Over the last two decades, the ecommerce industry has been both expanding and transforming. Digital advancements have altered consumer buying behavior and what they want from the online shopping experience. The rise of software-as-a-service (SaaS), cloud, mobile, big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), social media, and other technologies have changed customers’ expectations.
Then 2020 came along, and the transformation process accelerated rapidly. The global pandemic and the temporary shutdown of many brick-and-mortar retail businesses led to massive shifts in everything from buyer behavior to supply chains.
In our always-on, buy anything anywhere world, customers want their shopping experiences to be personalized, dynamic and convenient. Now customers may also have safety concerns that may keep them from shopping in-store. They want businesses that give them options and cater to how they want to shop.
As a result, many businesses are trying to reinvent themselves, adapt new business models and keep pace with their competitors. Success in an industry constantly in flux depends on continually adapting and innovating — and doing it at speed. There’s no time for disjointed technologies and old systems that don’t serve the customer-obsessed mentality needed to thrive.
Speed is one of the most important factors for determining a company’s success. It’s crucial for updating technologies and processes, bringing new products to market, expanding into new markets and establishing strategic partnerships faster than the competition.
The answer for many businesses — especially those trying to achieve ecommerce dominance in competitive industries — lies in the API economy. APIs are the building blocks that serve as intermediaries to transfer information between applications. They underpin the apps we use every day.
In this deep dive, let’s explore the API economy, how APIs can impact ecommerce and how you can leverage ecommerce APIs to grow your business.
APIs, or application programming interfaces, enable one application (such as your ecommerce platform) to expose services (such as catalog content, order management, pricing information and customer data) to other applications.
Simply speaking, an API helps systems “talk” to each other. A well-defined API is the glue that connects data together and allows authorized applications or machines to easily access data.
APIs bring a new level of data sharing and connectivity to applications, regardless of their internal data structures and technology platforms. APIs have proven to be extremely important to enterprises, contributing to their agility, efficiency, innovation and growth — potentially affecting their bottom line. These benefits have created the API economy, which can be defined as the way APIs positively impact a company’s profitability.
APIs make it easier for businesses to:
According to Kristin R. Moyer, a vice president and analyst at Gartner, “the API economy is an enabler for turning a business or organization into a platform. Platforms multiply value creation because they enable business ecosystems inside and outside of the enterprise to consummate matches among users and facilitate the creation and/or exchange of goods, services and social currency so that all participants are able to capture value.”
Some businesses find that the API economy is an excellent way to create new capabilities, features, services and experiences to delight customers and drive revenue.
As such, APIs continue to be a huge factor in many organizations’ business models. As technologies like mobile, the Internet of Things and augmented reality accelerate their growth, the API economy will continue to expand rapidly.
Consumers want to be able to shop anywhere, anytime, so you need to deliver a consistent customer experience across all commerce channels. API-led commerce can enable you to provide omnichannel shopping that meets your customers’ expectations.
At its core, omnichannel commerce is really about data orchestration. From your ecommerce platform and ERP to your POS and mobile applications, you need to be able to unify data from all of your enterprise systems into a location where it can be analyzed and used. To do that, you need to make the right connections.
Businesses find achieving true omnichannel commerce viability so challenging because it’s very difficult to get all of your systems to talk to one another. However, once you get it right, you will have a much clearer and simpler view of your customers. The insights you gain from this clearer view can help you create better shopping experiences for them.
When it comes to omnichannel, the goal of integrations is to essentially hide all of the complexity of the underlying data and present a simplified view of a customer, a product and a channel.
You can achieve this with API-led connectivity, which is a way to connect data to applications through a series of modern and reusable APIs that play a specific role in your omnichannel strategy. They unlock data from systems, turn data into processes or provide an experience. Rather than connecting things point-to-point, with this strategy every asset becomes a modern API that can be discovered through self-service without losing control.
To better understand how this works, it’s best to view the API-led approach to connectivity by organizing APIs into three types:
This API-led strategy unifies your data so you can execute omnichannel commerce more effectively, thereby providing your customers with consistent shopping experiences across channels. It also enables you to leverage APIs to consistently address and manage the changing needs of your business.
Proper data orchestration is the key to smooth enterprise ecommerce implementations and ongoing operations, and APIs help facilitate this process.
They connect your ecommerce platform with numerous back-end systems, including:
Correctly integrating any or all of these systems is critical for your business to be as efficient, agile and adaptive as possible.
The smooth, accurate flow of information related to things like inventory, customers, pricing and order data can be the difference between increasing revenues or increasing costs and developing a loyal customer or losing them to a competitor.
APIs can provide enormous benefits for ecommerce websites because they can allow you to create flexible tech stacks by integrating with the solutions you need. Here are some benefits of using an API-led approach.
Ecommerce website security is vitally important as online stores are treasure troves of customer personal and financial data. One study found that up to 90% of the logins to ecommerce websites may be fraudulent. APIs can help this by putting an extra layer between your software systems and the people requesting data from them.
Reusing programs saves time and money, so one big advantage of APIs, and particularly System APIs, is that they’re often able to be reused many times across platforms and applications.
Scalability essentially speaks to your ability to expand and grow, while your current system grows with you. By using APIs, you can add to your existing ecommerce ecosystem without changing the underlying system. This means APIs can provide greater scalability and flexibility as your needs grow and change.
Along the same vein as scalability, extensibility focuses on the need to extend your platform to not only grow but change. So in addition to just growing, you can also adapt to meet changing market conditions, buyer behavior and more. APIs again facilitate this by enabling you to add or subtract from your existing system and swap out solutions through simple integrations. As long as you have an API to work as an intermediary, there’s no end to the different connections and combinations you can make to reach your exact needs.
There are two main strategies for approaching ecommerce, and each has an impact on data orchestration and APIs.
The commerce-first model uses an ecommerce platform on the frontend for the user experience and checkout, and leverages APIs on the backend for data orchestration with an ERP, PIM, OMS or other system. Businesses who choose this strategy typically use highly-extensible SaaS technologies as spokes for the larger business hub.
On a SaaS platform, the number of API calls available, the efficiency of those APIs and whether or not the necessary APIs exist are all critical for making sure the platforms and data orchestration function properly.
All SaaS platforms manage this differently. Be sure to ask your provider or include the request for information in your RFP to the various solutions.
The experience-first or headless commerce model takes extensibility one step further, decoupling the presentation layer from the ecommerce platform using popular content management systems like WordPress.
API connectivity is important to ensure proper data orchestration across the decoupled systems. The focus for this model is to first attract customers with excellent content experiences, then drive them to a more traditional ecommerce experience.
Headless ecommerce platforms allow you to take advantage of the API economy to use best-of-breed applications at the presentation layer to solve your business’ specific challenges. Accessing APIs to complete a digital ecosystem enables companies to go to market at a lower cost and focus on their core capabilities.
It’s important to note that not all APIs are created equal. In fact, when it comes to speed, efficiency and cost, there are huge differences depending on whether you’re using an on-premise or cloud solution or a SaaS solution like BigCommerce. There are even significant API differences between different SaaS solutions.
It’s also worth noting the difference between open APIs and private APIs.
You will want to ask some key questions of any platforms you are considering to make sure they will be able to handle what you need. You need to know that the API you need exists on the platform and that it has the efficiency and calls per second to do what you require.
BigCommerce’s open API combines all of the benefits of a SaaS platform — such as being hosted on behalf of businesses, having a lower total cost of ownership and going to market faster — with the flexibility to create custom integrations and functionality.
With Storefront APIs and server-to-server API functions, you have access to all of the data and business logic of the BigCommerce platform from a remote server. That means you can connect third-party integrations, mobile applications or even a frontend CMS or DXP to create a headless storefront.
BigCommerce can manage complex API needs, quickly and efficiently, using advanced API features like filtering, sorting and pagination. BigCommerce also allows you to batch API calls at every plan level of the solution, saving you time and money.
Most ecommerce platforms provide APIs to make it easy for their applications to connect with other systems. The following 13 ecommerce API examples can boost your site’s performance and functionality while improving the customer experience.
A catalog API helps you create, edit and manage your product catalog. This API enables you to update thousands of products within minutes and supports integration with other key systems such as point-of-sale, inventory management and reporting.
The login API helps you manage customer identities. It allows you to give customers the ability to log in to your ecommerce site on systems they already use such as Amazon, Facebook and G Suite.
The Cart API allows you to view, create and manage customers’ shopping carts. Cart APIs enable you to leverage BigCommerce business logic in your application to handle the heavy lifting of things like calculating appropriate shipping or tax, taking a credit card payment, etc.
The Checkout API allows you to fully customize your checkout experience and alter the UX to better appeal to your customer set and increase conversion. The checkout API also allows you to leverage an ecommerce platform’s checkout functionality to build a checkout experience on a remote platform, like a headless storefront or mobile app.
The Payments API is used for building an external application (like a headless storefront or mobile app checkout) that needs to accept credit card payments. The Payments API lets you programmatically process a payment through your ecommerce platform’s existing payment gateway integrations.
Sales tax laws vary by country, state and, sometimes, district, so you need to be able to accurately calculate tax at checkout. With a Sales Tax API, you don’t have to worry about sales tax complexities, and you can be sure that customers are charged the right sales tax amount every time.
Social proof in the form of Facebook likes, Twitter comments and product reviews signal to shoppers that your ecommerce site is trustworthy. You can use a Social Proof API to stream social media feeds directly to your site and product pages. Social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have developer APIs that you can customize and add to your site.
A Marketing Automation API allows you to automatically add customers to an email list and then segment them based on the products they bought, the purchase amount, location or any other segmentation criteria.
A Shipping API enables you to automate processes from the sale through the package being delivered to a customer. A Shipping API can allow you to connect a shipping provider (like USPS or FedEx) already programmatically supported by your ecommerce platform or add an integration to a new shipping provider. It can also ease fulfillment by allowing services like ShipStation to pull data to create packing slips and labels.
The Customers API allows developers to actually extend the customer record with attributes: name value pairs that attach additional data to the customer model. You can build applications that base logic around customer attributes to create personalized experiences and targeted marketing.
An Anti-fraud API allows you to detect fraudsters before they do any financial damage to your business. This API screens various elements of a transaction, such as proxy, geolocation, email or credit card and flags orders that are potentially fraudulent.
Enhancing the functionality of your ecommerce site is now easier than ever with APIs. From catalog APIs to cart APIs to shipping APIs and many more, you can improve your ecommerce operations and performance, make your business more efficient and provide customers with the shopping experiences they desire.
Now let’s consider how some real businesses are using APIs to build connections across systems using the BigCommerce platform.
This audio lifestyle brand uses BigCommerce APIs to connect all aspects of their system and meet their omnichannel business needs.
Mark Hopkins, the Chief Information Officer of Skullcandy, explains the advantages that BigCommerce has provided:
“BigCommerce’s API allows Skullcandy to connect its product information system to capture orders, interface with the credit card companies, calculate tax, and interface all of this information into our ERP system for fulfillment. It was important for us to have a solid API base for dealing with all the connections we have. We see the BigCommerce platform as a major element of our ecommerce ecosystem, because our consumers come to our website to learn about our products, even though they may purchase on a different platform like Amazon or a retailer site.”
As a B2B business, this leading packaging supplier has some unique needs that differ from B2C businesses.
With the help of BigCommerce partner Americaneagle.com, Berlin Packaging was able to build on BigCommerce APIs to achieve specialized item attributes, custom inputs and custom shipping and handling capabilities.
Chris Hiller, the General Manager of Berlin Packaging, summed up the advantages of BigCommerce for the business:
“The open API and the use of custom fields makes BigCommerce extremely flexible and the platform can do virtually anything you want it to do.”
The API economy allows you to take advantage of agile marketing and channel expansion opportunities without disrupting your back-office data orchestration and security. In our fast-moving and ever-changing digital world, businesses have to adapt or risk losing market share to competitors, and APIs can help you build an adaptive strategy that can give your brand a competitive edge.
From connecting features that simplify shopping to creating a true omnichannel commerce offering, the API economy can help you streamline your business, build customer loyalty and increase profitability.
API stands for application programming interface. APIs enable one application, for example an ecommerce platform, to expose services (such as catalog content, order management, pricing information and customer data) to other applications. The APIs provide the connection between the services and facilitate communication and the sharing of data.
In the context of an ecommerce website, APIs can help your systems share data and information. Many ecommerce platforms provide APIs to make this easier. For example, catalog APIs can help you manage and update your product catalog so that it syncs across different systems. Or a checkout API can allow you to customize your checkout experience and connect it to your ecommerce platform. Anything that involves system integrations and sharing data, that’s where you’ll find an API.
APIs work as a software intermediary that essentially allows them to work as messengers between different systems. The API translates the message from one system into data that can be usable by another.
Systems API are those that deal with your underlying systems like your ERP or CRM. These are often very complex. These APIs mask this complexity. They essentially allow other systems or users to ask for and receive information from these systems and receive it in a format that is simple and understandable.
Process APIs are middlemen that break down data silos. They don’t depend on the source systems where the data originates or the channels where the data is to be delivered. They shape data either within a single system or across systems.
Experience APIs are helpful for your customers as they request data from your system. They make it possible to reconfigure data so that it is more easily used by its audience. They enable you to pull from a common data source instead of having to set up separate point-to-point integrations for each channel.
APIs allow you to improve your customer experience because you can extend your platform and make adjustments to all aspects of your site. You can also make faster changes to keep up with changing customer expectations and behavior because you can swap out solutions without affecting the underlying system. For example, you can use a Checkout API to create the perfect streamlined checkout experience to improve your conversion rate.
There are a number of benefits that APIs can bring to an ecommerce website including added security, scalability and extensibility. Essentially APIs enable you to continue to update and adapt your tech stack by adding new components without compromising the underlying systems.
There is no shortage of APIs used in ecommerce. Anytime you need to connect two systems to share data, you will need an API. Some features where APIs are helpful include catalog APIs, login APIs, cart APIs, checkout API, payments API, sales tax API, shipping API and widgets API. See above in the article for a full list and explanations.
You, or more likely your developer team, can build your own APIs to work for particular needs you have, if the API does not already exist. You can find tutorials online based on the programming language you need.
Like any question comparing ecommerce platforms, there is no one right answer. Different platforms are right for different businesses, and it will depend on your API needs which is right for you. You will want to confirm that the platform you are considering has the APIs you need in place. Some platforms are decidedly more open than others. For example, with BigCommerce, over 90% of the platform is exposed via APIs, allowing for a great deal of flexibility.