Key Strategies for Modernizing Your Digital Storefront

digital-storefront

In the days when brick-and-mortar retail was king, storefront window displays were the unsung heroes of getting the right customers into your store to buy. In today’s rapidly evolving ecommerce landscape, your homepage (and landing pages) are your digital storefronts—and their speed and quality impact bottom lines more than ever before.

A fully modernized digital storefront will craft an optimal user experience for every site visitor, including personalization. According to a report by Monetate, providing personalized product recommendations can increase conversion rates by up to eight percent.

Another key factor of the most successful modern digital storefronts is lightning-fast load speed. Unbounce found that nearly 70% of consumers admit that page speed influences their likelihood of purchase, and that consumers will bounce, possibly for good, after a mere three seconds. Beyond page speed and personalization, modern digital storefronts can be deeply optimized for all types of devices, consumer behaviors, and much more.

Even if your ecommerce site is delivering a modern experience, your digital storefront might be architected in a way that makes critical updates or changes take too long. No matter where your current storefront is at, it’s never a bad time to take a close look at your tech stack to see what benefits a change in approach could bring.

At Shopify, we work with some of the largest ecommerce retailers in the world, providing a flexible, scalable platform that allows them to evolve their digital storefronts without having to move to another provider or solution. In this article, we’ll take a look at the options available to enterprise ecommerce retailers, the benefits and drawbacks of each approach, and how to tell which type of storefront is right for you.

What technologies can you build a digital storefront on?

​​The easiest way to think about digital storefront solutions is in terms of flexibility. The key to finding the right solution is to balance flexibility and agility with the amount of development expertise your organization has access to. The most tightly bundled solutions are the easiest to manage and hardest to break. But they can sometimes limit what providers and solutions you can integrate with, and how much you can completely customize your solution.

On the other hand, the most flexible, composable solutions offer the greatest amount of customization and integration possibilities—you can even blend vastly different programming languages, vendors, and technologies into a single digital storefront. We’ll look at four technologies for digital storefronts from the simplest to the most customizable, and the benefits and requirements for each approach.

Full-stack ecommerce platforms (monolith systems)

A full-stack commerce platform is a comprehensive solution. They allow retailers to go to market fast, and they often offer drag-and-drop simplicity. They can be cost-effective and simple to maintain, and they can be set up and launched very quickly. Full-stack platforms are also less likely to need in-depth technical troubleshooting, as they are all preconfigured and tightly coupled to work seamlessly. You can spin up unlimited storefronts in a no code way so that anyone, including your marketing team, can test new concepts, products, and new markets. This approach works best for companies with basic digital commerce requirements that need to get a solution up and running quickly.

Headless ecommerce solution

Headless commerce is an ecommerce approach that decouples the frontend (or anything the buyer interacts with) from the backend. Unlike a full-stack ecommerce platform, on which components are tightly coupled, the front and backend of a headless storefront communicate via an API layer. This enables developers on the front and backend to work independently.

As a company matures and wants to modernize the user experience across multiple channels, moving to a headless architecture gives retailers full development control over the front end. Because a headless approach often relies on API calls, digital storefronts can be tweaked, optimized, and improved by front-end development teams without impacting the underlying ecommerce functionalities. This is great for when you want to get the exact store your business needs while using the tech you already love, backed by Shopify’s enterprise-grade performance and fast experience no matter where your customers are.

Modular systems

Another way to add more flexibility to your digital storefront is by using a modular system. With this approach, the underlying software and technologies that drive your ecommerce solution are organized into reusable modules. Modular systems give retailers an easier way to scale their business because they can simply add and remove modules over time. Development teams can add new features and capabilities without having to rebuild the entire online presence.

Modular solutions allow companies to add, extend, or replace ecommerce functions with specific, targeted solutions that meet their current goals and needs. A prebuilt module that uses just the right code base, API, app, or service can be quickly selected and integrated without lengthy wait times or extensive development expertise. Downtime and system impacts from upgrades and changes are also greatly reduced, as any impact is limited to a single module.

A microservices or composable approach

For retailers with advanced omnichannel mixes and robust in-house IT resources, a digital storefront can be fully custom-built with microservices and composable components. This allows for maximum flexibility and rapid innovation, because the various components and services are loosely coupled and can be deployed independently.

Some retailers opt for microservices in hopes of taking advantage of cutting-edge technologies as soon as they hit the market. While its biggest advocates believe it gives you the technical agility you need to stay competitive, microservices often introduce a unique combination of challenges such as increased organizational complexity and overhead, failure cascades, and performance and reliability issues, which may lead you to consider the other mentioned options for building your storefront that reduces this overhead.

What is the best digital storefront option?

Because the ecommerce landscape is so varied, and every retailer is unique, there really is no “best option” for every digital storefront. Instead, it’s important to realize that the optimal solution for your business will evolve over time. In fact, a recent IDC report found nearly all—91%—of companies on full-stack platforms are planning to move to a blended SaaS commerce platform that offers more agility and flexibility.

As technology advances, so too do consumer demands as the bar for ecommerce keeps being raised. The static online websites of a decade ago can’t compete with the fast, personalized, interactive online retail experiences of today. This is why it’s important not to paint yourself into a corner with your ecommerce platform provider.

Shopify hosts retailers of all sizes, empowering them to scale and evolve without the headache and downtime of changing providers. It’s practically guaranteed that the best digital storefront for your business will not stay the same, especially if you experience commercial success and rapid growth.

How to choose your digital storefront technology

As we’ve mentioned earlier, it’s best to think of your digital storefront as something that will continually evolve over time. New technologies that enhance online retail experiences are being developed all the time, and consumer behaviors will change in response. When choosing your digital storefront technology, it’s important to think about both your current and future needs—especially if your business sees rapid growth.

If you’re in the market for a change, you’re definitely not alone. A recent IDC report found that well over half (67%) of companies are changing or planning to change their current commerce platform architecture. Let’s review four basic choices—and when they might be the right fit for you.

Online store (full-stack system)

An online store is generally the best choice when you are faced with either a tight timeline or no internal development resources—or both. Many of the customers Shopify hosts generate significant revenue and still remain on a full-stack platform. Some common factors of businesses that choose to keep their digital storefronts integrated with the back end include:

  • An online store that only needs to integrate with a few third-party apps
  • A storefront that is built to offer an easily-browsed product catalog
  • A fairly straightforward catalog of products and processes that buyers use to search for them
  • Using an outsourced, third-party, like an agency, for development services
  • A need for a cost-effective mobile digital storefront that can go-to-market quickly
  • An easy-to-use visual editor that enables anyone at the company to edit content
  • Generally being content to expand within a provider’s available functionality, or functionality that is on the roadmap

Headless storefront

On the whole, retailers that choose one of the three more complex approaches—headless, modular, and fully customized—have higher technology budgets and bigger development teams that can support the complex storefronts with bespoke experiences they want to build. Headless digital storefronts can offer highly customized, complex user experiences with features such as personalized recommendations, advanced search capabilities, and interactive product visualizations.

Shopify supports many customers with headless digital storefronts. The retailers that choose this approach usually have well-established technology and product teams with a clear vision, as well as a willingness and the capabilities to solve complex technological problems. They also often have these requirements or traits:

  • An ecommerce store with strict rules about URL structure
  • An engineering organization that can handle both ambiguity and sudden change
  • Developers that are comfortable with React and Javascript, and want the option to experiment and test new technologies
  • An established internal technology and product team with strong opinions on the business’s ecommerce strategy and execution

Modular and composable systems

A modular digital storefront can be the right choice if you need somewhat lower development costs, but more flexibility and complex customizations than a fully integrated digital storefront. With a modular system, developers get a good deal of flexibility and choice in selecting the right tools for each portion of the digital storefront, while not needing to worry if they will integrate seamlessly.

Across the enterprise digital storefronts Shopify supports, not all require the same level of customization and complexity. For example, some retailers with multiple offerings might want a complex build for their flagship products to offer the most robust user experience, but they may decide to use a somewhat simpler, modular approach to test an experimental brand or new product line. With a modular approach to building a digital storefront, online retailers can integrate with any third-party systems or software that they prefer or already use today.

Custom build or microservices

A fully custom build for a digital storefront allows for complete and total flexibility. However, it comes with the highest technical investment in terms of in-house capabilities and responsibilities. But even if your enterprise digital storefront has extensive requirements that demand a microservices approach, your business can still benefit from a provider like Shopify as your platform host.

Providers like Shopify can help retailers with extremely complex technical challenges by offering numerous benefits to keep in-house teams focused on what matters most. These include:

  • Teams dedicated to building and offering checkouts fully optimized to convert buyers, available for easy integration
  • The availability of managed runtime, kernel extensibility, prebuilt components, and powerful APIs
  • Access to a robust 3P ecosystem of developers and partners, allowing developers to quickly add prebuilt components
  • Lower development costs from the use of shared components whose costs are split across vendors
  • In-house operations, engineering, and security teams that constantly monitor, tune, and improve the system—keeping the platform optimized and secure, so development and IT teams don’t have to waste time keeping the lights on

What are some examples of modern digital storefronts?

Kotn: Consolidating two digital storefronts into one

Kotn is a sustainable clothing and home decor retailer that needed to streamline their operations and consolidate two digital storefronts into one. Kotn was looking ahead to the next 10 years and wanted to modernize their approach to set themselves up for future success.

Kotn used the Shopify Storefront API to consolidate two stores into one. They implemented a new CMS, custom product pages, and a much improved checkout. This eliminated the use of custom apps and workarounds, which made product and inventory management much simpler. The new improvements kept the site speed lightning fast, even when traffic was high, while delivering an improved customer experience.

Nour Hammer: Delivering an immersive digital storefront experience

Nour Hammour is a high-end outerwear retailer that needed to improve their digital storefront to mirror clientele's preferences and behaviors in the luxury world. Part of their strategy was to include strong support for videos and other seamless experiences that allowed their customers to better experience the brand and preview the products offered.

To do this, Nour Hammour decided to use a headless architectural approach to their digital storefront, allowing for higher performance and greater customization. Going headless also allowed them to seamlessly integrate advanced tools like Sanity CMS and MUX Video. They used Hydrogen, Shopify’s headless commerce toolkit, to go headless without extra complexity, costs, or extensive development resources.

Today, Nour Hammour’s new digital storefront includes an editorial lookbook page that lets clients scroll through campaign images as if they were reading a fashion editorial story. Customers can even add items to their cart instantly without leaving the lookbook context.

Monos: Improving checkout just in time for Black Friday and Cyber Monday

Monos is a Canadian travel brand launched in 2018 that creates minimalist luggage designed to stand the test of time. They have a small, in-house team of four that oversee multiple digital storefronts. Before they moved to Shopify, keeping branding, functionality, and checkout updated required tedious code editing, testing, and rollout procedures. And when one site was completed, the process had to be repeated three more times for their other storefronts.

Ahead of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Monos decided to look for solutions that would simplify and streamline these processes. They decided to upgrade to a modular approach that included Shopify’s Checkout extensibility. This gave Monos access to hundreds of fully extensible checkout apps, as well as the option to build out their own solution with Shopify Functions, checkout UI extensions, web pixel app extensions, and post-purchase extensions. Moving to a modular checkout solution helped Monos stop spending their valuable time sifting through code or fixing the same issue across multiple checkouts.

A scalable, flexible platform for every stage of your storefront evolution

With digital storefronts, there is no single approach that works well for every retailer. As technology continues to advance, and consumer behaviors evolve, your digital storefront should be built to adapt easily to new changes and improvements over time.

What’s most important is to find a platform for your digital storefront that doesn’t put technical limits or restrictions on your approach. Not having to migrate platforms every time you want to change your digital storefront strategy helps your business stay agile and innovate faster.

Digital Storefront FAQ

What is a digital storefront?

A digital storefront is the online equivalent of a display window for a brick-and-mortar shop. It’s the first thing potential buyers see when visiting your site, so it is essential for retailers to ensure they deliver modern, optimized user experiences. Modern digital storefronts offer essential ecommerce functions such as browsable product catalogs, shopping carts, secure payment processing, and order tracking. More sophisticated digital storefronts can even include personalized product recommendations, localization features, interactive previews, videos, and much more.

How do I create a digital storefront?

The first step in creating a digital storefront is to select an ecommerce platform like Shopify, or for the most basic of online stores, a website host and provider with some ecommerce capabilities. Then you’ll need to define your requirements and choose the right approach—whether it’s a fully integrated solution, or a headless approach that uses more complex development approaches such as modules, components, and microservices. Depending on your budget, team size, customer expectations, and technology goals, there are numerous approaches to creating a digital storefront that can all be supported by modern platforms like Shopify.

How do online storefronts work?

Online storefronts, or ecommerce websites, are digital platforms where businesses show and sell products or services to customers online. Shoppers can visit them to browse and purchase these products or services. But online storefronts can offer a far more robust shopping experience as well, making it easier for online shoppers to explore various items, compare prices, read reviews, and make purchases that are often delivered directly to their homes. And for businesses, online storefronts provide robust marketing and analytics tools to help them track site performance, sales data, and more, so that they can continually optimize their online store for better shopping experiences.

What is the difference between an online storefront and an online marketplace?

An online storefront usually represents a single retailer, seller, or brand that exclusively showcases their products and services. They are often hosted on a single, dedicated platform where the retailer has full control over the branding, shopping experience, pricing and much more. An online marketplace, such as eBay or Amazon, serves as a platform where multiple sellers or vendors can list and sell their products. Online marketplace platforms facilitate transactions between a retailer and their customers for them, offering services such as payment processing, order fulfillment, and customer support.