It will come as absolutely no surprise that, in 2020, the retail space looked very different from a typical year. And, it will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future.

You don’t need to be a genius to have predicted that online shopping would see a boost due to store closures, nervousness around visiting locations that remained open (or reopened), and the ongoing search to find distraction during an unprecedented health crisis.

Sure enough, Amazon profits increased significantly. Their Q4 2020 new release states their operational cash flow has increased by 72% to $66.1 billion in the last 12 months. However, what may come as a surprise is the extent to which APIs were instrumental to the latest shifts in online commerce.

eBay’s Buy APIs, for example, hit $5 billion in cumulative GMB (Gross Merchandise Bought) this year. We interviewed Tanya Vlahovic, who heads up the developer ecosystem at eBay, to gather her thoughts about the state of commerce and APIs. Below, we look at some of these trends and see what Vlahovic and other industry experts have to say.

Life in 2021 Will Remain Digital

“2020 was the year of integration — life has turned digital,” says Vlahovic. Vlahovic is based in San Jose and speaks to us via Zoom, which underscores her point. “We’ll never get back to the old days,” she believes. “And APIs are the foundation on which modern business is built.”

Regardless of whether or not one believes a full return to normality is possible this year, or ever, we aren’t there yet. With various countries and states indefinitely limiting the capacity of stores and restaurants, the at-home experience will remain hugely important going forward.

We asked Vlahovic if there’s a concerted effort to move people to newer, more “modern” architecture styles, and she implied that’s on the agenda: “the introduction of eBay managed payments, for example, has led to some deprecation.”

APIs at eBay are roughly grouped into four categories: Buy, Sell, Commerce, and Developer. There are literally hundreds of different APIs (including REST, SOAP, and more) in use. With digital living taking such a priority right now, it wouldn’t be surprising to see companies push to deprecate outdated APIs and focus their attention on slicker offerings that enhance at-home purchasing.

The Role of Headless Commerce in Retail Growth

Last year, Harsh Kamarkar wrote on the Mulesoft blog about headless commerce. He neatly summarizes this idea as “running a system separated from its user interface” to allow better information sharing between sales, service, and marketing.

In the article, Haresh provides several examples, including letting a chatbot offer shoppers a deal on items left in their cart, allowing customer service reps to add items to an order, and finding a delivery window without asking for payment information. It’s clear to see how APIs could help power many of these eCommerce capabilities.

As Kamarkar puts it, “an API-led implementation strategy can accelerate and de-risk headless commerce by separating the channels from back-end applications while reducing the work needed to bring each channel online.”

That sentiment is echoed in what Vlahovic says about the extent to which eBay has embraced an API-first mindset: “we’ve actually made some features available in our APIs before they were available on our main site.” On the other side of the coin, she says that any significant “growth on-site is replicated on the API side as well.”

In a world where in-person shopping opportunities are limited, APIs offer the possibility of improving consistency across shopping experiences and recreating the personal touch that so many of us are missing right now. They also could provide a means to connect teams.

In a strange way, the new emphasis on remote working due to the pandemic has shone a light on that disconnect. And, ironically, for some organizations, it’s helped to connect them better. Vlahovic tells us how her team went from being “mostly on-campus to daily collaboration via Zoom and Slack” overnight.

Self-Service, Curbside Pick-up, and APIs

The personal touch is one thing, but reducing the frustration from a disjointed and disconnected shopping experience is quite another. Rajesh Ganapathy talks, again on the Mulesoft blog, about the value of using APIs for self-service:

  1. Surface relevant data with system APIs: Access and expose underlying systems of record and expose that data.
  2. Enable functions with Process APIs: Connect to System APIs to access data for a specific purpose (e.g., customer preference, order status, availability).
  3. Provide self-service with Experience APIs: Allow data to be reconfigured and reformatted so the respective channel can easily consume it.

Rajesh uses this structure to suggest a solution to his inability to pick up an online order at a local shop: “store closure data could be served using a mobile API serving lightweight JSON data to the various mobile devices and a web API serving XML data to web and call center channels.”

Even if the importance of curbside pick-up fades in the next few months, sudden increases in demand due to the pandemic have already highlighted tons of inadequacies and the need for technological flexibility. Obviously, with the exception of “cash on collection” transactions, eBay doesn’t need to worry about curbside. With that said, they have hooked up with the likes of Hermes and UPS via Packlink in the UK to offer parcel collection from home at reduced rates.

That fits with Vlahovic’s instincts to “design with a long term vision in mind,” in this case, making buying and selling as easy as possible. “Iteration is fine,” she says, “but have a bigger picture and a plan that’s expandable.”

Radar is a fantastic real-world example of a company that’s iterating on its vision to address pandemic problems — major retailers are using its geofencing API to simplify the process of curbside pick-up, allowing businesses to see when a customer is on their way to a location.

Radar COO Coby Berman describes the business as a “shift from revenue-centric engagement to operational-centric engagement,” which is a really interesting way of talking about the role of location services in a mid- and post-pandemic world.

APIs, Commerce, and Implementation

Recent research by Google found that 56% of those surveyed said that APIs “help us build better digital experiences and products.” 52% said that APIs “accelerate innovation by exposing assets with partners.” In other words, APIs continue to be popular, but there’s lots of untapped potential.

We asked Vlahovic if she had any tips for those of us managing and developing APIs. Much of it was advice we’ve touched on before, including how standardization is vital for APIs, designing with a long-term vision in mind, that the OpenAPI spec (of which eBay is a board member) should be part of every developer’s program.

One of our favorites was an almost poetic take on good documentation: “Honesty is important, but you should also tell a story. Endpoints are like the sentences that make up that story.”

Speaking about the future of APIs and retail, Vlahovic highlighted the importance of AI. This will become, she believes, “the core technology behind most marketplace concepts.” We’ve already seen the introduction of intelligent recommendations and searching for products based on an image, and as AI is finessed, its role will likely increase.

The importance of forming strategic partnerships using APIs and engaging with consumers at a grassroots level is something that Vlahovic came back to again and again in our call, something she says hasn’t changed in the wake of the pandemic. Indeed, one of her final suggestions for budding API developers was this:

“Try not to have too many layers between developers [API consumers] and the owners of the API(s).”

If that ambition remains important to someone managing hundreds of APIs, perhaps even thousands, then it’s certainly one that the rest of us should be striving for as well.

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