Storefront template screens including Design Your Store, Social, and Quick Reordering.

What Is Headless Commerce?

A guide to understanding common components of a headless commerce system.

Headless commerce: A complete guide

Customer expectations, market trends, and business needs change fast. As artificial intelligence (AI) advances rapidly and teams are asked to do more with less, how can businesses extend their brand quickly to meet new needs? With the flexibility and agility of headless commerce.

You’ve probably heard about headless commerce. Some tout the endless benefits of a headless architecture — but how good is it, really? Others say the juice might not be worth the squeeze: Headless commerce is a major investment for a business, after all. Let’s dive into how headless commerce works, its key benefits, and whether it’s right for your business.

What you’ll learn:

  1. What is headless commerce?
  2. Headless commerce vs. traditional: What’s the difference?
  3. What are the benefits of headless commerce?
  4. How much does headless commerce cost?
  5. How does headless commerce impact your customers?
  6. How to implement a headless commerce solution
  7. Pro tip: Consider a phased launch of headless ecommerce
  8. How do you get started with headless commerce?
  9. Headless commerce FAQ

What is headless commerce?

In its simplest form, headless commerce is the separation of an e-commerce application's front end (your storefront and user experience) from the back end (your data and business logic). When a platform’s front and back end operate independently, changes on one end do not affect the other. In the world of e-commerce, that’s a game changer. This architecture offers brands freedom of expression to build whatever, and however they want. Most importantly, it enables brands to enrich the customer experience.

One hallmark of headless is the use of APIs, experience managers, and tools such as Herokuopens in a new window and Mulesoftopens in a new window, as well as the importance of IT partners. These resources are a critical part of every company’s innovation strategy, delivering new functionality and experiences that engage customers and stay ahead of their expectations.

If you’re in ecommerce, you know that keeping pace with emerging channels and changing customer behaviours isn’t easy (and often requires a lot of coffee). In a traditional ecommerce model, building new experiences can require updates to both the front- and back-end system, which can turn even small projects into huge headaches. That’s where headless comes in.

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Headless commerce vs. traditional: What’s the difference?

With traditional ecommerce architecture, your front-end experience is linked with your back-end logic. This kind of architecture can be very beneficial to businesses that are looking to launch ecommerce quickly. It’s straightforward and fast to set up. Traditional ecommerce vendors typically provide storefront templates with drag-and-drop tools that help you launch an ecommerce websiteopens in a new window quickly. The drawback? This can hinder customisation and make it difficult to integrate new software down the road.

Additionally, any changes made to the front end can affect the back end — sometimes in unexpected ways. For example, you might spruce up the design of your homepage only to find that you inadvertently impacted a back-end function, like inventory managementopens in a new window or payment processing. Yikes!

Headless commerce decouples the back end and front end, allowing for endless possibilities in customisation, personalisation, and new integrations. In a word, it's flexibility.

What are the benefits of headless commerce?

The adopters of headless commerce are typically bigger enterprises with larger development and IT teams along with a DIY attitude. This makes sense, as the custom programming needed to produce and build a separate front end and back end reliably can require heavy development resources. These businesses often have months-long development queues and ambitious creative and marketing teams that are eager to rapidly test new designs, copy, and templates on the front end.

At a time when 80% of customers say the experience a company provides is as important as its products and services, brands need to embrace innovation like never before. Every hour of developer time is precious, as speed-to-market is often tied to increasing cash flow. If you’re thinking of making the switch to headless commerce, the benefits tend to be worth the effort if the implementation is well-planned. Here’s why:

Faster time to market

With a headless commerce platform, businesses can launch new front end experiences fast. Your teams can react to new market trends quickly without straining development team resources to make updates to the back end. Updating your storefront quickly can be a key differentiator for your business: Just 5% of organisations can make changes within minutes, and 63% must wait days or longer.

Dev team and IT efficiency

Since changes to the front end can be made without requiring skilled development on the back end, developers save time on user interface changes. When you consider that only 26% of IT teamsopens in a new window can support all development requests from the business, this is a crucial aspect of headless commerce. Additionally, with headless templates and partner solutions, developers only need a few clicks or some light coding to jumpstart commerce apps that increase conversion.

Better employee adoption

Some organisations can be reluctant to use new technologies due to steep learning curves. Having a modern commerce platform alongside the simplicity of headless commerce solves this problem, since everyone on your team can easily access and update the front end without advanced skills.

The right tools for the job

Headless commerce gives brands the tools to build custom experiences that shoppers can’t get anywhere else. Critical to this are APIs to ensure coordinated, brand-consistent experiences across channels, driven by common commerce services such as promotions, inventory, product information, and more.

Cost savings

With headless commerce, you don’t need to rely on a long, arduous development process for every storefront change — which also means you eliminate the expenses involved. Headless requires fewer licensing and hosting fees, as well as less infrastructure spend in the long run.

How much does headless commerce cost?

The short answer: It depends. The price tag for headless commerce will be heavily influenced by which commerce functionalities you choose to build and/or buy, whether your internal teams will manage and maintain your site, and who is responsible for uptime, reliability, and trust. To minimise costs and speed up your time to value, it’s critical to set internal goals and have a crystal clear agreement about what winning looks like — for everyone involved.

Once these goals are set, it will be easier to vet vendors and partners and find the right balance between cost and customisation.

When it comes to vetting vendors, here are a few key questions that will help you determine costs — especially the ones associated with ongoing maintenance.

  • Can the solution create the type of customer experience you need?
  • Do you provide implementation support and delivery resources?
  • What can we expect from your post launch support and account management?

The right partner will provide services to help you execute your headless strategy while minimising costs and the expertise to scale your business as it grows.

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How does headless commerce impact your customers?

Nearly three quarters of customers expect companies to understand their unique needs and expectations. Shoppers want tailored promotions and recommendations, personalised website experiences, and the right functionalities to match their preferences for payment type, shipping and fulfillment options, and more. To complicate things even more, these preferences are a moving target; they change over time as new technology, channels, and ecommerce trendsopens in a new window emerge. If you have inflexible architecture, keeping up with all of that can be a tall order.

But with the flexibility of headless, you can adapt quickly to meet customer expectations and shoppers can embrace new ways of interacting with your brand.

Instantaneous changes and optimisation

As soon as you introduce new content to your front end, those updates are reflected on your back end. What does that mean for customers? They get to experience your latest designs, promotions, and products as soon as they’re launched.

Site speed and scalability

One of the most frustrating user experiences on an ecommerce site? Slow load times. Site speed and availability are critical when it comes to ecommerce, especially during high traffic moments like holidays and sales. By separating the front end from the back end, headless commerce architectures can scale more effectively to handle fluctuations in traffic and transaction volume. This ensures that your shopping experience remains fast and responsive for every customer, even during peak periodsopens in a new window.

Omni-channel experiences

With a headless ecommerce solution, it’s easier and less time-consuming to create consistent, seamless user experiences across all channels. It’s also easier to integrate new channels and devices as they emerge — like voice assistants, conversational commerceopens in a new window for messaging apps and social mediaopens in a new window, and augmented reality (AR). When businesses can quickly adapt to evolving preferences without overhauling their entire commerce platform, it’s a win for customers, too.

How to implement a headless commerce solution

Contrary to popular belief, there doesn’t have to be a build vs. buy decision when it comes to headless commerce. The truth is, your implementation approach will likely involve a mix of the two. The extent to which you build vs. buy will largely depend on factors such as business requirements, your team’s technical expertise, existing infrastructure, scalability needs, and budget constraints.

Buy an off-the-shelf headless platform: Businesses can opt to purchase off-the-shelf headless commerce platforms that offer pre-built APIs, back-end functionality, and integrations with popular front-end frameworks. These platforms provide a ready-to-use solution, saving time and resources compared to building everything from scratch.

Build a headless platform on your own: Do you have highly skilled development and IT teams that want full control over the functionality, data structure, and performance of your commerce platform? If so, building a headless platform from scratch might be right for you.

Take a hybrid approach: Alternatively, a hybrid approach can give your teams the best of both worlds. You can combine off-the-shelf solutions with custom development to meet your unique business requirements. This also means that your development team can remain in control of the functionalities they want and offload others to a trusted partner.

Use vendor-provided headless templates: To help businesses deploy headless experiences quickly, some vendors — such as Commerce Cloud — provide proven templates as a starting point to build custom applications. Templates can include everything from web storefronts, progressive web applications (PWAs), and native mobile apps. These templates offer architectural guidance, code samples, and functional QA frameworks to get you up and running quickly.

Pro tip: Consider a phased launch of headless ecommerce

It’s true that headless commerce is complex; Switching to a headless architecture is a major business decision and requires the right resources and stringent planning. The good news? Your headless commerce implementation doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. You can wade into the waters of a headless website using a phased approach.

A phased approach allows you to minimise risks and costs, and modernise your ecommerce experiences at a pace that allows your teams to adjust gradually over time. With a phased approach, you can also strategically focus on the parts of your site where headless will make the biggest impact. For example, you can identify key areas where you want to improve conversion rates or implement new features, like your product listing pages and checkout experience.

Implementing headless in phases allows you to monitor performance after each launch and incorporate learnings into subsequent iterations. Your headless implementation doesn’t have to be a years-long endeavor with one massive, big-bang rollout.

How do you get started with headless commerce?

The fact is that most developers are not designers, and most designers aren’t developers. The right headless commerce platform will provide APIs and tools for developers to build coordinated, brand-consistent experiences across channels based on a single view of data. Meanwhile, creative teams focus on what they do best: optimising the user experience and interface to improve customer engagement and conversions. The flexibility of a trusted headless platform ensures your developers can build with speed and full autonomy of tools, code, and APIs and all third-party integrations.

Headless commerce FAQ

If your current architecture is holding you back from innovating or getting new experiences to market as fast as you’d like, you could definitely benefit from headless. Similarly, if your development and IT teams are strained and drowning in requests from design, marketing, and other teams — it might be time to consider a headless approach.

Composable commerce is another popular term when it comes to ecommerce architecture. Headless mainly refers to the decoupling of the front and back end of an ecommerce application. Composable, on the other hand, is what’s enabled by headless: It means that every component is independent, and that businesses can choose each one separately.

While every business may have different goals when they implement headless commerce, the main benefit and purpose typically comes down to flexibility, speed, and the freedom to innovate.

Woman at a computer browsing a website built with headless commerce.

Good news: You can ease into headless commerce

Follow these three steps to implement it in stages.