Composable Commerce: A Modular Approach to Building Your Ecommerce Tech Ecosystem

Collage Analytics Product Headphones Video Rating Generic

7 Retail Strategies to Overcome a Growth Plateau

I'm ready to start building or already have my own ecommerce store.
I have questions and would like guidance from an ecommerce expert.
Talk to sales

Direct-to-consumer furniture brand Burrow skyrocketed to popularity for solving one of furniture’s biggest modern challenges. 

“We’ve long struggled with couches that are either too cheap and flimsy, or heavy and expensive. They require a team to move, are complicated to put together, and inevitably won’t fit into your next space. That’s why we’re building clever, comfortable furniture for your life and living room,” reads their About Us page.

Believe it or not, there are some parallels between the now-disrupted furniture industry and the state of ecommerce software, and if you’ve ever chosen your next home based on which direction your sectional faces, you can relate.

Burrow’s couches — and the rest of the furniture pieces they’ve since expanded into — are modular and easy to move so the furniture you buy from them will “fit this home, and the next one.” 

Add or remove components to change the size of your sofa, or easily switch between a left-facing and a right-facing sectional. Because it doesn’t matter how amazing that 12-foot behemoth of a couch is if you have to build your life around it.

You can think about tools and technology in this way, too. Traditional, monolithic ecommerce platforms are like that clunky old couch stuck forever in its original form. Today’s enterprises need something that aligns better with the elastic nature of everyday business.

Just like no one static couch can fit perfectly in every home, no one monolithic software system can provide every business the perfect set of capabilities. The question that remains: is ‘good enough’ good enough? 

Having the flexibility to find a perfect fit in the face of rapidly changing situations is one reason businesses are starting to change the way they approach the underlying architecture of their tech stacks.

What is Composable Commerce?

Composable commerce is a term, coined by Gartner in a June 2020 report, referring to a modular digital commerce approach. This kind of modular approach enables the selection of best-in-breed solutions for each unique business need to assemble a customized tech stack.

Per Gartner: “Using the composable application approach, digital experiences are assembled as required, depending on the customer and touchpoint requirements, and delivery of an “ecommerce site” may be just one of these experience types.”

Let’s look at the four key tenets of composable commerce:

1. Modular.

Each component of the system — your shopping cart technology, customer relationship management (CRM) system, etc. — can be deployed and interchanged independently.

2. Open.

Applications can be seamlessly integrated with all other applications in the system, with no vendor lock-in.

3. Flexible.

With your unique stack, you can create totally unique commerce experiences tailored exactly to what your customers want.

4. Business-centric.

This fully customizable system enables rapid response to changing business requirements by making more things possible with fewer unintended consequences, lowering cost and increasing potential innovation.

Evolution of Composable Commerce

Until relatively recently, enterprise and midmarket businesses built their ecommerce platforms on a monolith architecture by default. Using this monolith framework, all of the necessary pieces of the platform are tied together. The front-end interface that customers interact with is tied to the back-end that controls everything behind the scenes.

Composable commerce is the latest in a series of steps away from the traditional, all-in-one software monolith. These platforms can be rich in features and functionality, but they are not nimble, and they tend to slow business innovation rather than enable it.

1. The problem with monoliths.

While it might seem like an all-in-one platform would be easier to use, many brands find that, as they grow, the challenges of working within a monolith grow, too.

Monoliths, by definition, feature a tightly coupled front- and back-end system. Any customizations to the code can make the system more complex over time, particularly as business capabilities increase and technologies evolve.

That same complexity means that the business can’t respond as quickly. Monolithic systems don’t provide the agility to implement meaningful changes quickly without risk of unintended consequences.

Unintended consequences are often the result of dependencies. In monolithic platforms where parts are tightly coupled, making changes can be like playing a game of Jenga — one wrong move can impact the whole system.

2. Headless commerce.

How composable are you? The various technological approaches to delivering composable commerce exist on a spectrum of complexity. One such approach, which has been much buzzed about in the ecommerce community, is headless commerce.

Headless commerce refers to the decoupling of the front-end presentation layer from the back-end ecommerce engine. The front-end (or ‘head’) of many simple ecommerce websites is the theme or template that controls what customers see. 

Headless enables more flexibility in delivery because you can connect a content management system (CMS), digital experience platform (DXP), progressive web app (PWA) or even an Internet of Things (IoT) device. You can then swap out and make changes to/customize the front-end without affecting essential ecommerce components like checkout and payment security.

Headless commerce platforms are easier to scale than monoliths; front-end traffic does not impact the back-end because they are operating separately. Decoupling also helps to increase speed and flexibility because one team can make updates to the user interface while another team tests the back-end. Additionally, multiple front-ends can connect to one back-end, so you can experiment with different front-end options like IoT.

3. MACH architecture.

With headless, some of the parts of the system are decoupled — but in a true microservices architecture, the platform and service-oriented architecture are fully decoupled. 

Microservices enable businesses to combine the best individual services to suit their business. These pieces communicate via APIs to create complex business transactions. However, they can also operate independently — meaning one piece of the puzzle can be swapped out without impacting any other pieces of the system. 

In 2020 a community of developers called the MACH Alliance formed to help enterprises navigate the modern technology landscape, advocating for open technology ecosystems. 

Their community perspective on building these open environments has four key elements:

  • Microservices: Microservices are the building blocks. A microservices architecture offers a decentralized, decoupled approach. Instead of one solution that does everything, it separates different business requirements into different services which then communicate with each other. This means even as the business and its needs grow more complex, microservices can offer speed and flexibility.
  • API-first: Taking an API-first approach is what enables an integrated, best-in-breed solution. This provides the flexibility to assemble a tech stack based on your exact business requirements without needing to fully rely on standardized, pre-built plugins.
  • Cloud: Cloud-native architecture provides the scalability you need to deliver fast, reliable shopping experiences to your customers, wherever they are. The platform will scale automatically based on your needs and assure speed, performance and security.
  • Headless: Headless refers to decoupling the presentation layer from back-end management. This flexibility can enable commerce at a wide range of touch points to ensure a seamless cross-channel customer experience.

4. Composable commerce.

In mid-2020, Gartner published a report further defining its perspective on this modularized approach and coined it “composable commerce.”

Their perspective aligns closely with the microservices approach, with one — perhaps merely semantic — difference: emphasizing packaged business capabilities (PBCs) over microservices.

As Gartner writes in their report, “Today, these modular capabilities are often called ‘microservices,’ but while this usage is common in the market, it does not align to the technical definition of microservices. The market usage is more closely aligned to the idea of packaged business capabilities (PBCs) that has arisen out of Garner’s future of applications research.”

PBCs are software components that represent a defined business capability. They are meant to be functionally complete and can be used as building blocks for applications and custom-assembled application experiences. 

They’re both component-based and hook into your architecture the same way, but PBCs aren’t constrained by size — they can bring micro OR macro capabilities. Essentially, a PBC could be an aggregation of microservices into one PBC unit to reduce complexity and fragmentation.

Gartner also puts less emphasis than the MACH Alliance on cloud-native SaaS, writing in their guide, “PBCs may be vendor-managed SaaS, in public or private clouds, or on-premises.”

Advantages of Adopting Composable Commerce

As technology continues to evolve and retail finds new ways to innovate, businesses must be poised to react quickly to — and even anticipate — changing customer expectations. 

What’s more, particularly after COVID-related brick-and-mortar shut-downs in 2020, digital commerce competition is higher than ever. Customer acquisition, then, is a continuing challenge and, often, a growing expense.

Proponents of composable commerce say that this modular approach offers businesses the agility they need to deliver innovative experiences at speed and scale and differentiate themselves from a growing number of competitors.

1. Construct your own personalized end-to-end customer experiences.

In their report, one of the factors Gartner was laser-focused on was the customer journey. Touch points have expanded from “in-store” and “online” to social channels, marketplaces, IoT devices and more. Shoppers are interacting with brands in contexts and mediums never seen before. 

“Where customers are spending their time shifted. Consumers choose to follow a brand, a person, and that's a very different dynamic than having to push ads into a search box,” said Jimmy Duvall, Chief Product Officer at BigCommerce. 

“A few years back, almost all ecommerce shopping experiences started in search. Today, they're happening from social; they're happening from direct; they're happening from content, and less and less people are starting from search.”

Constructing a shopper’s journey with all of those factors in mind requires a level of flexibility that just wasn’t necessary or practical in ecommerce’s earlier days. But providing this additional level of customization can pay off: As many as 60% of millennials say they’re loyal to brands that offer a unique shopping experience.

2. Respond rapidly to changing business needs.

In March 2020, daily life was upended by COVID-19, and some businesses found themselves more prepared than others to adjust to changing needs and expectations. 

Stores that could adjust quickly to offer needed services like buy online, pick up in-store (BOPIS) or curbside pickup to minimize the close contact of in-person shopping were better able to weather some of the pains of the pandemic. In fact, use of BOPIS increased by 195% year-over-year in May 2020 due to the pandemic.

Accounting for this functionality may not seem difficult, but any change to your system can be complex in a monolithic system. A modular, best-in-breed approach allows you to address only the area of functionality in question without risk of impacting other business capabilities in your ecosystem.

3. Reduce customer acquisition costs.

Increasingly saturated advertising channels and changing consumer perceptions of advertising are two of many factors contributing to a rise in customer acquisition costs. Relying on paid ads alone simply isn’t a sustainable solution. 

That’s why many enterprise brands have moved to content- or experience-led commerce, which calls for a more modular approach to the technology stack. In our survey with Retail Dive, 60% of participants identified two strategies as the most important to managing or reducing customer acquisition costs: creating content to publish via their own channels and improving their overall digital experience.

4. Avoid vendor lock-in.

Monolithic software vendors reduce their clients’ flexibility. Discovered a better product from a different company? You’ll have to wait until your contract expires, or be on the hook for a potentially expensive migration. With a modular build, you can swap components in and out when it makes sense for your business.

Disadvantages of Adopting Composable Commerce

There are clearly a number of advantages to a composable commerce approach, which explains why many enterprise-scale businesses are moving in that direction. However, there are some potential roadblocks and challenges you’ll need to consider, particularly if you’re eyeing a full microservices approach versus a headless ecommerce platform.

1. Manage multiple vendors.

If there’s one advantage you can give to the monolith, it’s that you only have to deal with one vendor. Negotiating terms of enterprise subscriptions, reviewing terms and conditions, integrating with the software — it takes a lot longer to do this when you’re talking about upwards of 40–50 vendors versus just a few. 

Service level agreements pose another challenge. Resilience to traffic spikes will vary across vendors, and the guarantees they offer in their SLAs will, too.

2. Require high digital maturity levels.

“Think of microservices like Lego blocks without an instruction manual to piece them together to build that creation you had perfectly envisioned,” said Duvall in an article for Forbes last year.

Composable commerce is a complex model that requires a digitally mature organization and deep, cross-functional collaboration among sophisticated developers. “It can be extremely difficult — and potentially expensive — to put all of those Lego pieces together in a way that creates a compelling and manageable customer experience,” Duvall said.

3. Change infrastructure and monitoring tool needs.

Switching to a microservices architecture might change the infrastructure and tools you need to monitor those different microservices. Be aware of what changes will be required and factor them into the total cost of ownership.

4. DIY control panel.

A pure microservices or completely headless experience requires merchants to build a cohesive user interface on top of other components. Because everything lives in different systems, tasks made simple by a more out-of-the-box platform become much more difficult to manage.

Does Open SaaS Enable Composable Commerce?

BigCommerce’s Open SaaS combines the best of both open source and SaaS through a modular approach to ecommerce. Does that mean it enables what Gartner is referring to as composable commerce? Based strictly on Gartner’s recent definition, perhaps not exactly. 

After all, many BigCommerce customers use out-of-the-box platform features to run their business. That said, Open SaaS is built via an approach that aligns with the philosophy and perspective of the MACH Alliance around open and connected enterprise technology. 

“The MACH Alliance mission is a perfect reflection of our own strategy to offer merchants an open, flexible and best-of-breed platform ecosystem that can help future-proof their ecommerce business,” said Jimmy Duvall, chief product officer at BigCommerce. 

BigCommerce is not a fully decoupled microservices system like Elastic Path or commercetools, but the platform’s philosophy of openness means that you can build integrations into nearly any other application that you wish for near limitless customizability. That includes giving merchants the choice of whether or not to take a headless commerce approach.

Because over 90% of the platform is exposed to APIs, BigCommerce merchants can take a best-in-breed approach to their own vendor selection. APIs enable merchants to connect third-party integrations, mobile applications or a front-end CMS or DXP to create a headless storefront.

1. Burrow.

Composable Commerce Burrow

Burrow, the modular furniture brand we mentioned in the introduction, found that a modular approach worked best for their ecommerce technology, too. 

“We really wanted to create a super customizable shopping experience. What we didn't want to manage was creating an entire new ecommerce platform and creating a new order management system, all of the sort of technical backend things, because literally there were three people in the company. What enabled us to do that was to take a headless approach to ecommerce,” Kabeer Chopra, co-founder and CPO of Burrow, said.

“The other platforms we spoke to didn’t invest nearly as much time into coming up with a framework or solution that would work for our business, but instead tried to fit our business into their framework. Truly, the flexibility that BigCommerce has offered in terms of guidance, support and solutioning has been immense,” said Chopra.

Alex Kubo, vice president of ecommerce and digital marketing for the brand, added, “Having an open API backend allowed us to create a really unique and tailored front-end experience, but have all of the kind of turnkey integrations and tools that we needed on the backend to make sure that all of this cool customization that we wanted to do on the front-end would actually function.” 

After launching their site with BigCommerce, Burrow reported a 50% increase in site speed and performance.

Implementing a Composable Commerce Solution

You may be wary of the effort that goes into the replatforming process, but there’s good news on that front. Fortunately, switching from a monolith to a microservices or headless platform may be done incrementally by slowly reducing reliance on the core monolith. 

With an incremental approach, you can first decide which capabilities to decouple and when to slowly separate your entire monolith into a system of microservices. You can start transitioning to your new platform while you’re still building out the rest of the parts.

Wrapping Up

Consumers are experiencing products and interacting with brands in more ways than ever before. Social media channels have become sales channels, marketing channels and customer service channels. We buy on marketplaces, at pop-up events, on our mobile devices and sometimes even through smart speakers or game systems. Commerce is omnichannel.

 “There are five generations who are buying things online, and never before have merchants or brands been tasked with marketing and selling to five different generations who have incredibly different expectations. You have to be able to innovate all the time and meet consumers where they are,” said BigCommerce Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Eggerton. 

Delivering personalized commerce experiences at scale requires flexibility. That’s why Burrow chose a headless build to maximize their ability to customize without taking on the extra work of maintaining a back-end platform.

There are plenty of good reasons to choose an approach with some degree of composability, but there are drawbacks to that approach as well. Before jumping into any technology decisions, make sure you have a 360-degree view of your business needs, internal and external development capabilities and the way any technology might impact your business or processes.

Composable Commerce FAQs

What are the four key tenets of composable commerce?

Composable commerce must be modular, open, flexible and business-centric. To be modular, the pieces of your tech stack must be able to be deployed and interchanged independently. Openness refers to the ability to integrate your choice of applications. Your stack must be flexible enough to create the customer-focused experiences your shoppers want. And, in this context, “business-centric” refers to the ability to respond quickly to changing business challenges.

What is a monolithic system, and why might it hold my ecommerce efforts back?

Monoliths feature a tightly coupled front- and back-end system. They tend not to provide the agility to implement meaningful changes quickly without risk of unintended consequences. Any future code customizations can make the system more complex over time, particularly as business capabilities increase and technologies evolve. In monolithic platforms where parts are tightly coupled, making changes can be like playing a game of Jenga — one wrong move can impact the whole system.

Does BigCommerce enable composable commerce?

BigCommerce’s Open SaaS combines the best of both open source and SaaS through a modular approach to ecommerce. Does that mean it enables what Gartner is referring to as composable commerce? Based strictly on Gartner’s recent definition, perhaps not exactly. After all, many BigCommerce customers use out-of-the-box platform features to run their business. But Open SaaS is built using an approach that aligns with the philosophy and perspective of the MACH Alliance around open and connected enterprise technology. 

BigCommerce is not a fully decoupled microservices system like Elastic Path or commercetools, but the platform’s philosophy of openness means that you can build integrations into nearly any other application that you wish for near limitless customizability. That includes giving merchants the choice of whether or not to take a headless commerce approach.

Because over 90% of the platform is exposed to APIs, BigCommerce merchants can take a best-in-breed approach to their own vendor selection. APIs enable merchants to connect third-party integrations, mobile applications or a front-end CMS or DXP to create a headless storefront.

Browse additional resources

Article Thumbnail Person Working Shopping Cart Analytics Shipping Bigcommerce
Article
The Future of Ecommerce is Frictionless, Experiential, and Everywhere
Read Article
Article Thumbnail Page Builder Catalog Transfer Generic
Article
Ecommerce Website Design 101: How to Position Your Online Store for Growth
Read Article
Article Thumbnail People Device Shopping Cart Analytics Generic
Article
Ecommerce Trends That Are Powering Online Retail Forward
Read Article
Article Thumbnail Person Device Payment Domain Shipping Generic
Article
Understanding Ecommerce Costs: How to Calculate Total Cost of Ownership for an Online Store
Read Article
ecommerce hosting
Article
Ecommerce Hosting: Recommended Criteria For Choosing a Host Based on Your Specific Needs
Read Article
Article Thumbnail People Working Analytics Conversions Generic
Article
How Ecommerce Consultants Can Help Your Business
Read Article
Article Thumbnail People Laptop Storefront Theme Add Product Generic
Article
Ecommerce CMS Explained: What It Is, How It Works and Why You Need One
Read Article
types of ecommerce business models
Article
Types of Ecommerce Business Models: Traditional and Innovative New Ones to Consider
Read Article
finding the best ecommerce platform
Article
Finding the Best Ecommerce Platform for Your Business Needs
Read Article
B2B ecommerce order management
Article
How to Improve Your B2B Ecommerce Order Management
Read Article
B2B ecommerce platforms
Article
How to Find the Best B2B Ecommerce Platform
Read Article
B2B ecommerce trends
Article
7 B2B Ecommerce Trends You Need to Follow for 2020 and Beyond
Read Article