Shaping the digital experience: The co-evolution of composable commerce and content management

Illustrated graphic of two spirals, representing the evolution of composable architecture
October 8, 2021

Udo Rauch



Composable commerce is the next frontier of retail, and there’s no better way to futureproof your digital presence in a post-pandemic environment. Amazon, known as a pioneer of headless commerce, updates its front end roughly once every 11 seconds with zero downtime. How’s that for agility?

We all know the phrase “the customer is always right.” But the retail industry has never been so heavily influenced by customer trends and expectations. A decade ago, a retail business could find moderate success with a static online storefront and a distribution channel, but times have changed. Today’s customer demands a convenient, multi-touchpoint experience that allows them to shop in their own time— and on their own terms. Composable commerce, assembling the best available commerce solutions, is helping businesses offer a customer-centric digital experience and stay nimble with their content in an ever-changing landscape.  

Retailers were already speeding toward full-scale digital transformation to better serve their market when the Covid-19 pandemic tipped the scales even further toward customers’ needs. By McKinsey’s reckoning, most ecommerce retailers had to cram a decade’s worth of digital change into the space of three months in something it calls The Quickening. This has laid bare the importance of being able to react quickly to a changing business landscape and publishing new content across channels in a consistent and integrated way that keeps customers engaged and ready to purchase.

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Why the digital experience is crucial in 2021

It’s no surprise that nearly 50% of all retail executives are planning to invest heavily in multi-touchpoint experience in 2021. Before the pandemic, businesses spread their focus evenly between brick-and-mortar shops and digital storefronts. Even those that were exclusively digital could get by with a nice website, an app and a decent delivery service. But that all changed when online sales became the dominant retail channel. During the pandemic, more than 84% of consumers have shopped online. It’s no coincidence that retailers already offering features such as mobile apps, online chat, personalized communications and rapid content updates outperformed those that didn’t. Perhaps that’s why, in a 2021 survey, more than two-thirds of customers say it’s a retailer’s digital experience that will determine whether they recommend them to a friend or not. So what about the technology underpinning all of this? How has it evolved, and what do retailers need to do to make sure their online presence is agile, scalable and responsive? 

From monolithic to headless commerce

The term “headless commerce” might sound intimidating if you’re not up on your digital ecommerce vocabulary. But the odds are you already understand what it is without realizing it. It has become the de facto architecture of choice for online retailers that need to rapidly roll out new features in an always-on world. To understand the difference between a traditional monolithic system and the headless commerce approach, it’s first important to understand the relationship between "front end" and "back end" in a commerce context.  

Front end

This typically refers to anything your customers see or interact with, or "your online presence." This includes your mobile app to your desktop website and everything in between. The front end is how customers see you and engage with you. 

Back end

This is what goes on under the hood. It consists of your CMS (content management system), the coding that makes up your website, dashboards, payment processing and so on. This is where you add new functionality such as additional payment methods or push new content to your website.

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In a traditional monolithic system like a static website, the front end (let’s call this the “head” of your business) is directly linked to your back-end systems. This means even the most simple changes to the front-end experience, such as adding new content, changing a layout or adding a new button with a new function, can result in hours of downtime. This was fine in 1996, but it doesn’t cut it in the age of smartphones, one-click purchases and 24-hour deliveries.

Headless commerce separates the front end and back end, allowing developers to work on one or the other without bringing down the whole system. A headless strategy relies on microservices, or small pieces of software with specific functions that can be strung together with APIs. Each microservice is a brick in the wall of the overall function of your business, and each can be updated or replaced without threatening the larger structure. 

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Setting a new standard for digital customer experience with composable commerce

Headless commerce gave retailers unparalleled flexibility and agility when it first arrived, allowing them to cater to the always-on generation of consumers. But why stop there? Composable commerce represents the next frontier of retail, and there’s no better way to futureproof your digital presence in a post-pandemic environment. 

Composable commerce takes the “brick in the wall” concept of microservices and runs with it. Rather than trying to be a jack of all trades and master of none, composable commerce encourages retailers to master every single aspect of their business. Brands can take this to the next level by partnering with an agency that takes a multi-vendor approach to select market-leading technology solutions. Instead of trying to force-fit an off-the-shelf solution to your needs, composable commerce suggests taking the best solutions on the market and stitching them together in an interoperable or “composable” way. By 2023, Gartner has predicted that retailers that adopt a composable approach to ecommerce will easily be able to outpace competitors that don’t by a staggering 80% at rolling out new features.

This huge advantage shows that headless architecture is likely to become a new ecosystem in and of itself. As more and more businesses adopt a headless approach, they will naturally be open to new partnerships and integrations that collectively raise the bar for agile customer experiences. 

So, for instance, if you’re an agency with retail customers, you might partner with Emporix to help you build a headless or composable commerce solution, then have the freedom of Contentful’s content platform to take the website experience to the next level. With composable commerce and headless content management, retailers can benefit from truly dynamic cutting-edge solutions without risking vendor lock-in or being hamstrung by a monolithic platform that can’t evolve.

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