What is headless ecommerce, and why is it emerging as such a valuable tool for today’s business leaders? Simply put, headless commerce gives businesses in the ecommerce world a level of freedom they can’t access with “traditional” ecommerce platforms.
In a world of evolving customer expectations, market trends, and business needs, agility is quickly becoming a key consideration for any brand. Companies need to be able to rapidly create and harness creative, omnichannel experiences for customers across a range of channels.
Headless ecommerce could be the ideal tool for business leaders looking to rapidly design and implement engaging customer experiences in an evolving world. With headless solutions, business leaders have the freedom to create powerful, intuitive shopping experiences at every customer touchpoint, without common design or development constraints.
With headless commerce, you can sell your products anywhere, reach your clients on every channel, and respond to their changing expectations automatically. It’s little wonder that this concept is gaining so much market attention. In fact, experts predict by 2032, 25% of all B2C and B2B transactions will be managed via a headless commerce platform.
But what exactly is headless ecommerce, and how do you know if it’s right for your business?
Let’s find out.
What is Headless Commerce? An Introduction
Otherwise known as simply “headless commerce”, headless ecommerce is an online sales architecture which separates the front-end and back-end of your ecommerce application.
As a quick refresh, the “front end” of an ecommerce experience is the customer-facing storefront, or the “presentation layer” of your site. Front-end experiences aren’t limited to websites, they can also include social media channels, IoT devices, and mobile apps.
The “Back end” of an ecommerce ecosystem refers to all of the processes, systems, tools, and workflows running in the background behind your store. In a traditional ecommerce landscape, the back-end dictates how your front-end runs. In a headless architecture, the back-end tech stack focuses more on managing business processes, like order fulfilment, data storage, and checkout transactions.
Separating the front-end and back-end of the ecommerce landscape gives brands the freedom they need to build whatever they want, however they want, to enrich and diversify the customer experience. In fact, you can even upgrade the front-end of your store (the part customers use), without touching the back-end. This means it’s easier to make rapid changes to the customer experience, without messing with any back-end components.
Headless ecommerce relies on the use of a multitude of disparate technologies and concepts. Usually, it involves Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), as well as IT partners, digital experience managers, and more. Through these resources, companies can create comprehensive new experiences and functionality through their stores, to exceed customer expectations.
How Does Headless Ecommerce Work?
As mentioned above, headless ecommerce relies on a multitude of different concepts. Perhaps the most important aspect of the headless landscape is the “API” ecosystem. The Application Programming Interface connects the front-end and back-end in a headless environment, transferring information between the two locations in real-time.
Customer-facing content is typically managed on a back-end platform, such as a “Content Management System”, or “CMS”. In a WordPress store with WooCommerce, or a Shopify store, you’d use the back-end to create blogs, product pages, and so on. With headless storefronts, it’s possible to leverage various backend systems depending on your distinct needs.
Alongside the standard “CMS”, companies can also use Progressive Web Apps (PWA), Digital Experience Platforms (DXP), and Customer Relationship Management tools (CRM). Though the use of various back-end tools in one ecommerce ecosystem might seem complicated, they actually have a number of key benefits to offer customers. Additional SaaS tools build new touchpoints for customers, to help you develop a strong omnichannel strategy.
You can combine your ecommerce environment with a smartphone app, or an in-person vending machine, connected with IoT technology. Every time the customer engages with your “storefront”, your API calls send information through to your unified backend environment.
With headless ecommerce, customers don’t see anything happening in the backend environment. They just get a consistent, powerful user experience across every touch point. You can even use headless tools to create monolithic online shopping experiences.
Headless Commerce vs. Traditional Commerce
To fully understand the benefits and opportunities of headless ecommerce, it’s worth exploring how these solutions compare to “traditional” ecommerce ecosystems. Headless commerce architecture decouples the back-end commerce landscape from the front-end store experience. This means ecommerce stores can manage and deliver content via API calls, with no need for a connected front layer.
In comparison, a traditional ecommerce environment requires any changes made to the backend of the store to also be made to the front-end. This is because the commerce functionality you can deliver is linked to your front-end framework and website.
In simple terms, a headless commerce approach offers more flexibility, because your content isn’t tied down to the existing website’s other components. You’re free to offer your customers a fully personalized and unique experience, without the restrictions of your front-end template to consider.
For instance, one approach to headless ecommerce might have a company using WordPress as a content management system for the store, and a separate ecommerce platform for checkout functionality. You can also access a range of microservices tools for merchandising and sales in one place, and experiment with new technologies at your own pace.
Traditional vs Headless Ecommerce: Development Differences
From a front-end development perspective, traditional ecommerce is much easier to set up. With one of the many ecommerce platforms available on the web today, such as Wix, WooCommerce, and Shopify, users just need to pick a suitable theme and add in their content and products. It only takes a little time to customise all the moving parts on the platform you choose.
In headless ecommerce, you’re required to build your entire front-end from scratch. This may mean it takes a lot longer to configure your web store to suit your needs. Headless ecommerce generally requires more technical knowledge, but it does give you a lot more options for customization and design flexibility. You’re also free to build functionality to match the specific needs of your business. For instance, you can link your store to a range of environments, including Amazon, business apps, and more.
Traditional vs Headless Ecommerce: Flexibility
As mentioned above, headless solutions give you a lot more flexibility when it comes to putting your front-end components together. However, the flexibility isn’t just limited to your front-end. With traditional ecommerce, you work with a template that connects directly to your back end. This automatically puts some restrictions on what you can do, though development is relatively easy. You can very easily display and sell products on your site, with limited technical knowledge.
Conversely, headless solutions are fully customizable on both the front and back-end. You can design fully personalized experiences for different target markets. This means you can also scale your ecommerce company as much as you like, and spread out into new channels. Headless architecture will even allow you to build experiences for wearables like smartwatches, or IoT (Internet of things) devices.
Traditional vs Headless Ecommerce: Accessibility
Perhaps the only area where a traditional ecommerce site beats headless ecommerce is in simplicity. For those who don’t have the budget or knowledge for advanced development, there are many platforms which make setting up a website easier with traditional ecommerce. If you don’t have the budget to hire experts, and don’t know much about advanced development, all-in-one solutions are much simpler, and may be more cost-effective.
However, for those who do have the development knowledge, headless ecommerce offers phenomenal benefits. It offers endless customization options, and enables companies to create different, unique experiences for various groups of customers. This, combined with its amazing scalability and personalization options makes it a top choice for growing enterprises.
How to Choose Between Headless and Traditional Ecommerce?
Ultimately, choosing between headless and traditional ecommerce will be a personal process, dependent on your specific requirements. Most companies find headless ecommerce is best for brands that need complete access to customization and flexibility.
Despite the separation between front-end and back-end environments, the two landscapes in headless ecommerce still communicate with eachother. Companies can use headless ecommerce for multiple use cases, like pushing content and messaging through an existing CMS instead of a commerce platform. This allows brands to alter on-site content more easily, without accessing the ecommerce back end.
Traditional all-in-one ecommerce solutions have the benefit of being simple to set up and use. They provide everything retailers need to create a storefront, take payments, and process transactions. However, they don’t offer a great deal of flexibility. High-growth retailers might find these platforms limit how they can interact with shoppers.
From a design perspective, it’s also difficult to build unique and impressive websites on a traditional structure. It’s tough to implement unique customizations, interactive elements, and graphics. You’re limited to using the templates available.
The Key Benefits of Headless Ecommerce
Headless commerce is truly versatile, and flexible for ecommerce companies. It positions companies in an environment where they can rapidly adapt and evolve to suit changing customer needs. This is crucial at a time when customer expectations are constantly evolving.
While the adopters of headless ecommerce are usually bigger companies with larger IT and development teams, virtually anyone can benefit from a headless ecommerce environment. Some of the biggest advantages of switching to headless ecommerce include:
- Comprehensive customization
As mentioned above, headless ecommerce platforms allow companies to achieve the exact look and feel they want for their brand. Traditional platforms might help you to launch your business quickly, but they’ll limit your customization options to specific templates and layouts. Using headless commerce eliminates design sacrifices.
Headless commerce also allows companies to consistently split-test their design strategies, so they can optimize both customer experience and conversion rates. Because the front end is separate from the back-end, it’s much easier to make changes to the front-end with the knowledge you’re not going to damage any back-end operations. A commerce cloud solution even allows you to update your store rapidly from any device.
- Reduced need for IT support
Although most companies assume switching to headless ecommerce will require them to invest heavily in developer and technical professionals, the reality is you can actually reduce the number of IT resources you use. Because changes can be made to the front-end quickly and easily, developers don’t have to spend as much time making alterations.
Site changes can be made rapidly, and developers only need a few clicks and some light coding with partner solutions and headless templates. This accelerates time to market, and gives companies new opportunities to engage their customers a lot faster. You can even rapidly implement new sales solutions, like multi-currency and multi-language options and connect your marketing teams to your ecommerce strategy in a unified back-end environment.
- Faster page loading times
Speed is everything to creating powerful customer experiences in today’s digital landscape. In fact, 47% of customers say they expect web pages to load in two seconds or less. While there are various steps you can take to improve the overall performance of your site, traditional ecommerce platforms don’t prioritize speed. These all-in-one platforms are heavier, and take longer to process data.
Headless structures make it easier to create rapidly-loading pages across every device. The back-end remains separate from the pages customers interact with, so your clients can bounce around your site at incredible speeds. The faster your pages load, the less likely you are to end up with high bounce rates, which could affect your SEO score. This could mean switching to headless commerce even gives you a better ranking with the search engines.
- Rapid scalability and control
Traditional ecommerce systems are limited by default. They’re restricted to the use of specific coding languages, and tools, and can only adapt to include certain types of content. While your current ecommerce ecosystem might be fine for your business initially, it can quickly become a problem as your business begins to scale. Currently, 57% of IT and ecommerce leaders believe their current platform can only support them for up to 12 months.
With headless ecommerce, your solution can adapt according to your evolving business needs, with no lag or restrictions. Powerful APIs allow you to integrate all of your existing tools into your shopping experience using the programming language you choose. This can protect your system from becoming rapidly outdated and obsolete.
- Time and cost savings
Not only can headless commerce help you to take unique customer experiences to market faster, but it can also give you excellent savings in terms of time and resources. First, your developers and IT team save time on making changes to your site, which means you don’t have to pay as much every time you need to change your store. Secondly, you don’t necessarily need to hire as many third-party experts. You can handle most of your functionality yourself.
Because headless ecommerce also allows you to respond rapidly to your customer’s needs as they evolve, it also means you can potentially open the door for new revenue. You’ll be able to build more immersive customer experiences which build brand loyalty, and boost your chances of greater lifetime value. Plus, you can interact with a wider range of customers across every channel.
- Richer customer experiences
Perhaps above all else, headless commerce is a future-proof solution which ensures you can respond to the rising demand for phenomenal customer experiences in the digital world. Because you can interact with and control all of the elements your users deal with on a daily basis, you can get more creative with your touchpoints. It’s easy to implement custom graphics and interactive experiences to delight your audience.
With a headless architecture, you can rapidly expand into new channels, unlock new sales opportunities, and pave the way to happier, more loyal customers on an end-to-end basis. Ultimately, happier customers mean you’re more likely to end up with a successful ecommerce store.
How Companies Use Headless Ecommerce
If you’re thinking of using headless ecommerce for your own business transformation efforts, it might be helpful to first identify some of the key use cases for this business structure. Here are some of the most common ways companies use headless ecommerce architecture:
- Aligning multiple channels: Headless architecture is one of the key go-to solutions for brands looking to enhance their omnichannel sales experience for customers. Headless solutions allow companies to integrate different channels across the ecommerce landscape into one environment, and deliver content strategically to each one.
- Improving compliance: Headless architecture can significantly improve your compliance standing. With a SaaS provider, companies using headless architecture can reduce the workload for their IT team when it comes to handling fraud protection and checkout security. SaaS providers can take on the risk and manage the process on your behalf, giving you more freedom to deliver highly reliable online sales experiences.
- Unlocking limitless personalization: The open and flexible architecture of headless ecommerce makes it possible to accomplish anything you can imagine with your store. You can implement pre-built integrations with platforms for customer relationship management, enterprise resource planning, and more, to build a unique experience for customers. You can also custom-build integrations using APIs and SDKs.
Should All Stores Switch to Headless Ecommerce?
Headless commerce has a lot of benefits to offer a range of business leaders, but it won’t necessarily be suitable for every ecommerce store. If your company can thrive with a traditional architecture, and you want to avoid the headaches associated with switching to a different platform, then you might not need a headless ecommerce architecture.
However, if you’re looking for a way to create more personalized and unique customer experiences, and you want a more flexible approach to the development of your front-end presentation layer, headless ecommerce could be the perfect solution. You may need more resources and developmental knowledge, but you could access a range of amazing benefits with headless technology.
Before you dive in, however, it’s worth taking some time to consider the demands headless commerce might have on both your budget and time. The pricing for an enterprise headless project can range between $50,000 and $500,000, depending on your needs. On top of that, there are annual maintenance costs and labor fees to think about.
How to Get Started with Headless Commerce
If after a careful evaluation of your options, you decide a headless commerce system is right for you, there are a number of steps you’ll need to take when beginning your new adventure. You’ll need to hire the right team (if you don’t have developer experts on-hand already), determine what kind of headless solution you’re going to use, and even analyze your specific site requirements.
Here are some of the key steps you’ll need to take when working on your headless commerce strategy.
Decide whether to keep your existing ecommerce platform
Headless commerce allows you to separate the front-end of your ecommerce environment from the back-end, so you can essentially use any commerce solution and CMS you like. For a small business, it might even be a good idea to implement APIs into your existing commerce platform, to help expand your site’s functionality without spending a lot of money.
However, many larger and mid-market companies find they can accomplish more by switching to a “SaaS” offering, otherwise known as Software as a Service. The right SaaS platform will give you a greater deal of flexibility and scalability. Deciding which option is right for you will require you to think carefully about your unique ecommerce needs, and how you want to convert your customers.
Choose your headless CMS
If you’re going to be delivering content from your store or website to visitors across a range of different channels, you’ll need a headless content management system, or CMS. The right headless CMS will allow you to create content that’s unique to each channel, so you can cultivate the best experience for every potential customer.
Your API solutions will help to sync your frontend and back-end seamlessly, so you can always send the right content to the correct touchpoints. You can find standalone open-source CMS solutions on the web today, or you can sometimes access these tools from your chosen SaaS provider. While an open-source system will give you more flexibility, it takes more time to learn and deploy. On the other hand, a SaaS offering can help you get started much faster.
Link Your CMS and APIs
Once you have your ecommerce solution and CMS ironed out, the next step is connecting a head to your headless environment with the right API technology. Syncing your different environments is crucial, because it ensures that everything can operate smoothly from a single environment. If you’re transition away from a traditional ecommerce platform into a headless landscape, it might be worth taking small steps with various syncing APIs one at a time.
Moving all of your technology into syncing mode at the same time can lead to some confusion and complexity. You could start with using APIs to sync your headless CMS blogs and landing pages to a specific ecommerce environment or platform.
Platforms for Headless Commerce: Your Options
As the demand for headless commerce solutions continues to grow, the number of available platforms on the market is expanding all the time. You should have plenty of great ecommerce tools to choose from by the time you’re ready to implement your new headless strategy.
To help you get started, here are some of the top options you can consider.
Shopify Plus is one of the most popular headless commerce offerings on the market today. It integrates with a host of different content management systems and front-end tools, so you can transform any screen into a virtual storefront. There’s also a storefront API system built into Shopify which helps developers to build engaging, fast storefronts for any landscape.
You can link your Shopify Plus ecosystem with a range of “line of business” tools like ERPs, CRMs, PIM, and CMS technology. Plus, the Shopify network comes with access to a range of partners who can help you manage your headless environment. The great thing about Shopify Plus is you can easily operate with pre-built store solutions, or consistently build out and optimize your store. It’s up to you exactly how much you want to customize your ecommerce strategy.
BigCommerce has a number of plans available for companies looking to build their own online store, including a solution for headless architecture. The solution supports multi-storefront functionality on both Stencil and headless solutions. Additionally, the headless technology comes with access to static-site generation, server-side rendering, and ultra-fast Vercel Edge network hosting.
Along with various standard headless features, BigCommerce also offers some fantastic integrations with leading tools via pre-built connections to well-known CMS, DXP, and front-end frameworks. These solutions include Next.JS for React, Gatsby.JS for static site generation, and Nuxt.JS for Vue development. There are also pre-built plugins available for WordPress, Prismic, Contentful, and Contentstack available.
One of the biggest benefits of headless commerce is the ability to access high levels of customization. Adobe Commerce, previously known as “Magento”, provides fantastic customization features for business leaders. However, it’s worth noting this is one of the more expensive tools available for headless commerce on the market today.
Brands can leverage Adobe Commerce to built stunning app-like experiences across various touchpoints, including mobile apps, multi-webpage apps, IoT devices, and AR/VR solutions. This makes Adobe Commerce excellent for business leaders in search of rapid growth. Using headless API-first delivery, brands can also quickly deliver a fantastic interactive shopping environment with rapid page-loading functionality.
Fabric is a lesser-known but powerful tool for headless and modular building. The solution provides companies with complete flexibility in how they build and operate their ecommerce websites. For instance, organizations can choose whether they want to leverage the full platform, or just use specific elements like the XM or OMS environment.
Fabric allows business owners to connect product, pricing, and order information across every channel. You can update content for every channel from one place, plus, there’s the option to link to third-party integrations or build a custom solution. With more than 300 API endpoints to choose from, Fabric allows web developers to create differentiated business models and experiences everywhere. Fabric even promises users access to a headless API environment which connects to every user interface, back-end system, and customer experience tool.
Spree is a powerful open-source ecommerce platform designed for growing brands. The solution focuses heavily on subscription services, marketplaces, and B2B brands. It also has a lightweight API environment that makes it quick and easy to develop storefronts, create seamless checkout environments, and build powerful mobile apps. The solution also easily connects to various third-party systems like PIM, ERP, and warehouse management. When it comes to pre-built integrations, there’s also Next.JS Commerce available, with everything you need to start leveraging React.
Users can also access powerful Vue Storefront 2 solutions for progressive web apps. Spree supports single brand and multi-brand solutions, as well as multi-language and multi-currency. You can access limitless storefront customization, and manage all of your teams, apps, and services from an all-in-one landscape.
Should You Go Headless with Your Store?
Headless ecommerce solutions can provide businesses with infinite flexibility and control when it comes to building a unique online or app experience. You’ll have everything you need to create custom content for every touchpoint in the customer journey. Plus, you can leverage infinite scalability to take your company to the next level whenever you choose.
However, it’s worth remembering headless commerce isn’t the simplest way to get started online. Launching your store can take a lot of time and effort. Plus, headless solutions do require a lot more initial investment than you might expect from a traditional site builder.
If you’re planning on going headless with your ecommerce store, make sure you have the right strategy in place, access to plenty of support, and the right technology available.