Losing your head? Understanding PIM’s role in headless commerce

As retail races towards fast, composable ecommerce solutions, MACH principles are defining technology selection. But where does PIM come into it? Mike Evans, Amplifi’s Chief Innovation Officer, explains.

Modern retail moves fast.

In our digitally influenced age, what consumers want seems to change at break-neck speed, with trends constantly being influenced by multiple cultural touchpoints – from the 90s revival in fashion to the sudden mass-obsession with Air Fryers. But it’s not just preference for products and styles that’s changing fast. Consumers’ views on sustainability and social justice are also increasingly complicated and can be just as quick to change, with decision-making yo-yoing between differing priorities. Does it include this material, can it be recycled, where is it made, is it ethically manufactured... the list goes on.

Then there’s the question of price and payment plans. In a cost-of-living crisis, people are savvier than ever to price comparisons – and the internet makes it even easier to find them. If they can’t find it cheaper elsewhere, they might find a supplier who can help them spread the cost through payment plans like Klarna or ClearPay.

Amplifi Retail Blog 4 Image 1

Then there are the other challenges that retailers are facing, not led by consumers but by supply chain disruptions, operational costs and a fairly bleak macroeconomic picture.

For retailers, staying on top of these trends and changes and being able to act on them fast is essential. It’s also not easy. It takes flexibility, speed and data – lots of it. Which is why so many retailers are, literally, losing their heads – moving to headless commerce frameworks that enable them to improve their speed and agility through data.

What is headless commerce?

Headless commerce is essentially the separation between the front end and back end of an eCommerce application. It allows retailers to build what they want, when they want it – reacting to consumer behaviour or supply chain challenges by creating new experiences and introducing new functionality.

Successful headless commerce hinges on retailers being able to access technologies that are truly flexible, which is why the MACH Alliance has been formed.

MACH, in their own words, is a “not-for-profit industry body that advocates for open and best-of-breed enterprise technology ecosystems”. Its aim is to educate and support the retail industry as it moves away from legacy systems to the next generation of more flexible, interactive platforms and systems. To achieve MACH standard, technology must be: Microservices based, API-first, Cloud-native SaaS and Headless. It essentially needs to be composable: giving that flexibility to build, as we mentioned earlier, what you want and when you (or your consumers) want it.

Where does PIM come into it?

Product information Management (PIM) is a critical part of any data-driven future for retail: it is, after all, the source of all of your product data. For headless front-end functions to succeed, every channel needs to be able to source accurate, up to date and ultimately reliable product data.

The question is, do PIM systems themselves need to meet MACH alliance principles?

Do you need to choose a PIM with MACH principles?

It can be a tricky subject for retailers when choosing their PIM technology. On one hand, the MACH alliance states that: “a product information management system based on MACH architecture fits other best-of-breed solutions like headless CMS, ERP, or DAM and can work with them within a composable ecosystem. With its help, enterprises can create a future-proof, scalable, and open digital stack.”

On the other hand, how composable does PIM itself really need to be? PIM, or any data management platform, essentially provides the foundation of your data strategy. It’s the solid groundwork that you can build your innovation on, but whether it needs the potential for innovation that composable architecture brings is another question entirely.

Today, any new PIM software that’s being developed is likely to be built with MACH principles. Bluestone, for instance, are one vendor that’s leading the way by being completely MACH-aligned from conception, but there are other newer vendors who are starting out with MACH principles in mind.

For established vendors, it’s more complicated. With PIM platforms that have been built and adapted over the years, it’s harder to switch from existing architecture to fully MACH-aligned frameworks, especially when thousands of clients are already embedded in those systems. What we are seeing, however, are efforts to introduce cloud offerings and to make changes to the back-end of software so that it more closely aligns to these principles.

Back to the question at hand: from a business perspective, are MACH principles a massive differentiator in PIM selection for retailers? Well, in truth, MACH doesn’t necessarily tell you whether a PIM platform is going to meet your needs or have the functionality you require. While it’s easy for architects to become fixated on MACH, it’s more important that the technology does what you want it to and performs well. Yes, scalability is important, 360-product views are important, being able to implement a digital shelf is important, but these things aren’t exclusive to MACH-standard vendors.

Amplifi Retail Blog 4 Image 2

While we are seeing a shift in retailers selecting newer, MACH-aligned vendors over more established PIM providers, it’s important to remember that functionality of your PIM comes first. A platform that doesn’t tick every MACH box might not necessarily be unable to offer you the stability and availability of data that you need to build composable eCommerce functionalities on top of it.

Integration: the hidden challenge of headless commerce

There is also currently something of a gap between the promise and reality of headless commerce that retailers need to be aware of. Regardless of whether you are in headless mode or otherwise, you will still need an integration layer between your PIM and your eCommerce platform to adapt your data from A to B.

While it might seem as simple as hitting an API to move your data from PIM to eCommerce display screen, there is usually a great deal of transformation between PIM and the various eCommerce channels that need the data. It’s headless in theory, but in reality, transforming the data itself can be more complicated.

Final thoughts

Over time, PIM – as well as most technologies – is likely to eventually shift towards MACH-aligned principles. It makes sense in the long-term for all platforms to be composable and adaptable: digital, like retail, is always changing and the more ready we are to adapt, the more we will thrive.

However, in the here and now, MACH alignment shouldn’t necessarily be the key to your decision-making when it comes to selecting PIM software. Prioritise functionality first, and if you’re aiming for headless eCommerce, just ensure that your PIM solution can provide a strong foundation to implement it, based on reliable, available data.

Gartner advises working with a third-party, like Amplifi, during the PIM selection process so that you can be sure your platform is able to meet your commercial data goals: whether it’s headless eCommerce or something else entirely.

Want to find out more ways PIM can boost your eCommerce plans? Read our guide, 3 ways to boost eCommerce with PIM, for practical advice on how the right data management can improve your eCommerce results.

Download Guide: 3 ways to boost eCommerce with PIM