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Headless eCommerce & Salesforce Commerce Cloud in 2020: The Path Forward Or Not?

Headless solutions, including headless ecommerce web site implementations, is all the rage in 2019 going into 2020. Before we can examine whether that path makes sense or not for your situation, we first need to define what it is, to make sure we’re all talking about the same thing.

So, back in the day, when the most common way to make a website, ecommerce or not, was to host your own server — that presented a whole bunch of failure points and risks for you. What if your server crashes? Goes offline? Runs out of space? Gets too much traffic? And so forth. Managing servers is not just a pain, but it turns out, you need a team of specialists to do it well: the sysadmin, the devops guy, and so on — and to make it worse, managing different code bases with different versions of different systems is the classic snowball problem, creating complex challenges from the start.

For the sysadmins and devops guys who run servers, there is a modern way to help minimize this risk: what if you take the entire front end of the site — what we could call the presentation layer — and separate it from the rest? It could be, for example, flat text files. Those run fast, safely and could be hosted anywhere very simply. In short, if you make the front end of the site just some Javascript, CSS, text, and images, then the servers and hosting becomes much — orders of magnitude — easier. Why? Because the site loses its “head”, the key failure point and instead reduces the head to a few API requests to the back-end. Thus, headless architecture “for the win” as the kids say.

On the personal level, I’m excited about this idea. When I create WordPress sites, on sleepless nights, most of my “just for fun at 3:22am” sites are just very simple sites that should be flat text, and WordPress just introduces speed, caching, security, and maintenance issues that are a headache. In fact, I’m an active participant in a project to turn WordPress sites into flat sites for hosting purposes!

So, headless sites are fantastic — easier, faster, much lower maintenance, and better security. Win, win, win, win! Is there any reason not to use them? And can you get these benefits with Salesforce Commerce Cloud?

Well, yes, there are reasons not to go this route, in fact, because everything in life, as in software, has a trade-off. One trade-off is they are often more complex to maintain, since rather than just a system to run, you definitionally head the body and the API connecting it to the back-end brains. But there’s another trade-off that’s more important and more relevant for Salesforce Commerce Cloud that’s worth examining. The key trade-off is the lack of customization of the user experience on an individual, per-user basis. In other words: if you want to serve the exact same site to everyone under all circumstances, this works fine.

But, what if…

None of this level of customization is reasonably possible with a headless site. The above may be technically possible but it will require such extreme and time-consuming work — because you’re basically rebuilding Rome from scratch, on an infrastructure that was meant for chariots, not tanks — that wouldn’t it make sense to just get a pre-made tank?

Plus, the metaphor holds true: the above changes all require thought and intelligence on the part of the platform. And thought and intelligence stem from our head. Without a head, there is no thinking, and thus all the complex situations that really turn a normal ecommerce site into a magical site are no longer possible.

The challenges of headless ecommerce was framed well by Oscar Gonzalez, United Virtualities’ Managing Director, Commerce and Enterprise Solutions, who leads our Salesforce Commerce Cloud practice. Gonzalez provides an excellent metaphor: “You don’t really need a cannon to kill a mosquito.” Headless ecommerce may be perfect if your ecommerce site is a mosquito: small, and perhaps very minorly irritating to the big boys. If that’s your strategy, then headless may be the way to go.

On the other hand, if you want an ecommerce shop that takes advantages of all the power available to us in 2019, errr, 2020, then you know what’s a much better alternative? Salesforce Commerce Cloud.

Why? The best of ecommerce in 2020 focuses on the power of personalization of experiences, the power of testing to find what works, the optimization of the user experiences to get the most sales or achieve your objectives. And to do that, you need a metaphorical canon, to change the experiences for each user — precisely the one thing that headless architecture effectively prevents you from doing.

Headless does work very well in many simple situations: You don’t want to do testing (without paying a fortune to rebuild a testing infrastructure). You don’t want deeply customized user experiences, out of the box and ready to go. You just want a simple, vanilla site that you’re very confident will just achieve all your goals. In that case, Young Man, Go Headless!

But mosquitos, after all, don’t need A/B testing. They even still fly once they lose their heads.

PS: UV is one of the world’s leading Salesforce Commerce Cloud consultanciesContact us to see how we can work together.

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