Is Headless the Future of B2B E-Commerce?

Panelists discuss headless versus full-stack e-commerce solutions — including what these terms even mean — on the latest MasterB2B “un-webinar” from Andy Hoar and Brian Beck.
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Is a headless or full-stack e-commerce solution the right one for your business? If you have no clue — and especially if you don’t even understand what those terms mean — then it’s time to watch the latest “un-webinar” from MasterB2B.

MasterB2B is the brainchild of Andy Hoar, CEO of Paradigm B2B, and Brian Beck, CEO of Beck Ecommerce. The duo has launched a series of interactive “un-webinars” (i.e., unconventional webinars) that include experts debating some of the hottest topics in B2B e-commerce. Unlike the typical “death by PowerPoint” presentation, these un-webinars are meant to entertain as well as inform.

For example, MasterB2B’s first event was about the battle of man versus machine when it comes to distribution sales.

The second un-webinar, held last week, debated the decision of choosing a headless or full-stack solution for a company’s e-commerce platform. “Is Headless the Future of B2B E-Commerce was an hour-long, three-round online debate in which two teams were pitted against each other on various topics within the headless versus full-stack discussion.

“Headless commerce is an e-commerce architecture where the front-end (head) is decoupled from the back-end commerce functionality and can thus be updated or edited without interfering with the front-end … ,” according to Wikipedia. The term was coined by Dirk Hoerig, co-founder of Commercetools, in 2013.

Full-stack, on the other hand, keeps those e-commerce architecture components interconnected.

Beck led Team Full-Stack, whose panelist was Adrienne Hartman, senior director of e-commerce and campaign sales, J. J. Keller & Associates Inc.

And Hoar headed up Team Headless, whose panelists were Vincent Mugavero, VP digital commerce, Carrier Enterprise (a joint venture between Watsco Inc. and Carrier Corp.), and Peter Sheldon, senior director of commerce strategy, Adobe.

Here’s a blow-by-blow of their debate.

Round 1: Flexibility vs. simplicity

The first question: Does the flexibility a company gains with headless outweigh the additional complexity that’s required as a part of the integration?

The arguments from Team Headless were around flexibility but mostly improved customer service.

“I think the flexibility is certainly a primary benefit, and the one that’s most talked about,” said Mugavero. “But in the short term, the improved customer experience is what you’re going to realize. At Carrier Enterprise, we’ve made the transition from an old-school, full-stack, monolithic platform to a headless solution. We realized page load speeds cut in half, creating that super-agile, lightning-fast mobile app-like experience that even B2B customers deserve.”

Sheldon agreed, adding that “having the agility and flexibility as a creative team will help you differentiate from your competitors. It’s all about performance. So often, legacy full-stack platforms were never designed with that in mind. That’s why a headless approach unlocks that capability.”

Taking the other side was Hartman of Team Full-Stack, who said headless doesn’t necessarily result in a better customer experience.

“We put ourselves in the customer’s shoes — from awareness to consideration, product selection, purchase, reorder, the entire process,” she said. “The question is, how do we make it easier for our customers to buy from us? And how do we beat the competition? How are we differentiating? We aren’t necessarily differentiating on that tech stack. We’re differentiating on how we present the features and functionality. It doesn’t have to be full-on headless, roll-your-own storefront to be flexible and to present an amazing customer experience.”

Round 2: Who is the headless approach for?

The second question: Does the headless approach only really work for B2B businesses with specific profiles?

Here, Team Headless said their approach is critical to keeping pace with industry leaders.

“If you’re serious about keeping up with Amazon Business or keeping up with best in class B2B companies in your space, the answer is clear: You need to decouple so you can innovate faster,” Mugavero said. “Essentially, you stretch your investment. You think of it as a five-year technology investment, not a two-year investment. If you go to a full-stack solution, two years from now you’re going to want to jump to the headless option.”

Or, as Sheldon said, “With headless, you’re future-proofing the business.

Meanwhile, Team Full-Stack team argued that future-proofing a business isn’t right for every company if that means expensive tools that benefit the IT department more than the customers.

“E-commerce is a sales channel for the company,” she said. “It’s a customer acquisition channel, it’s a sales channel for that company, you need to meet those customer expectations, provide a smooth, fast, stable buying experience. Bringing additional complexity doesn’t bring more value to the business. Having IT feel like they’re on the latest, greatest cutting edge of technology that doesn’t bring value to the business or sell more widgets.

Round 3: Are you overbuying with headless?

The third question: Are you overbuying flexibility and capacity with headless?

Team Headless argued that you’re not overbuying because you’ll have the flexibility need for any changes to your business operation down the road.

“You do want multiple heads so you’re positioned for the future, so that you can quickly innovate and plug into other systems, hardware, what have you,” Mugavero said. “It opens up the world of possibilities. You don’t have to overcomplicate it.”

“It’s about decoupling, and unlocking the creativity and the flexibility and the ability of the front end team to innovate much, much faster than the back-end team is doing,” Sheldon added.

Countered Hartman: “You can have multiple heads and have a full stack and use APIs to extend some of the applications into other applications and other uses. So it isn’t inherent that it has to be headless.”

The results?

The Round 1 question: Does the flexibility headless promises offer more value than the simplicity? Yes: 53%; No: 47%

The Round 2 question: Does the headless approach only really work for B2B businesses with specific profiles? No: 66%; Yes: 34%

The Round 3 question: Are you overbuying flexibility and capacity with headless? Yes: 52%; No: 48%.

And the reaction from the two moderators:

“There are distinct uses for both architectures,” Hoar said. “Headless is getting more attention, but I think it’s uncovering that it’s easy to overbuy on functionality. You have to decide, what use cases mattered to you? And what do you really, really need? Know what you’re going to use the commerce platform for. Know what customers you are going to serve.”

And Beck concluded: “Take your time and do this right because there’s a lot at stake. You do not want to re-platform more than once in 10, 15 years.”

MDM is the media partner for MasterB2B’s Un-Webinar series. Click here to listen to this webcast in its entirety and click here to register for the series. The next event is Wednesday, May 12, at 2 p.m. EDT.

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