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Composable vs. Headless – The Ultimate Commerce Battle Royale?

The future of commerce is leaning toward a composable approach, but there are pros and cons to it, monolith, and headless commerce.

The Celtics vs. The Lakers, Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees, Frazier vs. Ali. I think all of us have our favorite epic rivalries that stick with us. But what makes rivalries so engaging? Some say it’s the bragging rights, some say it’s the passion, and others say it’s because rivalries tend to bring out the best in each competitor.

I tend to lean towards all the above as being the catalyst for why we find them so engaging. Ironically, this also can apply to the world of Commerce.

Over the last few years, there’s been more than just a few discussions on what commerce technology approach is best. There’s been a progression from the traditional monolith to headless and now into composability. But what makes the most sense? Where should you start? How would you even know what path is right?

Let’s talk about all of that – but first, let’s start with some of the basics and define the three flavors or commerce.

Monolith

The monolithic approach is the traditional implementation of a platform – essentially a suite of features and capabilities all wrapped up into one big solution. Sometimes called the ‘platform’ approach, the monolith typically comes with a front end (CMS) and back end (Commerce engine) all woven into one big solution that a brand can leverage.

Pros: Speed to market with many native traditional commerce features.
Cons: Extendibility and flexibility.

Headless

Headless commerce is the de-coupling of the front and back-end systems. Through a headless approach, brands typically select a front end CMS that appeals to the unique content and personalization capabilities they desire to exceed customer expectations around buying experiences. In this headless approach, the front end or back end can be interchanged at any time.

Pros: Enhanced personalization and curated content.
Cons: Longer speed to market with two systems to manage / maintain.

Composable

Composable commerce takes the foundations and ideas from headless to another level. Within a composable framework, a best of breed with everything approach is taken. Essentially, you’re building your ideal experience from the ground up. Best in class commerce engine, CMS, onsite search, personalization engine, etc. This approach allows the brand to build their own customer digital commerce experience by picking and choosing various technology partners to ‘fill in the gaps’ if you will.

Pros: Extremely curated and personalized experience.
Cons: Cost, time to market, and maintainability.

So, now that we have defined each of these – I can already guess your next question, what approach makes the most sense?

Well, my typical response to this question is – it depends.

One of the most important factors surrounds what the business challenge is that your brand is trying to solve for. With all of the buzz out there around composable commerce, it could be easy to select this as your path. However, if you don’t have a mature IT organization with a business that understands the time to market and the complexities that come with this approach, it likely isn’t the right time for composable.

At the end of the day the reason any organization moves from the monolithic approach to headless is because they want enhanced flexibility and agility. The reason a brand pivots off of headless to composable is because they typically are still limited with the amount of customizations that can be done on the front and back end of the tech stack.

Knowing when to, how to, and if you should pick a path can be challenging, and outside of a asking one of our experts to help you decide which path is correct, the best way to determine what you should do is to first understand the desires, channels, and buying patterns of your customers. Your customers hold the answer to which technology approach you should take.

Ask yourself these questions, “What do my customers want? What is our business trying to do? Where are we hitting roadblocks? Where do we want to be three years from now?”

The answers will help you decide your journey – the higher the complexity, the higher the likelihood that you’ll need to consider the composable path.

But remember, while composable can be scary, and does take longer to implement. There are massive benefits from choosing this journey and ways to baby step into this new frontier of commerce connectiveness.

Remember, if it’s right for the customer, it’s likely right for the business.

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Justin Racine

Justin Racine is a Director and Lead Strategist with Perficient, and he works with clients to build and achieve their business goals through commerce-enabled technologies. Justin has over 12 years of experience within the ecommerce space, working with companies such as Cardinal Health, Johnson & Johnson, and Olam International, and has spoken at over 20 global conferences on ecommerce and branding strategy. Additionally, Justin has been published twice for his thought leadership on branding and marketing in the Henry Stewart Journal of Brand Strategy, is a contributing writer for CMSWire.com, and a frequent contributor for many leading industry publications.

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