What is headless commerce? (And should you care?)

April 15, 2024
 · 
16 min read
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Is it a bird? Is it a plane? What on earth is Headless Commerce? 

Admittedly, it’s one of those buzzwords. And one with a figurative meaning that might be slightly confusing. As we’ve mentioned elsewhere: 

Quite the opposite of losing your head, headless eCommerce means more, independent “heads” allowing for more flexibility and personalization. 

TakeFortyTwo

What are those “heads” everyone keeps talking about? Read on and find out.

What is Headless Commerce?

In simple terms, headless commerce separates the front end (what users see) from the back end (where data is managed) of an ecommerce platform, This allows businesses to customize user experiences more freely without altering core system functions and update the two independently of each other. 

This approach diverges from traditional ecommerce systems, where the front-end and back-end are tightly coupled. By decoupling these layers, companies gain greater flexibility in how they present their brand and products online, without being constrained by the limitations of their ecommerce platform's front-end. This system is especially beneficial in today's digital age, where optimizing customer experiences across various channels and devices is crucial. 

Headless commerce enables businesses to use any front-end technology to create unique shopping experiences, while still managing their products, inventory, and orders through their ecommerce platform's back-end.

Understanding How Headless Commerce Works

Headless commerce operates by sending API calls between the front-end and back-end layers. This method allows the user interface to be built on any framework or technology that the developer prefers, offering the freedom to design a customized ecommerce experience.

The back-end, responsible for processing orders, managing inventory, or handling customer data, communicates with the front-end through APIs. This architecture supports omnichannel selling by allowing the same back-end to serve multiple front-ends, such as websites, mobile apps, social media platforms, and more.

Long story short

Headless commerce, like many innovations, emerged as a solution to a problem. In the early days of ecommerce, businesses were shackled by rigid systems that limited creativity and flexibility. Traditional ecommerce platforms dictated both the front-end design and back-end functionality, leaving little room for customization. These are currently known as “monoliths”.

However, as consumer expectations evolved and technology advanced, the need for more agile solutions became apparent. Enter headless commerce.

This approach revolutionized the ecommerce landscape by decoupling the front-end presentation layer from the back-end infrastructure, suddenly offering businesses the freedom to design immersive shopping experiences tailored to their brand identity and customer preferences.

Is headless commerce the same as composable commerce?

Not really. 

The term “composable” first appeared in a 2020 report by Gartner, to refer to a modular ecommerce approach, but in fact, it predates headless. While composable commerce may seem like a novel concept, it's actually a return to roots.

Before the era of monolithic systems, businesses operated with separate commerce and content systems, each serving distinct purposes. With the advent of monoliths, these systems were fused together, sacrificing flexibility for the sake of convenience.

And now, as is the case with many other innovations, the wheel has come full circle and composable commerce reemerges as a valid option to combine agility with flexibility. 

So, how does composable commerce relate to headless? Headless commerce focuses on decoupling the front-end presentation layer from the back-end infrastructure, whereas composable commerce takes a broader approach, allowing organizations to deconstruct their entire tech stack and rebuild it from the ground up, piece by piece.

While headless represents a crucial component of composable commerce, enabling businesses to achieve granular control over their customer-facing interfaces, composable commerce extends beyond front-end decoupling, encompassing all aspects of the digital commerce ecosystem.

The Pros of Headless Commerce

Headless commerce offers numerous advantages for businesses looking to enhance their online presence and provide exceptional customer experiences. Here are some key benefits of headless commerce to consider:

Flexibility and Customization:

With headless commerce, businesses have the freedom to design and customize the front-end user experience without being limited by the constraints of their ecommerce platform's built-in templates. This flexibility allows for highly tailored shopping experiences that align with the brand's unique identity and customer preferences.

Improved Performance: 

By decoupling the front-end from the back-end, headless commerce can result in faster page load times and overall improved website performance. Since the front-end is not dependent on the back-end's processing capabilities, users can enjoy a seamless and responsive shopping experience.

Omnichannel Capabilities: 

Headless commerce enables businesses to deliver consistent and cohesive shopping experiences across various channels and devices. Whether customers are browsing on a website, mobile app, social media platform, or in-store kiosk, the underlying ecommerce functionality remains consistent, ensuring a unified brand experience.

Scalability

With headless commerce, scaling your ecommerce operations becomes more manageable. Since the front-end and back-end are decoupled, businesses can easily adapt to changing market demands, add new features, or integrate with third-party services without disrupting the overall system architecture.

Future-Proofing:

Embracing headless commerce positions businesses to stay ahead of the curve in the ever-evolving digital landscape. By adopting a modular and flexible architecture, organizations can quickly adapt to emerging technologies and consumer trends, ensuring long-term sustainability and competitiveness.

The Cons of Headless Commerce Platforms

Every rose has its thorn. While headless offers numerous benefits, it's essential to consider potential drawbacks before making the transition. Here are some challenges associated with headless commerce:

Complexity: 

Implementing a headless commerce architecture can be more complex and require a higher level of technical expertise compared to traditional platforms. Businesses need to invest in skilled developers and IT infrastructure to effectively manage the decoupled front-end and back-end systems.

Cost

The initial setup and ongoing maintenance costs of a headless ecommerce platform can be higher than traditional ecommerce platforms. Businesses may incur expenses related to development, integration, and customization efforts, as well as the adoption of new technologies and tools.

Dependency on APIs:

Headless commerce relies heavily on APIs to facilitate communication between the front-end and back-end systems. Any disruptions or failures in API connectivity can potentially impact the overall user experience and lead to functional limitations.

Integration Challenges: 

Integrating third-party services and tools with a headless commerce architecture may present challenges, particularly if compatibility issues arise. Businesses must ensure seamless integration to avoid disruptions in operations and maintain a cohesive customer experience.

Learning Curve: 

Transitioning to a headless commerce model may require employees to acquire new skills and adapt to unfamiliar technologies and workflows. Training and onboarding efforts may be necessary to ensure smooth implementation and ongoing management of the system.

While particularly beneficial for B2B, Enterprise, larger or rapidly evolving businesses, headless commerce may be excessive for smaller companies with less complex requirements since the transition to and implementation of headless requires careful consideration of existing systems, technical expertise, and financial planning. 

TakeFortyTwo

(more on this later)

High profile brands running on headless setups

And now, a peek behind the curtain to explore some real-world examples of high-profile brands that embraced headless commerce with remarkable success, the challenges they faced and the results they achieved.

Nike

  • Nike, the iconic sportswear giant, embraced headless commerce to enhance its digital capabilities and deliver personalized shopping experiences across various channels. By decoupling the front-end from the back-end, Nike gained the flexibility to innovate rapidly and adapt to changing market trends. 

Challenges initially included integrating the new architecture with existing systems and ensuring seamless omnichannel experiences. 

However, the results speak for themselves: Nike witnessed increased conversion rates, improved ecommerce site performance, and greater customer engagement.

Ted Baker

  • Renowned fashion retailer Ted Baker, leveraged headless commerce to streamline its online shopping experience and drive sales growth. By separating the presentation layer from the underlying ecommerce functionality, Ted Baker achieved greater agility in launching new campaigns and promotions. 

Challenges included migrating data and optimizing API communication between front-end and back-end systems. Nevertheless, the transition paid off, as Ted Baker saw a significant boost in online revenue and customer satisfaction.

Nestlé

  • Nestlé, the global food and beverage company, embraced headless commerce to enhance its digital marketing efforts and deliver personalized experiences to consumers. By adopting a modular architecture, Nestlé gained the flexibility to experiment with new content formats and optimize user engagement. 

Challenges included integrating headless commerce with legacy systems and ensuring compliance with regulatory requirements. Despite these hurdles, Nestlé achieved remarkable results, including increased online sales and brand loyalty.

Under Armour

  • Under Armour, a leading athletic apparel and footwear brand, turned to headless commerce to elevate its online storefront and provide seamless shopping experiences across devices. By decoupling the front-end presentation layer, Under Armour could deliver dynamic content tailored to individual preferences. The framework allowed Under Armour to access 26 markets around the world.

Challenges involved optimizing site performance and ensuring consistent branding across channels. The investment in headless architecture paid off, with Under Armour reporting higher conversion rates and improved customer retention. 

Warby Parker

  • Disruptive eyewear company Warby Parker embraced headless commerce to scale its online operations and differentiate its brand in a competitive market. By adopting a modular approach, Warby Parker gained the agility to launch new features and campaigns quickly.

Challenges included integrating third-party services and maintaining data consistency across platforms. The transition to headless architecture enabled Warby Parker to deliver seamless shopping experiences, resulting in increased sales and customer satisfaction.

Platforms and Tools for Headless Commerce

This whole composable, unified, headless approach only works with a good tech match, so it’s important to choose the platforms and tools very wisely. Here is a quick overview of available tools for headless commerce:

Top Headless Commerce Platforms

Bigcommerce

BigCommerce is a robust ecommerce platform that offers headless commerce capabilities, providing businesses with the flexibility to create unique shopping experiences while leveraging its powerful back-end functionality.

One of the significant advantages of BigCommerce is its scalability, allowing businesses to grow and adapt without compromising performance. Additionally, BigCommerce offers a wide range of integrations and customizable features, making it suitable for businesses of all sizes.

However, one potential drawback of BigCommerce for headless commerce is its learning curve. While the platform offers extensive customization options, mastering its features may require time and technical expertise. Which is not really an issue if you enlist the help of an expert BigCommerce partner agency, of course.

Shopify plus

Shopify Plus is another popular choice for headless commerce, offering a user-friendly interface coupled with robust back-end functionality. With Shopify Plus, businesses can leverage its extensive ecosystem of apps and integrations to enhance the front-end experience while benefiting from its scalable infrastructure. 

However, one limitation of Shopify Plus for headless commerce is its reliance on the GraphQL API. While GraphQL offers advantages in terms of flexibility and efficiency, some developers may find it challenging to work with compared to traditional RESTful APIs.

Additionally, customization options may be limited compared to other platforms, which could restrict the extent of front-end personalization. For more potential issues, check this out.

Commercetools

commercetools is a cloud-based headless commerce platform that offers flexibility and scalability for businesses seeking to adopt a modular architecture. With its API-first approach, commercetools allows developers to build custom front-end experiences while seamlessly integrating with existing systems. The platform's microservices architecture enables granular control over ecommerce operations, making it suitable for complex enterprise requirements. 

However, one consideration with commercetools is its pricing structure, which may be prohibitive for small to midsize businesses. While the platform offers extensive customization and scalability, the cost of implementation and ongoing maintenance could be a barrier for some organizations.

Additionally, integrating commercetools with legacy systems may require significant development effort and expertise.

Vtex

VTEX emerges as a versatile headless commerce platform renowned for its omnichannel capabilities and extensive ecosystem of integrations. Its modular architecture allows businesses to adapt and scale their ecommerce operations seamlessly, making it a preferred choice for enterprises seeking agility and innovation.

VTEX's native support for microservices architecture enables rapid development and deployment of customized solutions, empowering businesses to stay ahead in the competitive digital landscape. 

However, the complexity of VTEX's platform may require substantial investment in development and ongoing maintenance, potentially deterring smaller businesses or those with limited technical resources.

Additionally, while VTEX offers robust features, integrating third-party services may present challenges, requiring meticulous planning and execution.

OroCommerce Enterprise

A headless solution focused on the B2B market, OroCommerce was created by the team behind Magento. One of its notable strengths lies in its scalability, making it suitable for enterprises with growing digital commerce needs. However, the initial setup and customization process may require considerable technical expertise, potentially posing a challenge for smaller businesses or those with limited resources.

Additionally, while OroCommerce provides extensive functionality, some users may find the learning curve steep, requiring thorough training for effective utilization.

And their matching content management systems

When it comes to implementing a headless commerce solution, choosing the right content management system (CMS) is crucial. Here, we'll review four top headless CMS platforms and assess their suitability for powering the content layer of a headless architecture.

Contentful

Contentful is a popular choice among developers for its flexibility and ease of use. With its API-first approach, Contentful allows businesses to create, manage, and deliver content seamlessly across multiple channels and devices. One of the key advantages of Contentful is its extensive range of integrations and plugins, which enable developers to extend its functionality and integrate with other systems. 

However, while Contentful provides robust support for content management, its ecommerce-specific features may be limited compared to platforms tailored specifically for headless commerce.

Prismic

With Prismic, businesses can create structured content schemas and define relationships between content types, enabling greater flexibility and customization. Its visual editor and drag-and-drop interface make it easy for non-technical users to manage content effectively.

However, some users may find Prismic's pricing plans less transparent compared to other CMS platforms, with additional charges for features such as custom types and content relationships. Additionally, while Prismic excels in content management, integrating with ecommerce platforms may require additional development effort.

Sanity

Sanity is a headless CMS designed for developers, offering a flexible and customizable platform for managing content across projects. With its real-time collaboration features and structured content models, Sanity enables teams to work efficiently and iterate on content seamlessly. Its modular architecture and open-source ecosystem make it popular among developers seeking to build bespoke solutions.

One of the strengths of Sanity is its rich text editing capabilities, which allow users to create and format content with ease. Additionally, Sanity's GraphQL API provides developers with fine-grained control over data queries and mutations, enabling them to build highly performant applications.

However, some users may find Sanity's learning curve steep, especially those unfamiliar with JavaScript and modern web development practices. 

Strapi

Strapi is an open-source headless CMS that offers a self-hosted option for businesses seeking full control over their content management infrastructure. Its plugin ecosystem and marketplace provide additional functionality and integrations, making it a versatile choice for building content-rich applications.

One of the advantages of Strapi is its simple installation process and intuitive admin panel. Additionally, Strapi's RESTful and GraphQL APIs offer flexibility in data querying and manipulation, allowing developers to build dynamic and interactive experiences.

However, some users may find Strapi's documentation lacking in depth, especially when it comes to more advanced features and configurations. 

And front-end engines

Front-end engines, also known as front-end frameworks or libraries, are tools used in web development to streamline the creation of user interfaces (UI) and enhance the user experience (UX). They consist of pre-written code (HTML, CSS, JavaScript) that developers can use to build the visual aspects of a website or web application and provide ready-made components, styling, and functionality, saving time and effort in development. They often include features like responsive design, state management, routing, and data fetching, among others. Here are a few examples:

Vue Storefront

Built on Vue.js, it offers a modern and intuitive development environment for building progressive web applications (PWAs) and mobile apps. One of Vue Storefront's key strengths is its modular architecture, which enables developers to extend and customize functionality with ease. Additionally, Vue Storefront provides out-of-the-box support for headless commerce architectures.

However, it's worth noting that to fully leverage Vue Storefront's features and understand its architecture, developers may need to invest time and acquire technical expertise. As a relatively new framework, it might not have as extensive a community or resources for troubleshooting as some of the older, more established frameworks.

React 

As the name suggests, React Storefront is built on React.js, a popular JavaScript library, and known for its component-based architecture that promotes code reusability and maintainability. This architecture allows developers to create complex user interfaces with relative ease. Additionally, React Storefront provides comprehensive support for headless commerce architectures.

However, mastering React Storefront's concepts and best practices may require a commitment to ongoing learning. Additionally, while the flexibility of React is generally a strength, it can lead to inconsistency in the codebase if not properly managed.

Next.js 

Next.js Commerce leverages the power of Next.js, a popular React framework, to provide a seamless development experience for building ecommerce websites. With its hybrid approach to server-side rendering (SSR) and static site generation (SSG), Next.js Commerce offers fast page loads and optimized performance out of the box. Its integration with the Vercel platform enables seamless deployment and scaling, making it an attractive choice for businesses looking to launch and iterate on their ecommerce storefronts quickly. 

However, similar to other front-end engines, Next.js Commerce may present challenges in terms of customization and integration. While it offers a rich set of features and built-in optimizations, businesses may encounter limitations when extending functionality or integrating with specific ecommerce platforms or third-party services.

Additionally, while Next.js Commerce provides robust support for headless commerce architectures, businesses may need to invest in additional development resources to fully leverage its capabilities. 

Angular 

Angular Storefront is a front-end engine built on Angular, a popular JavaScript framework maintained by Google. Its component-based architecture and TypeScript support promote code maintainability and scalability, making it suitable for large-scale projects with complex requirements. Additionally, Angular Storefront provides out-of-the-box support for headless commerce architectures.

However, while Angular offers powerful features and extensive documentation, mastering its concepts and best practices may require time and dedication. Additionally, businesses may encounter limitations when integrating with certain ecommerce platforms or third-party services. 

Implementing Headless Commerce: Things to consider

With all the buzz around the buzzword, you may think the next natural step is to take the plunge. 

Before you dive in, here are a few things to consider. 

1. Make sure it makes sense for you

Like with every new shiny object, many people get into this without really needing to. So, before you jump on the bandwagon, take a moment to reflect on whether headless commerce is the right fit for your business and whether now is the right time to make the switch.

There are no particular rewards for going headless. Therefore, implementing headless only makes sense if it aligns with your business goals and capabilities. Take a step back and assess your objectives and needs.

How can headless commerce help you achieve them? Do you have the technical expertise and resources to implement and manage a headless solution effectively? What are the specific needs and preferences of your target audience?

Evaluating these factors is key to determine whether headless commerce is the right fit for your business and identify areas where it can add value.

2. Choose a Headless Ecommerce Platform

Selecting the right ecommerce platform is crucial for a successful headless commerce implementation. Look for a platform that is headless-ready and supports seamless integration with front-end frameworks and content management systems.

3. Choose a CMS

The content management system (CMS) you choose will play a vital role in shaping the content layer of your headless commerce architecture. Look for a CMS that offers robust content management capabilities, flexible content modeling, and easy integration with your chosen ecommerce platform and front-end framework.

Consider factors such as usability, scalability, and developer-friendliness when evaluating CMS options.

4. Choose a Tech Stack

Building a successful headless commerce solution requires careful selection of technologies and tools. Choose a tech stack that aligns with your development team's expertise and preferences, as well as the specific requirements of your project. Consider factors such as programming languages, frameworks, libraries, and APIs when assembling your tech stack.

5. Consider Technical Expenses and Requirements

Implementing and managing a headless commerce solution comes with its fair share of technical expenses and requirements. Factor in costs related to development, integration, customization, hosting, and ongoing maintenance when budgeting for your project. Additionally, consider the technical expertise and resources required to support your headless solution over time.

While headless commerce offers exciting possibilities for businesses looking to innovate and differentiate their online experiences, it's essential to approach it with a clear understanding of its benefits, challenges, and implications, because ultimately, headless is not an end in itself but a means to achieve your business objectives and better serve your customers.

If you're unsure where to begin or need guidance along the way, better call us.

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