What Is Headless Commerce? Everything You Need To Know

TL;DR: Headless commerce enables endless customisation and scalability through an API-first approach - often a bottleneck in traditional eCommerce frameworks.

By Julian Wallis
15 min read

Headless commerce is getting a lot of buzz and hype, but you’re not alone if you’ve been wondering the same question as many, what exactly is it? And how different is it from traditional eCommerce?

With more and more online shopping happening outside the primary eCommerce website, like on mobile, apps, and social media, businesses need to constantly revamp and keep their platform up-to-date to adapt to these new purchase points in their consumer’s buying cycle.

Organisations relying on eCommerce as a significant contributor to their business need to utilise technology the right way to establish a competitive edge – with many transitioning to headless commerce for an improved customer experience and inventory management.

Representation of headless commerce

In this blog post, we’ll define headless commerce, discuss its benefits, compare it against traditional eCommerce frameworks, and outline some best practices if you want to upgrade your online store. So if you’re interested in learning about this exciting new technology in eCommerce, keep reading!

What Is Headless Commerce? 🤔

In the simplest sense, headless commerce is an e-commerce architecture that relies on using separate platforms for powering the front-end of your store (everything shoppers see) from the technology that powers the back-end functions (checkout, inventory, payments, etc.). Headless commerce is about separating these two halves of the eCommerce store for greater flexibility in making changes and modifications.

Traditional eCommerce platforms can limit a store’s design and functionality with off-the-shelf themes; going headless gives you the freedom to build fully customised eCommerce solutions, leading to a better overall experience for your customers.

💁 Defining Headless Commerce

Headless commerce is a development framework designed explicitly for eCommerce platforms where the front-end is decoupled from the back-end functionality, enabling modification without interference with the back-end. The concept is similar to a headless content management system (CMS).

Essentially, this means creating a fully customised presentation layer catered to your ideal buyers to provide a memorable shopping experience whilst keeping the existing back-end unaffected.

On the flip side, you can modify functions in the back-end without jeopardising the integrity and stability of the presentation layer. Moreover, from a marketing perspective, essential assets such as layout, images, and branding elements can be easily and quickly changed when launching time-sensitive promotions.

How Does Headless Commerce Work? ⚙️

How do these two layers work together if the front and back-end are not connected? With a headless eCommerce system, the two opposing layers cooperate through an API (application programming interface). APIs can be considered as communication pathways between different software solutions.

Like headless and decoupled CMS, a headless eCommerce store passes requests between the presentation and functionality layers through API calls.

For example, when a user clicks an “Add To Cart” button on the webstore, the front-end sends an API call to the back-end layer to process the function. Then, the back-end layer sends another API call to the application layer to show the customer that the item has been added to their digital cart.

Significantly enough, the API-first approach of headless commerce gives businesses the flexibility and freedom to choose and integrate state-of-the-art tools, such as a headless CMS, CRM, ERP, etc., to deliver an outstanding shopping experience by tracking customer preferences, managing consumer data, and understanding buying patterns.

Woman buying from online store

In a headless commerce framework, the API can pull information anywhere, including wearable tech accessories, Internet of Things (IoT) devices (smart appliances, TVs, Amazon’s Alexa, etc.), native apps, social networks, and more. This is a big reason headless commerce is attracting all the buzz, as it offers a feasible gateway for businesses to pursue omnichannel presence at a grand scale. We’ll touch more on this later.

Unlike legacy eCommerce systems designed solely for content delivery and management, headless commerce systems require an inventory system to manage products and content. The inventory system is usually connected with vendors, suppliers, or wholesalers, based on the distribution channel of the business.

Headless Commerce VS Traditional eCommerce ⚔️

Traditional eCommerce architecture still predominantly used by plenty of companies varies significantly in the framework, coding infrastructure and benefits obtained. 

🤨 What Is A Traditional or Couple eCommerce System?

Traditional eCommerce framework, also called Monolithic commerce, is the eCommerce system we’ve been familiar with until now. As the word points out, it provided a single, all-in-one solution for selling products and managing and publishing content through an integrated front and back-end framework.

With monolithic commerce platforms, the front-end is directly connected to the back-end in a symbiotic relationship. What we mean by this is that modifying the presentation layer requires necessary alterations to the functionality side of the back-end – you cannot change one without affecting the other.

🚧 Challenges With A Traditional eCommerce Framework

A traditional eCommerce system is restricted by the platform on which it is built. Developers are thus limited to the available platform-specific toolkits, which can hinder customisation in terms of layout, presentation and functionality.

Also, though themes and layouts can be manually altered on the front-end, unintended surprises can occur as these systems rely on an intricate layer of code that can act up when modified – making it challenging to deliver content to different channels feasibly.

Finally, from a third-party integration standpoint, yes, developers can build custom plugins or purchase pre-existing solutions to connect with external systems, but the experience isn’t as seamless as it is with an API in a headless commerce system.

In some cases, it may even be necessary to use a redundant method – such as manual entry – to retrieve product data or customer information into the back-end, which can be unnecessarily time-consuming.

As you can imagine, a framework such as this renders frequent modification difficult, to say the least – requiring more time and resource-consuming.

🧐 What Makes Headless Commerce superior To Coupled eCommerce?

Coupled eCommerce systems rely on a fixed development framework as the code is attached to content or products on the back-end. This is a significant restriction for developers as they’ll be unable to build and add fully customised features to the eCommerce store due to the limitations of the framework used. 

In such systems, the digital product inventory and content are usually managed by an eCommerce tool such as Shopify, WooCommerce, or Magento. 

These tools provide authoring and preview option, which help with the back-end portion, but they’re heavily limited in delivery, layout, and customisation options.

On the other hand, in a headless eCommerce environment, the “head” is separated, which gives front-end developers the flexibility to pull content using an API to any endpoint. Additionally, as the back-end is simply a content and inventory repository, developers are no longer limited to the back-end platform as the code in the presentation layer is a separate entity.

With the removal of the front-end platform, headless commerce frameworks allow developers to create a user experience from the ground up, freeing up as much room for customisation as deemed necessary.

Developers are no longer tied down by the limitations posed by a traditional commerce system. They can freely modify databases in the back-end, as a standard API call should take care of most things. 

The only possible drawback, however, is that, with the absence of a designated presentation layer, developers will have their work cut out as they’ll have to build everything from scratch, from product pages and company pages to catered promotional landing pages. This is a valid reason why a decoupled solution may be superior to a headless eCommerce architecture, but that is a topic for another day.

To summarise, in a headless commerce system, developers can freely use content and products and customise them as they see fit without any platform-related limitations.

Benefits Of Headless Commerce 🎖️

From a bird’s eye view, the notable benefits of embracing a headless eCommerce environment include:

  • Near-instant page-to-page load times
  • Smoother navigational experience
  • Improved search engine visibility
  • Faster time-to-market
  • Improved conversion rates
  • Higher revenue

Overall, you get a dramatic boost to site speed and a better customer experience with no changes to inventory subscriptions, checkout or payments.

Benefits of headless commerce signified in business analytical data

Those benefits sound amazing, don’t they? But what would you say if we’re just scratching the surface? Without any further ado, let’s delve deeper into some of headless commerce architecture’s other notable benefits.

🤩 Endless Customisation Capabilities

Legacy commerce frameworks constrain developers and users to what is available within the frameworks incorporated. With headless platforms, because the front-end is totally out of the equation, developers can create customised eCommerce experiences from scratch. As a business, you’ll have more control over the look and feel of your online store, and you also have control over the user experience for both your front-facing customers and back-end admin users.

Furthermore, the decoupled nature of the two halves of the webstore enables limitless possibilities for customisation as and when required. You can make changes, either big or small, reasonably quickly, from adding a new custom feature, such as optimising your current checkout flow, to adding a new custom field to the customer account on the back-end.

🔢 Go Omni-channel And Beyond

You can unlock the power of your eCommerce store with a headless commerce framework in more ways than one! Expansion opportunities are endless, and you can utilise every existing channel while setting yourself up to take advantage of new ones that prop up ever so often. 

Talk about future-proofing – now you’re ready to engage with your customers anywhere and everywhere, Alexa skills, digital signage, progressive web apps, even IoT-connected washing machines, you name it! 

With the seamless integration of external platforms through API-first architecture, your content marketing efforts will be amplified multiple folds. You can create content once and publish it everywhere you want your customers to see it. 

Overall, headless commerce allows businesses to provide omnichannel content management and delivery, leading to greater scalability and adaptability to new technologies and customer touch points – a potentially vital competitive edge in today’s digital era of shopping.

🔒 Improved Security

In a network environment, for ideal security, systems should be separated from one another with optimised access control lists (ACLs) to restrict access from other systems or users and to ensure integrity.

You don’t have to worry about implementing this best practice with a headless commerce system, as it is built with different systems working together by default – eliminating the possibility of an illegitimate user causing chaos.

Drawbacks Of Headless Commerce

Enhanced developmental flexibility, customisability, and scalability are undeniable perks for websites built on the headless commerce architecture.  

However, headless commerce also has some drawbacks that should be considered before deciding whether or not it is the right approach for your business. 

💸 Rather Expensive – It’s Far From Cheap

When you separate your front-end from your back-end, you now have two separate environments, each needing to be hosted and managed. That’s two times the cost, with no guarantee of two times the traffic and conversion to support these costs. 

In addition to the monthly infrastructure costs, there are upfront costs to set up or migrate to a headless platform environment and ongoing costs to test and implement all the possibilities for new customer touchpoints.

Developer pondering while watching laptop screen

😵 Enables Customisation At The Expense of Complexity

Instead of one interdependent, traditional eCommerce platform, you are now dealing with multiple vendors and technologies, each with its own set of bugs and security vulnerabilities and their way of installing, configuring, troubleshooting and support. 

And all these independent projects taking place simultaneously require separate development teams, test cases, and QA teams and lots of complexity

🤷‍♂️ Potentially Difficult To Manage

One of the main drawbacks of headless commerce is that it can be more challenging to manage than traditional eCommerce platforms. This is because there are typically two separate systems that need to be maintained and updated – the front-end presentation layer and the back-end framework. This can create additional complexity and overhead, particularly for businesses without dedicated IT resources. 

Furthermore, the headless commerce architecture is more complex as there are multiple components associated that are to be designed, managed, and maintained properly. Any failure in the process can lead to performance and reliability issues.

Is Headless Commerce Best For Your Business? 🕵

Other than using a traditional commerce solution – where you can use a theme, headless commerce requires you to build a storefront from the ground up. There are, however, a few options when building your headless commerce store. Let’s explore them! 

📑 Headless Commerce Options – There’s More Than One Way To Do This!

If you’re sold on the idea of using a headless eCommerce storefront, then you should know that there are typically two ways of doing this.

Fully Customised – Build From Scratch

The first option is the fully customised route – keep in mind that this option is more expensive but will more than pay off in the long run. When going for this option, eCommerce brands usually liaise with an agency or in-house developers to scope, design and develop all the features, functions, microservices, and third-party add-ons and stitch them all together. 

Such projects require a significant investment, potentially upwards of AU $100k. In addition, building from scratch means you will be embarking on a potentially time-consuming process, requiring anywhere from 6-12 months, depending on the complexity and scope of the project.

Utilise A Headless Commerce Platform

The second option is working with an eCommerce store builder platform. Such platforms enable eCommerce businesses to build their headless commerce platform in a low-code environment for a fraction of the cost and time.

This option is also becoming increasingly popular as it enables businesses to build their headless commerce store quickly without investing massively upfront. Store builder platforms like Commercetools, for example, provide everything businesses need to get started with headless commerce, from a flexible API to built-in microservices. 

If you want to set up your headless eCommerce store with a store builder tool, we’d recommend using one built on the contemporary MACH principles – Microservice-based, API-first, Cloud-native and Headless. By leveraging these technologies to fit your eCommerce strategy and specifications, you’ll be able to deliver genuinely catered digital purchasing experiences for your ideal customers.

Other headless eCommerce solutions like Commerce Cloud from Salesforce are also becoming popular as they allow businesses to leverage the power of Salesforce’s CRM and underlying tools to create a customised headless commerce solution.

All in all, whether you want to go with a fully customised option or choose a storefront builder platform, ensure your budget, goals, and project complexity align with your development decisions.

📈 Decide What Makes The Most Sense For Your Business

Long story short, headless commerce may not be suitable for every business. Yes, you’ll gain a lot by using this eCommerce technology, but it can be overkill for many businesses. 

The decision to go headless will impact every part of your organisation and requires a hard look at where you are today and where you plan to be in the future. 

If you’re someone who is facing a dilemma on whether or not to upgrade your eCommerce store, here are some questions that should guide you to a definitive final answer:

  • What new customer-facing experiences are you planning to introduce?
  • What functionalities will you need to build these experiences?
  • Are there any features that cannot be built into your current website architecture?
  • How technically sophisticated is your current e-commerce setup?
  • How much time and effort does your current CMS take to maintain?
  • What are your existing IT and development resources?
  • How many systems are you currently running that would need to plug into a headless environment?
Office members engaged in planning

The significant investment required for headless commerce makes sense for some but will be overly ambitious for others. We advocate a long-term planning-driven approach where the future possibilities for eCommerce are balanced against the revenue you need to generate in the short term.

Wrapping It All Up – Headless Commerce In A Nutshell

Before signing off, let’s summarise what we’ve gone through in this article: headless commerce is an intuitive approach to eCommerce that decouples the front-end experience from the back-end systems. A headless commerce system uses two separate functional layers instead of a traditional integrated eCommerce setup that includes both the front-end and back-end components tightly knitted. 

The front-end can be updated independently of the back-end allowing for greater flexibility and customisability. An API-first approach provides scalability and seamlessly integrates with third-party applications and services. The back-end would be powered by an eCommerce platform such as Shopify or Magento. 

Headless eCommerce has grown in popularity recently, allowing for a more customisable and personalised eCommerce experience. However, it should be noted that this eCommerce setup can be more complex to set up and manage than traditional eCommerce platforms. It’s essential to decide your business’ priorities and invest in supporting technology accordingly.

Ultimately, the question remains, is your eCommerce business ready to take the plunge into headless commerce? As we’ve established, this novel technology is rapidly gaining ground in the digital shopping industry, and it’s up to you to decide if this cutting-edge option could be the spark needed to light up your online sales.

If you’re ready to make the switch to headless commerce but unsure where to start, don’t worry; we can help you! Our team has years of experience setting up and running similar web design and development projects. Ready to learn more? Book a discovery call with us today!

Published on December 08, 2022

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