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Leverage Headless Commerce To Transform Your User Experience with Drupal Ecommerce

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Drupal is among the most widely used open source content management systems around, hanging out with the likes of WordPress and Joomla. While it doesn’t always receive praise as being the most user friendly (although that is changing), no one can deny the sheer flexibility it allows for customization and extensibility.

With its thriving community of 45,000+ developers and strategic modernization initiatives, Drupal is only getting better. In fact, Drupal is quite possibly one of the best options for open source content and ecommerce on the market today.

A Brief History

Like many influential software applications of our time, Drupal got its start from a couple university students trying to solve a basic problem. This was back in 2000.

The students, Dries Buytaert and Hans Snijde, needed a way to communicate through an internal network within the University of Antwerp dorms. Although it wasn’t called Drupal at the time, the message board they created was the first iteration of what would eventually become Drupal. 

Drupal officially got its name in 2001 when Dries took the messaging board online and released the software for others to use and extend. Fast forward 18 years and numerous reiterations, Drupal now powers millions of websites worldwide and boasts a development community of over 45,000 developers

Why Use Drupal?

There are a number of excellent reasons why Drupal might just be the best platform for your online store to grow with. I’ll cover what I consider to be some of the highlights.

1. Open source for complete control.

Drupal is open source software meaning anyone can use it and adapt its code for any reason whatsoever. There are no licencing fees or anything like that; it literally is yours to do with what you please. 

On top of that, over 40,000 modules have already been created that extend Drupal’s core functionality with new features. For standard websites, custom software development isn’t really needed because much, if not all, of the functionality is already available. But for large, complex websites, being able to access and extend the code through internal or external developer resources is a massive benefit.

It ensures that your website platform is capable of integrating into any other software you use. This is key to business automation and scalability. 

2. A world of support at your fingertips.

The very nature of Drupal is attractive to software developers. Open source means that there are no limitations to use the platform, so it’s easy and inexpensive to jump in and try.

This tends to draw in individuals (both students and experts alike) and all manner of organizations, which has continuously fostered a welcoming and engaged community. In fact, a common slogan that has evolved to represent the Drupal community is “Come for the Software, Stay for the Community.

Remember the 45,000+ developers I mentioned earlier? This is your support network should you need it. Whether it’s software development, consulting, or anything else, many of the individuals and organizations within the Drupal community are ready to help your business succeed. The Drupal marketplace is where you can find your support team.

I’ll get into this more a little later, but this massive community is also what allows Drupal to be one of the most secure website platforms out there. With this many eyes actively looking over the code, security holes are found, reported and addressed quickly. All a business typically needs to do is to keep its software up-to-date.

3. Modern framework for modern applications.

Even though the community helping to build Drupal is massive, Drupal does have an effective system in place for steering development towards various strategic initiatives. These initiatives are what drives continuous modernization of the platform.

Perhaps the biggest and most important of these strategic initiatives is the API-First initiative. From the initiative page:

“Making Drupal API-first means making the power and flexibility of the Drupal that we love available over HTTP APIs. In so doing, Drupal will be able to power ambitious applications of all kinds, from behind-the-scenes systems written in languages like Python, PHP, Java or Go to beautifully rendered experiences using the latest frontend frameworks, like React, Vue and Ember (to name a few). If it speaks HTTP, it should work with Drupal.”

Great progress has already been made on this initiative and Drupal’s APIs are ready for use.

Another notable initiative is the Admin UI & JavaScript Modernisation initiative. If you ask anyone what they like least about Drupal there’s a good chance you’ll get something along the lines of “it’s hard to use.” This perception of the admin UI has been an issue for a while, especially when compared to WordPress, as Drupal often is. The funny thing is that once you get used to it, it’s actually not that bad. It’s just that it’s not the most intuitive for new users and it feels clunky. This initiative is actively changing that so that future Drupal users will (hopefully) have a different perception. 

4. Scales with your business.

Scalability is an important concept that any online business should always be aware of. It’s the ideal that as business grows, the time and resources it takes to handle that growth is minimal. Scalability is being able to handle the growth effectively. 

Here’s a quick example. 

In a traditional brick and mortar business, as more customers shop at your store, more staff need to be hired to support the customers. This includes people on the floor, at the registers, and also background staff like your accountants.

As the business grows, staffing costs increase dramatically to handle the additional business. This is because most physical business processes are manual and require a physical presence.

In the online world, this is not acceptable. Nearly every aspect of an online business is done through some sort of software. Scalability is the idea of getting that software to “talk” to one another and automatically pass information around through integrations and automation. In an ideal situation, very little human interaction is actually needed.

The automation that handles any customer data (for transactions, accounting, stock levels, fulfillment, marketing, etc.) will scale automatically as more customers shop. A business built for scale doesn’t need to add more staff to handle this data because the software can already do it, it’s all the same. As a result, profits can be much greater over traditional brick and mortar business because overhead is far less. 

Getting back to Drupal, the flexibility of its open source foundation combined with its API-first initiative creates an ideal platform for scalability. While it may be too expensive for small businesses to build the integrations they need, Drupal might be a perfect option for growing or established businesses that are now able to invest back into the development of their ecommerce architecture.

5. Security and stability at its finest.

Drupal is considered to be very secure software. It’s trusted by governments, educational institutions, media outlets, large retailers, and more. You can see a list of examples here. The Obama administration even used Drupal for the White House website during his presidency.

I mentioned earlier that the sheer number of developers within the Drupal community help keep an eye on the underlying code. This can be done because Drupal follows a strict coding standard. This standard gives reference for developers but also ensures that new code is consistent with the rest of Drupal. It’s easier to read and therefore easier to spot any issues.

Coding standards aren’t the only safeguard in place. Drupal also has a dedicated Drupal Security Team that is actively monitoring the core software to ensure it meets Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) standards. In addition to this, the security team also provides security assistance to modules contributed by the development community.

When an issue is found, security advisories are pushed out through various channels including the Drupal website, email notification, social media, and through the CMS itself. They’re hard to miss. The advisories cover any need-to-know details including when a patch will be available to fix it. It’s important to know that Drupal is a self-hosted CMS, so it’s important to stay on top of security updates.

It is your responsibility to make sure updates are being done on a regular basis. Security patches are generally easy to apply although currently you need some technical ability to do so. Making this easier through automatic updates is another strategic initiative being worked on right now.

6. Creating ambitious digital experiences across multiple channels.

If you visit right now, you’ll see Drupal summed up in the first two sentences on the homepage.

We’re the leading open-source CMS for ambitious digital experiences that reach your audience across multiple channels.

Because we all have different needs, Drupal allows you to create a unique space in a world of cookie-cutter solutions.

Flexibility is a word often associated with Drupal and you see that this is played up within its marketing. Drupal is a CMS (content management system) first, and it does this extremely well.

Whether it’s a simple blog or a full-blown media outlet, Drupal can do it with ease. It’s actually at its best when used for complex, non-standard situations which is why the marketing speaks directly to “cookie-cutter” solutions. Drupal can do cookie cutter, but complex and custom is where it really shines. 

Any content to be created can be configured and used in countless ways. This content can be reformed and reused without having to recreate it. It can be pushed out into newsletters and rss feeds. The API-first initiative means Drupal can run headless as a backend content repository with the front-end of your choosing.

This allows the same backend to push content to multiple channels whether it’s a website, mobile app, kiosk, or any other channel you can think of.

7. Ideal for experience-led ecommerce.

And finally, we get to ecommerce. Drupal can actually be your content platform AND your ecommerce platform. This is a pretty big deal because often you’re stuck with one or the other. But not here, through Drupal’s contributor module library there are a number of options for extending Drupal’s functionality to include ecommerce (more on this below). And the options available are really good, full fledged, complex ecommerce solutions.

When you combine content and commerce in Drupal, suddenly you have a platform that is ideal for delivering experience-led ecommerce, whatever that experience is. Does your brand or product line need to tell a story or invoke an emotion with its audience? If so, Drupal is for you.

All of the flexibility of content creation carries through into your products and store pages. Products just become another type of content which can be configured and manipulated all the same. The product display is fully customizable so that you can create an ideal shopping experience.

With Drupal’s API-first initiative, Drupal and it’s ecommerce component can be fully integrated with other software to create the system automation that is so important for scaling. These integrations can also be used for more than just scaling. Integrations with payment gateways, search engines, marketing platforms, CRMs, analytics and other services will help to boost productivity and sales.

What Are My Options For Building An Ecommerce Site With Drupal?

As of right now, you have a few different options for building an ecommerce site with Drupal. Here’s a breakdown of the options and details to help you choose which option might be best for your business.

1. Headless commerce integrations.

There is a buzz around headless commerce these days. Headless (or decoupled) commerce is where your ecommerce platform is an administrative backend only and it connects through APIs to one or more separate front-ends. In this way, a single store backend can manage multiple sales channels such as your website, mobile app, 3rd party marketplaces, in-store registers, etc. The necessary data gets transferred back and forth seamlessly.

Headless commerce has a lot of other advantages beyond a separated frontend. Managing all of your sales channels in one place increases productivity. It’s also easier to bring new sales channels online. A headless commerce setup can make a business more agile and able to adapt to change.

For instance, if your business decides to switch to a new CRM platform, an integration can be built specifically for the new platform to maintain your systems automation. You don’t need to worry so much about the dreaded ecommerce replatforming cycle like you used to. And of course, headless commerce integrated with Drupal gives you the power of content and commerce together.

With Drupal, you have the ability to plug in a few different headless commerce integrations right now, notably BigCommerce and Elastic Path. I know a bit more about BigCommerce than Elastic Path, so I’ll go into BigCommerce a bit deeper.

The BigCommerce integration is pretty exciting to me. It used to be that everyone was either in the open source camp or the SaaS camp, but you couldn’t really play in both. This was part of the reason why replatforming was such a big thing. Startups and businesses that don’t typically have the IT budget available for a custom ecommerce build would naturally gravitate to the ease of SaaS solutions. It makes a lot of sense.

However, over time and as the business grows, limitations of SaaS might start to hinder this growth and replatforming to a more flexible ecommerce platform becomes a likely realization. This is unfortunate because moving an ecommerce store with all of its products, features, orders and customer data is a massive undertaking and can be very expensive.

BigCommerce for Drupal (that’s the official integration name) has changed this dynamic. We call it an open SaaS solution.

Businesses can now quickly set up their store on BigCommerce as they would have before. But now, an integration with Drupal allows these businesses to stay with their familiar backend while also utilizing the benefits of Drupal as a content frontend. Likewise, businesses currently using Drupal as a familiar frontend without BigCommerce can adopt BigCommerce as their ecommerce backend without switching frontend platforms.

It doesn’t matter which one you start with, you can introduce the other whenever it suits you. I wont say that replatforming is a thing of the past just yet, but now we have a solution that can grow with a business from startup to enterprise.

It’s also an easier sell. Instead of turning away customers that we know don’t have the budget for a custom build, we can now comfortably redirect these customers to BigCommerce to get started. As long as we maintain and foster this relationship, there may come a point where we can still help them as their business evolves. With BigCommerce, they’re already on the right ecommerce platform with Drupal waiting in the wings if needed.

2. Drupal Commerce.

Drupal also has a native ecommerce module that goes by the obvious name of Drupal Commerce. This module builds on Drupal’s existing architecture and adds a native ecommerce framework for site builders to use. 

Framework is important here because your don’t get a pre-built store right away when you first install the module. There aren’t really any pre-built themes to choose from either. Each Drupal Commerce store has to be setup, configured and themed basically from scratch.

This isn’t ideal for businesses who need to get to market fast or who have a low budget, but, like Drupal, this is what makes Drupal Commerce powerful on it’s own. It allows for an ecommerce solution that is 100% tailored to the online store.

Drupal Commerce also follows the same coding standards and API-first approach as Drupal, so you know that any developer who can work with Drupal can also worth with Drupal Commerce. You also know that Drupal Commerce’s own APIs are ready for whatever integration you can imagine. This is what allows for Drupal to integrate with BigCommerce and is also what makes Drupal Commerce a valuable option for many businesses. If you have legacy systems that are necessary for your business to operate, Drupal and Drupal Commerce can still integrate with it.

Drupal Ecommerce Is Ready For Business

And there you have it. This article has covered a lot of ground and I could keep going, but I think now you can see that Drupal is not only an engine for content but also a viable option for ecommerce, too. 

You really can have the best of both worlds here. Drupal’s flexibility as a CMS combined with ecommerce options to suit whatever stage a business is in presents a solution that will be attractive to many. Who knows, maybe Drupal is exactly what you’ve been searching for the whole time.

Mike Hubbard avatar

Mike Hubbard is a Canadian based, self-taught, front-end developer, writer and marketer at Acro Media, where he maintains the Urban Hipster Drupal Commerce demo site and is active in various corporate sales and marketing initiatives. Prior to front-end development, Mike got his start as a graphic and web designer, also dabbling in 3D modeling and product concept visualization. Mikes understanding of both the technical and creative aspects of ecommerce web development can be seen throughout the Acro Media blog where he provides insight and opinions for today’s savvy ecommerce operators.