[Interview] Headless eCommerce 101 with Andrew Pizula from Pack Digital
The influx of shoppers shifting to digital has forced brands to rethink their eCommerce strategy. Headless eCommerce is a term we have all heard before, but it remains a confusing one nonetheless. Why is it called headless? How does it work? What are the benefits? What about PWAs? These are just a few of the common questions we see surrounding the topic. To shed more insight into headless eCommerce, we asked Andrew Pizula, co-founder of Pack Digital and business strategy guru, to do a quick interview with us on the subject!
WAIR: What is headless eCommerce? Where does the term come from?
Andrew Pizula: The most common definition of headless is "decoupling your eCommerce back-end from your front-end."
In other words, rather than having your eCommerce platform force you to use their front-end, a headless approach means using separate technologies for the front-end and back-end of your eCommerce platform to leverage the best front-end technology for your brand. This could mean a more modern web storefront or other "heads" such as apps, in-store kiosks, or other channels.
In the world of Shopify, the front-end (or the "head") is your Shopify theme. With headless, that "head" is removed, leaving only the back-end functionality providing you with the opportunity to choose your own "head".
WAIR: How does headless compare to traditional eCommerce?
Andrew Pizula: A more traditional eCommerce approach is to choose a single platform to support your operations and your store experience (monolithic approach), whereas "headless" provides the flexibility to take a best-in-breed approach which allows brands to be more proactive and focused on their entire user experience.
We have seen a ton of success with brands taking a more traditional monolithic approach, and as brands scale, there become challenges with either the user experience, marketer experience, or developer experience that can be addressed directly by a "headless" approach to enable continued growth. The most challenging part of this approach, however, is finding the right team and solution to take advantage of those opportunities without a lot of risks.
WAIR: Why is headless eCommerce trending right now, not only with brands but also with investors?
Andrew Pizula: Better and faster websites (via progressive web apps or PWAs), more control for marketers, and more efficient development. In the world of eCommerce, most of the time, when there is mention of headless, it's typically followed by the mention of PWAs as a popular "head" to choose. With the rise of mobile traffic, PWAs have become increasingly popular due to the improved site speed and overall user experience, which leads to significant improvements in conversion rates, average order value, and overall engagement.
In the past, custom PWAs were reserved for brands that had large tech budgets or in-house tech teams to be able to build and manage this sort of technology. As the technology has matured, it has become much more accessible and has resulted in lots of interest from brands and investors alike.
WAIR: How does headless eCommerce enhance the shopper experience?
Andrew Pizula: Many brands that we work with have a growing number of mobile users, some of which reach 70%-90% of all traffic coming from mobile. One of the most noticeable differences in browsing with a modern PWA storefront is the site speed, and this is especially important on mobile. Providing a fluid experience is key, especially through the lens of a shopper that discovers a brand through social media (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok), then lands on a storefront where it is expected to serve a similar experience with app-like speed and interactivity.
Nailing this experience leads to a much more cohesive brand journey that the merchants can control completely with their technology. Given some of the variability with mobile service and connection issues, having a site that takes advantage of PWA technology enables a fast website experience even on slower connection areas.
WAIR: What are some of the requirements needed to operate a headless eCommerce site?
Andrew Pizula: There are lots of different flavors, opinions, and approaches to building a headless web storefront. In general, there are two different paths that brands can take. One path is one where the brands can hire a team of developers or a large agency to build a completely bespoke tech stack that supports all your front-end initiatives. The second path is one where you can use a product (such as Pack) to provide a foundation for your front-end. While each approach has its pros and cons depending on the goals of the brand, the end result for operating these storefronts will vary.
Our value add is that we don't require a ton of resources from the merchant to be able to run a headless store. They get all of the benefits (PWAs, fast sites, easy page building, streamlined development) without having to hire internal resources.
WAIR: How should brands evaluate (and then validate) if going headless is the right decision?
Andrew Pizula: The big question is, when is headless a fit? We are big fans of Shopify's ability for brands to quickly set up a store, and this is usually the path we recommend as entrepreneurs find their brand voice, build their community, create engaging content, find product-market fit, and solidify their operations. As these brands scale, and as there becomes more focus around the user journey, there will be challenges and limitations with the front-end where an investment in decoupling can make a lot of sense.
Brands on Shopify should consider headless when (1) brands find themselves demanding more and more from their Shopify theme, and (2) the added value of the new front-end is clear. We have found that the most scalable foundation is to have a headless front-end where we can control the front-end experience, merchant experience, and developer experience. With regards to validating a move to headless, brands should set goals and track key metrics around improvements to the front-end experience (CVR, AOV, engagement, etc.), merchant experience (content management, marketing agility, etc.), and developer experience (time to market, developer efficiencies, etc.).
WAIR: As one of our brand partners, how has the WAIR integration process been for your headless eCommerce site thus far?
Any mature 3rd party app like WAIR usually has a set of APIs or other flexibility to work with other platforms. For example, the 7 Diamonds site is built using React components using the NextJS framework, and we worked directly with the WAIR team, who was very efficient in getting the integration in place.
Both WAIR and Pack are achieving the same goal, reducing buyer friction. Pack, from a front-end standpoint, is all about speed, user experience, and making sure there's no page-load on transitions. At the same time, WAIR takes the usually mundane and lengthy sizing experience and streamlines it to be much more efficient and effective.
Headless eCommerce at its core is the decoupling of the eCommerce back-end from the front-end. This enables brands to leverage the best front-end technology for their brand while back-end operations run smoothly. Brands that go headless want their front-end experience tailored toward their target shopper base, especially since shoppers expect the omnichannel experience to be seamless and convenient. Both WAIR and Pack Digital are working to make that shopper experience as fluid as possible down to the final click.
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