Looking back on the history of eCommerce platforms, the industry underwent three major phases of development:
Phase 1: The Era of On-Premise Systems
With major marketplaces like Amazon and eBay gaining momentum and commercializing online trading, and the world wide web enabling customers and sellers to transact online, the pioneering iterations of eCommerce platforms were established in the early 2000s. This allowed B2C and B2B companies to operate and transact with online customers at a larger scale.
In turn, these platforms gave retailers (and later, online-only retailers) the means to establish their own online stores. Independent retailers now enjoy the perks of having a stable platform in place and easily peddling their goods to a readily available audience online. But it also came with a few drawbacks such as having to purchase licenses, keeping essential software up to date, maintaining servers, and hiring qualified people to handle all the moving parts.
Costly and cumbersome though it all was, this laid the foundation for what would be later known as cloud-native platforms.
Phase 2: Cloud-Native eCommerce Platforms Going Mainstream
The early days of cloud-native eCommerce platforms overlapped with that of on-premise systems, and they more or less also served the same function. Both platforms allowed for retailers to manage their product catalogs, payment transactions, customer data, and logistics—all through a cloud-native solution. This made it easier for retailers of all sizes to operate and continue to build their online presence rather inexpensively.
Predictably, this empowered millions of retailers to take their businesses online, with very little investment. But at the same time, it hindered growing companies from becoming more flexible due to the limitations of the platform. There was just no way to design the customer experience they want to offer to their exact specifications, beyond the standard cloud offering. So, the front-end experience remained mostly the same for everybody, making it harder to stand out from the competition.
But in the end, consumer demand dictates where the industry goes next, and at what pace it gets there. This time, the winds of change were blowing in a direction that called for much-needed flexibility and customization. This became the catalyst for the next step: headless platforms.
* Leading e-commerce platforms
Phase 3: Headless Front-End Is the Name of the Game
I am a firm believer that we are at this stage at present, but that can change at any moment, so I’d rather just stay on point for now. Let’s get the basics out of the way first—what is headless commerce? Headless commerce is the decoupling of the front-end from the back-end, granting online retailers the freedom to create new customer experiences as they saw fit, with the only limitations being the amount of their investment and their own creativity.
Here’s a diagram to further illustrate the differences between pre-packaged cloud-native solutions and headless platforms, as well as highlight the strengths and weaknesses of each:
The unfortunate truth is that the industry operates in a world of extremes. You can either go to market quickly and efficiently with the caveat of providing a standard experience or opt for a headless front-end platform, which often calls for high development costs and a lengthier market time.
This paved the way for innovative companies that offer the best of both worlds: bespoke experience at scale, with a very little investment. A select few even offer low-code and no-code solutions, empowering marketers and merchandisers to build the experiences they want to provide all by themselves. Great examples of these providers are Shogun and Gastby, which bridge the gap between the two extremes.
These types of solutions are quickly becoming mainstream because they meet a crucial demand while allowing their customers to work with almost any eCommerce platform.
With these developments shaping up the industry and creating new standards, I strongly suspect that we’ll soon see API-based micro-services, with low- to no-code solutions that will enable eCommerce store operators to effectively deploy highly personalized solutions agonistic to any eCommerce platform, working seamlessly with any front-end solution.
We’re nearing a very exciting era where consumers will enjoy customized and bespoke solutions across different stores. The ability to deploy, adapt, and create unique experiences for customers with a platform-agnostic, API-first micro-service approach, with efficient at-scale deployment, is a very real possibility just within our grasp.