eCommerce in Review: How Did We Get Here and What's Next?

From the early days of online shopping to the modern era of PayPal and Amazon, the eCommerce industry has been in a constant state of change. Trends move fast, and with even a few years of hindsight, it’s easy to lose sight of how we got where we are today.

Of course, most of us know the timeline of big industry players arriving on the scene. Household brands like Amazon and eBay launched in the mid 90’s and established trends that paved the way for a full-fledged Renaissance of eCommerce providers in the aughts. From there, each industry’s takeoff is a matter of history.

In particular, the turn of the previous decade sparked a big increase in eCommerce sales growth, rising from 2.8% to 17.1% from 2009 to 2010. Since then, the trends have stayed consistent, leading us to a world where the global retail eCommerce market contributed $3.5 trillion in 2019.

The evolution of eCommerce players is pretty impressive, but there’s another aspect to this growth that hasn’t received quite as much attention in the public mainstream, and that’s the evolution of the eCommerce platforms themselves.

Unsung Heroes: The Evolution of Web Commerce Platforms

The platform doesn’t make the company, but in our view, not nearly enough attention is given to the nuts and bolts systems that made the growth of eCommerce possible.

After all, it’s the ongoing optimization of the eCommerce experience that big companies like Amazon rely on to sustain their success—and this optimization isn’t possible without a well-functioning platform working behind the scenes.

Bootstrapped eCommerce Platforms

It sounds like a given today, but the early days of web commerce platforms were a tricky time. The original platforms in the marketplace suffered from plenty of challenges that limited their viability (relatively speaking). They required us to download code that was uploaded back to a server and created a system in which updating was time intensive, required solid technical chops and was slow. Back in those days, most merchants were running older, comparatively outdated software that limited their selling options to what they could do instead of what they wanted to do.

Because it was so much work to do updates across the eCommerce platform and its internal systems, technical teams were always in the mix. This usually meant that they weren’t available for other, more marketing-centric projects that were better suited to driving revenue and building customer relationships.

Additionally, the platform was in a perpetual state of being out of date. Without a simple way to push new features, the company couldn’t integrate new functions into its growing eCommerce storefront. This meant that the updates simply didn’t happen, or they happened so slowly that they ate up a substantial part of the technical team’s time.

Oh, there were other options, of course—using web plugins to augment the ERP system, for example—but this framework wasn’t really designed to do eCommerce in the way that we think of it today. It was a fine way to bootstrap web commerce, but it lagged behind in several key areas that weren’t addressed until future iterations of eCommerce platforms came into play.

Web-Based Stores

In the face of a growing demand for eCommerce, especially from smaller merchants, web giants with resources to spare began offering their own commerce solutions. (Remember Yahoo! Stores?)

On the surface, these simple solutions seemed like an ideal workaround to the aforementioned eCommerce issues. They were easy to manage and launch as all-in-one solutions, perfect for small companies wanting to get their stores off the ground. But like many such entry-level solutions, they suffered from their own challenges, primarily related to a lack of cohesion across the customer experience.

Their focus wasn’t on driving a single experience across browsing, shopping carts, checkout, and post-purchase outreach; they were focused on giving small businesses a simple way to get their feet wet in eCommerce. In other words, these platforms weren’t really customizable, and customers never forgot that they were shopping on a site powered by Yahoo!

Taken together, this left merchants with relatively few options: They could either use these limiting (and frustrating) web options to secure an eCommerce presence at all costs, or they could go down the time-consuming and costly road of fully-customized eCommerce website builds (which few companies could afford to do).

The Next Step: Decoupling for Flexibility

While well-intentioned, the above eCommerce solutions limited our options in a big way. Companies had little choice, and little flexibility, in their efforts to compete against bigger industry players. But fortunately, the modern era of eCommerce works a little differently. With new approaches—such as headless commerce—companies can enjoy all the functionality they need and more.

At its most basic, headless is a flexible eCommerce approach that plays into the idea that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for small business web commerce. It separates the frontend from the back and it frees up both the technical side of things and the CMS to work—and be updated—independently.

This is a type of flexibility that no other eCommerce framework can provide. Not bootstrapped ERPs, and certainly not third-party storefronts. Headless architecture offers foundational flexibility that gives companies full freedom in their decisions, opening up the system for faster, easier updates across the backend, content presentation options, marketing strategies, APIs, and more.

The Modern Era of Competitive eCommerce

The eCommerce marketplace, historically speaking, has been defined by compromise. Companies received marketing data that they wanted to act on, but they didn’t have the technical flexibility to do so. And when you consider the multiple places in which companies are expected to sell these days—multiple storefronts, mobile, trade shows, and so on—the problems compound further.

Headless commerce eliminates this problem by subverting the flexibility issue altogether. Marketing teams can operate on their own terms and deliver whatever kind of experiences will best drive competitive advantage. While competitors (still working with tightly-integrated eCommerce architecture) will have a hard time deploying the strategies their research has shown them would be effective, companies using headless can act on these opportunities instantly.

These companies will be among the first to get their message out there and reap the benefits while their competitors struggle to bootstrap their own solutions within their old-fashioned eCommerce platforms. And given that eCommerce is projected to facilitate 95% of all purchases by 2040, the benefits of this adaptability are clear.

In other words, headless represents an important shift away from the eCommerce of the past. It’s a push away from compromise and toward freedom—freedom to build what you need and deliver the exact type of eCommerce experience that your customers want. And as we enter the new decade in full force, this flexibility is more important than ever.

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