Demystifying the world of Headless Commerce by unpacking the who, what, how and why with agency and tech leaders…

Geo George, Director of Product and Strategy at The Vaan Group 🔥 - a design and technology agency that focuses on eCommerce.

How would you describe Headless to an alien?

Oof. Do aliens even have heads? Would the terminology make sense? I'm joking, of course all aliens are anthropomorphic. But really I've come around to the idea that "headless" is an oversimplification. At the core, Headless is about giving brands more options in how they connect to consumers and sell their products. It's kind of like why there are so many types of transportation. A car can get you from point A to point B, but a high end sports car may get you there faster with more style. And that's not even considering a private jet, or an FTL spaceship.

I think the need for it is a cyclical response to monolithic CMS's that forced sites into templated, repetitive frontends. So the idea of a "headless" site is to not use that prescriptive frontend (the "head"), and instead leverage the underlying technologies (APIs) to build a new, custom frontend (also a "head"). In the end, dear alien, you can't get far without a head, turns out.

What are the top three pain points Headless solves for a brand?

Site speed: A well engineered PWA will typically outperform most frontends on templated CMS's. This is getting to be table stakes, and if your site isn't performing well you will spend more on acquisition.

Design Flexibility: This is intentionally broad. I tend to focus on design, where the lack of templates means that there aren't arbitrary platform constraints of required pages, structures or presentation. Content and products can live side by side and look radically different. And you can have content that doesn't fit neatly into the prescribed boxes of most CMS's.

Best-of-Breed Architecture: An advantage of monoliths is that you don't need to make a lot of decisions. A disadvantage of monoliths is you rarely get to make a lot of decisions. The world is certainly not your oyster...decision-making is constrained by what works well on platform, and adjustment is constrained by the particulars of the implementation. Does the app you're using for reviews provide the data in a fully customizable JSON? Does the search provider give you an inflexible filter implementation? Headless (more correctly, composable commerce is appropriate I think) can give you the ability to pick the best fit for the problem you're trying to solve...though it may be more complicated to build what you want.

When is a good time for a brand to consider a move to Headless?

Tech Maturity: Going headless means that at some level, your brand now has technology as a key pillar. Whether that's internally managed, or with a close partnership of an agency or other service provider, headless requires the ability to solve technological problems efficiently and well.

Not just about speed: This might seem to go counter to my point on the benefits of headless. Speed is a necessary thing on the Internet; there's enough data about slow sites negatively impacting sales. But I haven't (to date, non-exhaustively researched) seen data around the impact to sales for small increments of performance past a certain threshold. So getting to 2 second load times can be phenomenal if you were at 8, but getting to 1.5 when you were at 2? Less confident in that.

I think if a brand has the internal maturity/workflows and business needs aside from just performance that highlight complex requirements, headless or composable commerce are worthy of consideration.

How does your agency or tech fit into the Headless ecosystem?

Our agency hangs our hat on solving unusual problems. Every headless project is an unusual problem. We architect solutions to solve the specific requirements leveraging platforms, custom development, and strong partnerships in the ecosystem. At the same time, we take the creative freedom offered by headless very seriously, looking to push the bounds of what the design looks like. Not judging anyone, but we are not interested in making a site that looks like a generic eCommerce store but sitting on a headless architecture.

What’s your go-to Headless stack?

We are definitely an opinionated shop, so we don't really have a plethora of tools that do similar things, and we hire and train to that internally. We love the React framework, and find it to be the right tool to achieve our clients' goals. That in mind, our headless stack goes Next.js and Vercel Hosting. We are a bit less prescriptive in terms of CMS, but most recently we've found Contentful to work very well for us. Generally we use Shopify for checkout and as an OMS, but we've also been working with Chord and have had a very positive experience. We also have a great relationship with the team at Nacelle. Our go to for custom app hosting is Heroku.

Any final thoughts?

I personally struggle with the term "headless" (I like composable commerce). Specifically, I think it focuses on the wrong thing. If all you are concerned with is the frontend, then you may not be accounting for the complexities this shift will have in terms of integrations, future roadmap, or even editing experience. Shifting from monoliths to unbundled solutions is overall a cycle in technology for decades, and it becomes very vogue to lose sight of the reasons why the monoliths disrupted the unbundled solutions in the first place. I would advise any brand considering this kind of a shift to be diligent in not just understanding the short term benefits and challenges, but what the prognosis looks like for 6 months, 1 year, and beyond.

Thanks, Geo 🙏