to quickly adapt to changing market conditions and customer needs by adding or removing services as needed.
Think of it as pieces of LEGO which can be stacked in infinite ways to build a structure that aligns with your vision. You’re free to innovate your business model and tweak it as much as you want to better meet your consumers’ needs. This flexibility is a huge advantage in implementing new and in-demand business models such as subscription-based services, same-day delivery, and in-store returns.
Features of composable commerce
Some key characteristics of composable commerce:
A composable commerce platform is built from a collection of pre-built, loosely coupled services or microservices that can be combined and configured to create a customized solution. Each service or microservice addresses a specific aspect of the eCommerce process, such as product management, order fulfilment, or payment processing. This modular architecture allows businesses to pick and choose the services they need and add or remove them as needed.
In a composable commerce architecture, all components/microservice are independent including the front-end and back-end. You choose the service that will make up your backend and create your custom frontend.
Each service or microservice has its own API, which can be used to communicate with other services or with external systems such as inventory management, shipping, or payment gateways. This API-first approach makes it easier to build and integrate new services into the platform and allows businesses to take advantage of existing tools and services without developing everything from scratch. This approach also allows developers to build new features and functionality on top of existing services without worrying about the underlying technology stack.
Omnichannel refers to the ability of an e-commerce platform to support a wide range of sales channels, including web, mobile, social media, marketplaces, and brick-and-mortar stores. A composable commerce platform has omnichannel support to track the customer's journey across all channels, providing a unified view of their behavior and preferences. This way, businesses can offer a seamless shopping experience to their customers across all channels, regardless of where they are in the buying journey. For example, a customer may browse a product on a mobile app, add it to their cart on a desktop website, and complete the purchase in a brick-and-mortar store.
Composable commerce platforms are typically cloud-native, which means that businesses do not have to worry about managing their own infrastructure or software updates. This can help reduce IT costs and allow businesses to focus on their core competencies.
Being cloud-native also means that composable commerce platforms offer great scalability allowing businesses to keep up with their fluctuating demand for computing resources.
Why would any business choose to go composable?
Composable commerce is an architecture best suited to enterprise-grade organisations. The financial overhead of maintaining a dozen different services to power a single store is significant. It also adds a ton of complexity for the poor development team that needs to keep all of the services in sync, documented and bug-free.
If it’s pricey, complex and difficult to maintain, so why would any business choose this architecture? The simplest answer is it allows innovation.
When multinational companies reach the level of Walmart, Jaguar, Costco or Ticketmaster, they’re less concerned about the subscription price of software services and more about staying at the top of the food chain. If there’s a service that can help deliver a more personalized solution to new customers that pushes them to convert, it keeps profits up and shareholders happy.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that composable commerce is “the best” approach because that always depends on the business. However, composable commerce allows the best services in their respective category to be combined into a single storefront.
What is headless commerce?
Headless commerce platforms are similar to composable commerce in that they decouple the backend and frontend. So, they both share most features and advantages and even function similarly. However, with headless eCommerce, you’re tethered to what the eCommerce backend engine offers. You don’t have the flexibility to change your tech stack or business model by adding new services such as buy-online-pick-in-store.
Composable commerce is almost the evolution of headless eCommerce. The first jump for most online retailers is to build a decoupled frontend and then over time, replacing services from the eCommerce backend with best-in-class microservices.
What’s the difference between composable commerce vs headless
Composable and headless commerce are often used interchangeably to refer to decoupled architecture. But this notion isn’t entirely true. Here is a comparative analysis of the two based to highlight their subtle differences:
A composable commerce platform separates the backend into individual components, unlike headless. This gives businesses more control over their stack as they can pick, swap, and drop components to create systems that work best for them. This modular architecture allows businesses to quickly and easily make changes to their e-commerce platform without having to overhaul the entire system.
For example, if a business wants to add a new payment gateway, it can simply choose a payment gateway microservice that best fits its needs and integrate it into its system without the need for extensive technical expertise.
In contrast, headless commerce is less flexible because changes to the front or backend require more technical expertise. Changes to the backend of a headless commerce platform may require significant coding changes, which can be time-consuming and require specialized technical knowledge.
With a composable commerce platform, you curate the components which work best for your business model. As such, you only pay for those specific components rather than the entire platform. As your business grows, you can add more components to suit your demands.
Conversely, a headless eCommerce can be more expensive, as businesses typically pay for the entire platform, even if they only use certain features. This can lead to increased costs for businesses that don't require all the features of the platform. Furthermore, because headless commerce can be more complex, it may require more specialized technical resources to manage and maintain, which can further increase costs.
Ease of integration
Both composable and headless commerce provides APIs for integration with third-party systems and applications. However, composable commerce is designed to be more plug-and-play, with pre-built integrations available for many popular systems. Headless commerce, however, requires more development effort to integrate with other systems and applications.
Factors to consider when choosing between composable and headless commerce
Business needs and objectives
Every business has unique needs and objectives, so it's essential to consider these when choosing an e-commerce platform. Composable commerce is ideal for businesses that require more flexibility and customization, as it allows for the easy addition or removal of components and services. On the other hand, headless commerce may be a better fit for businesses that need to focus more on the frontend presentation layer, as it offers greater control over the user experience across different channels.
Cost and time-to-market
If you’re working with a tight budget and limited project timeline, it makes more sense to go for a composable eCommerce platform. It offers a more cost-effective approach as businesses can add or remove components as needed without the need for significant modifications to the backend architecture. This can help businesses save on development and maintenance costs. In contrast, headless commerce may require a more significant upfront investment in backend architecture, but the costs may be more predictable and stable in the long run.
Composable commerce platforms also enable businesses to launch new features or services more quickly and respond rapidly to changing market demands. On the other hand, a headless commerce platform may require more time upfront to develop and maintain the backend architecture.
Frequently asked questions
Q: What is composable commerce?
A: Composable commerce is a modern approach to building eCommerce experiences that involves breaking down an eCommerce platform into smaller, composable services that can be mixed and matched to create a tailored eCommerce experience. This allows businesses to create more flexible, agile eCommerce experiences that can be customized to meet the specific needs of their customers.
Q: What is headless commerce?
Headless commerce design involves separating the front-end presentation layer from the back-end eCommerce functionality. This allows businesses to use different front-end technologies, such as mobile apps or voice assistants, while still leveraging the back-end eCommerce functionality of their platform.
Q: What are the differences between composable commerce and headless commerce?
Composable commerce and headless commerce share many similarities in their approach to building eCommerce experiences. However, composable commerce focuses more on breaking down the eCommerce platform into independent services that can be curated in ‘what-works-best-for-me’, while headless commerce focuses more on separating the front-end presentation layer from the back-end eCommerce functionality.
Q: Which approach is more suitable for businesses with complex needs?
Both composable commerce and headless commerce are suitable for businesses with complex needs. However, composable commerce is more customizable, allowing you to iterate your business model in line the consumer trends.
Choosing between composable commerce and headless commerce requires careful consideration of several factors, such as flexibility, customization, time-to-market, and cost. While both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages, composable commerce offers greater future-proofing as businesses can add or remove components and services as needed without the need for significant modifications to the backend architecture. This allows businesses to stay agile and adapt to changing customer needs and market trends, ensuring their e-commerce platform remains relevant and competitive in the long run.
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