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Article
6 min read
Robert Daubner

There’s barely anything you can’t buy online today: clothes, books or electronics can be delivered to your doorstep as easily as food, medicine and even cars. E–commerce companies – whether business-to-business (B2B), business-to-consumer (B2C) or direct-to-consumer (D2C) – must keep two factors about this development in mind if they want to stay competitive in the long run.

 

Firstly, the importance of online shops and experiences is continuously growing. Secondly, rudimentary online shops are no longer sufficient to satisfy customer expectations. Consumers want online shopping experiences that are easy, intuitive and smooth. Pages should load instantly and be optimised especially for mobile browsers – a dedicated app would be even better. Search functions should return relevant results, and there should be a range of payment options available. Tolerance for inadequate experiences is low – in the worst case, disappointed customers simply turn to a competitor.

 

For businesses, this means that they need to prioritise their e-commerce offering and, above all, the customer experience. How? With the right software architecture.

 

Many companies are still relying on an entirely monolithic e-commerce system. Within that system, a range of functions are combined in a common code base. For example, the shop itself, a product information management (PIM) system, a content management system (CMS) and a data asset management (DAM) system are all run in one process.

 

While low complexity in the interaction of the individual components and low latency are beneficial, a purely monolithic architecture is now considered outdated, and often prevent swift updates or feature implementation. With these legacy architectures, new features can take months to introduce as they require the code base to be changed and the entire system updating.

 

Such a system doesn’t lend itself to a state-of-the-art user experience: once a new function is implemented, it could already be outdated. Furthermore, organisations can’t try new things in terms of design to evaluate how the changes are received by the customers – something crucial to continuously improve the user interface. Meanwhile, software problems often affect the whole system, causing it to fail – a major nuisance for the business and the customers.

 

Speed is the decisive factor

 

The need for more modern architecture for e-commerce applications is clear. One solution: microservices. Microservices are many small services, each of which is only responsible for one task, and have been a software development trend for some time. Looking at the example of an online shop, one such individual task could be the product search or the shopping cart. The goal is that the microservices perform their tasks perfectly – and that new functions, channels and technologies can be added with the greatest possible flexibility. That way, businesses can adapt their user interface more quickly to the expectations and needs of their customers.

 

However, it often doesn’t work as easily as it seems at first glance. After all, most companies won’t decide to build a brand-new online shop from the ground up using only microservices – and it isn’t necessary to, either. Instead, brands evolve and partially replace their organically grown system with microservices. This process itself can be very time-consuming and take months or even years.  

 

Steps to success

 

The first step that a company needs to take is a thorough audit. The bigger the system landscape, the more difficult it may be to get a 360° view.

  

A brand must ask questions such as:

 

  • What is its business strategy for the online shop?  
  • Which legacy systems are already in use and how do they communicate with each other?  
  • Which functions should be set up as microservices?

 

Microservices-Diagram

 

During the implementation phase, companies need to consider that in e-commerce, they might be working with three different speeds dependent on the area. In the front end, everything must run lightning fast, and real-time and historical data needs to be combined to offer customers the best possible experience. Even small glitches, like personal product recommendations that are no longer available in the size the customer last ordered, can leave a bad impression. On the other end, fulfilment systems, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) or logistics solutions, work relatively slowly in the background. In between there are systems with a medium operating speed, such as payments solutions.

 

The challenge therefore lies in connecting legacy solutions and the new microservices so that they can communicate flawlessly and continue to operate at their specific speed.

 

A headless approach in e-commerce

 

Unlike with traditional shop and content management systems, a ‘headless’ approach means that front and back end are completely separate.

 

Furthermore, all front-end components that are microservices work independently and are only connected via API. As a result, companies can choose the technologies best suited for a particular task and scale them as needed, independently from the back end. In addition, time to market is short so that businesses can react fast and flexibly to changing customer expectations.

 

Headless systems allow organisations to connect multiple front ends to the same back end. For example, to offer an online shop in various countries, you don’t have to set up an entirely new shop for each local language. Only a new front end needs to be developed – by you or a trusted partner – which can be customised to the respective target group and/or cultural area.

 

Of course, using microservices also comes with some challenges. Since microservices need to request information from databases of other microservices, latency can be higher, and these short delays can stand out negatively. A remedy can be caching, with the result of a query being saved and reused again and again.

 

In a decentralised structure with multiple databases that might be managed with different technologies, there may also be inconsistencies with your data. Data consistency is essential to run transactions correctly and completely. To tackle this, microservices can notify about events when their data is changed in any way, and then services dependent on them can update their data as well.

 

Monitoring a distributed microservices system can be a challenge due to its complexity. Besides the microservices, their interaction with other services also must be monitored to identify the cause of errors or a loss in performance as quickly as possible. Continuous real-time monitoring can be of great value here.

 

Conclusion

 

Online shopping is booming – as we know from our private lives and from observing the trends around us. Furthermore, the potential impact of new technologies and approaches like metaverse, blockchain, augmented or virtual reality might still be in the early stages, but in the next few years, they could fundamentally change the way we interact with brands and boost the shift towards digital.

 

Regardless, an intuitive, clear and readily available online shop is key to attracting customers and keeping them engaged. With a headless microservices architecture, companies can set up their online shop in alignment with their customers’ needs, add new functions flexibly and react quickly to new developments. Such an architecture gives businesses the opportunity to create a user experience that fully meets the expectations of a modern online experience, including a user interface that keeps being updated and optimised, in line with continuous delivery.

 

If e-commerce businesses are keeping an eye on potential obstacles right from the start and are looking for appropriate solutions, the road towards a modern flexible online shopping experience is clear.

 

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