How APIs Are Enabling Innovation In Retail

We talk Progressive Web Apps with Peter Sheldon from Adobe Magento, and consider how APIs can be used in retail and online commerce.

Traditional brick and mortar retail have been at a crossroads for some time; either brands embrace new innovative technology, or they face disruption at the hands of web-based eCommerce. For independent retailers and large chains alike, their place in the future of shopping is largely dictated by the adoption of new tools. To put it simply, you must meet the customer where they are: online.

Simultaneously, APIs are powering some of today’s greatest innovations. For app developers, that’s not anything new. APIs are a common backbone supporting many new PaaS and SaaS. Integrating third party APIs are also bringing benefits to shops, allowing them to avoid reinventing the wheel. As we’ve reported previously, eCommerce necessities such as chatbots, supply chain management, marketing automation, and localization, and other user-facing experiences rely heavily on APIs to function.

By building upon agile software architecture, commerce environments are constructing more responsive designs that cater better to omnichannel and hybrid distribution models we’ve seen arise lately.

To add to our growing knowledge of eCommerce & APIs, we recently sat down with Peter Sheldon, Senior Director of Strategy at Adobe’s Magento, to learn about Magento Commerce. Their latest PWA studio announcement is putting major investment into Progressive Web Apps — PWAs — that leverage API infrastructure to power smart shopping experiences.

What Are Progressive Web Apps?

Developers are constantly attempting to refine the end user experience; sleek, responsive, cross-platform, etc. HTML 5 and the dawn of web apps was a step in the right direction, but they have historically failed to win out over a native app experience. Now, the hybrid Progressive Web Apps are another design style some are considering.

Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) is a web development style that combines the ubiquity of web development with a native app experience. They behave like typical web pages, however, enable advanced functionality that goes well beyond a typical website.

Amberley Romo does a great job of filtering through industry jargon to define what PWAs are, distilling them into three traits:

  • You need to be running under HTTPS.
  • You need a Web App Manifest.
  • You need a Service Worker.

One can go beyond these three traits to outline specific qualities of PWAs, such as high responsiveness, connected with service workers for offline behavior, an app-like “native” feel, consistent updates, safe with TLS, discoverable, re-engageable, installable without app stores, and linkable.

What’s Happening in Retail and Web Commerce

Looking at the retail space, Peter Sheldon, Senior Director of Strategy with Magento Business, notes that “merchants are seeing a rapid shift from desktop to mobile,” which is creating new forms of transactions in the process. Though mobile traffic is soaring, accounting for over half (51.4%) of online commerce, responsive web design for mobile is still playing catch up, with slower than ideal load speeds for merchant sites.

“Only 31% of online transactions occur via mobile, vs 51% of traffic that comes from mobile. This is a problem as retailers are seeing increasing demand on mobile devices but are failing to deliver shoppable experiences via mobile.”

As ProgrammableWeb notes, though “retail is continuing to undergo a massive transformation — driven in part by APIs,” the fact is commerce has entered a hybrid mode of virtual and physical spaces:

“Retail has become more an interactive experience, which is enabled by online and mobile, but still involves a physical environment.”

Brick and mortar may still survive, but traditional sales are now aided by hybrid environments that behave as more of a continual tradeshow than a typical storefront. Uniting both polar opposites may seem contradictory, but it is possible — it just may require some re-thinking from the ground up.

The Benefits Of Using APIs In Retail

Web APIs have multiple benefits when used in commerce. One main benefit of APIs in a storefront environment is they enable brands to retail everywhere; embedding new potential retail check out points across the web. Another clear one is partner integration: APIs help enable efficient and open connectivity between internal and outside players.

Allowing APIs for public consumption also grants a sort of R&D benefit. Using APIs, retailers can expose their product catalogs, data, and eCommerce services for third-party developers to innovate with. This could mean easier integration for listing products in other networks, the creation of curated product galleries, or other apps.

“Retailers who provide APIs for embedding their merchandise in other channels will successfully exploit the emerging embedded commerce.” – Sachin Agarwal, Akana

APIs can also enable voice-controlled operations that target consumers directly. IoT devices are having a huge effect on the market, eradicating the user interface entirely, replacing human clicks with passive sensors, re-stock buttons, and even weight-sensing devices. Thus, stores that provide REST APIs for extensions can keep pace with new connected delivery channels.

There is also the benefit of data analytics. Capturing geolocation, shopping habits, and browsing data, for example, can create personalized shopping behaviors which can be used to increase conversion rates. As Sachin Agarwal writes for the Akana blog, harnessing such information is made more possible through APIs:

“The retailer must collect and analyze data to better understand customers and market trends. APIs are a key enabling technology for this essential activity.” – Sachin Agarwal, Akana

There is also the benefit of operational efficiency. Standards-based API integrations quicken time to market, providing streamlined capabilities for business operations.

“In addition to developing public APIs that enable customer-facing applications, innovative retailers are also creating private APIs that give their own employees new tools” – Mulesoft

Retail Case Study: PWAs In Action With Magento Commerce by Adobe

For a case of modern retail architectures in practice, let’s turn to Magento Commerce. They’ve recently unveiled the PWA Studio, a suite of developer tools for generating Progressive Web Applications for eCommerce shops. Using it, developers can integrate and embed new retail check out points across web applications.

The PWA studio offers a slick developer front end for merchants, offering real-time visual interface output when JavaScript is edited. The dev studio uses service workers, providing shops with scripts that work in the background to pre-cash, and pre-load data.

It’s built using React and other modern frameworks, acting as an isolation tier behind their REST APIs. With their REST API allowing extensibility, Peter acknowledges future developments, citing how GraphQL support can help better describe the context of the data model:

“GraphQL can abstract backend complexity for front end developers since it returns exactly just what developer needs.”

A sample of the Adobe Magento developer interface

Are PWAs The Next Answer For Retail Development?

Native retail apps are expensive to develop and maintain. PWAs, on the other hands, are responsive, with fast page loads, and beautifully browser-based. Thus, Peter notes that PWAs are a design that’s readily portable for mobile, desktop, tablet, or IoT scenarios.

On development strategy, Peter recognizes that the vast majority of retailers still have yet to develop native apps, opting for website-based sales. He predicts these presences will be evolving dramatically in the years to come:

“I think we’re going to go through the exact transformation, where all responsive websites will be decommissioned, shut down, in a phased rollout or quick rollout with PWAs”

We could be seeing a gradual evolution from static websites to responsive web design, then to PWAs. Once adopted, Peter notes such apps could very well bridge offline and online environments, entirely replacing in-store POS systems in retail stores, for example.

Progressive Web Design Is Enabling New Retail to Thrive

From Shopify to Commerce Tools, to Magento, there are many options for building out cross-platform commerce tools, and we will likely see tools diversify as retail changes rapidly with API-first digital transformation spawning a new iteration of embedded storefront methods.

Built on smart, modular components, Progressive Web Apps is one method to build a commerce environment that meets modern end consumer expectations. As we’ve evidenced, an API-connected retail strategy can bring efficiency, partner integrations, new R&D options, and the ability to expand with the help of third parties.

We’ve focused on PWAs and APIs and their role in online stores. But both are simply development models useful in a wide variety of situations. How is your online store adapting to new changes in consumer retail habits?