Editor's note: This post was updated on October 28, 2019 to clarify technology capabilities.

Currently, one of the most discussed and least understood buzzwords in ecommerce is “headless.” Depending on whom you ask, and when you ask them, the definitions can change wildly. To set the record straight, this post will discuss the common components of a headless commerce system, and the advantages and considerations in adopting the architecture.


First, what is headless commerce?

In its simplest form, headless commerce is a separation of the front end and back end of an ecommerce application. This architecture allows each to operate independently so that changes on one end do not require reciprocal changes on the other. The two applications communicate with one another through the use of APIs, experience managers, and tools such as Heroku and Mulesoft. The most important thing to know is that headless can lessen the IT dependency (in other words, the back end) for user experience and user interface projects (the front end). That way, user-centric changes, which only impact the front-end can happen faster because they don’t require changes to the back end.

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


What are the benefits of headless commerce?

The early adopters of headless commerce are bigger enterprises with larger development and IT teams. This makes sense, as the custom programming required to produce and build a separate front end and back end reliably can take a major investment of development hours. However, after they’re finished, tech teams may save even more time year after year as they leave the design and user interface to other departments to update themselves.

Generally, the best candidates for headless commerce are enterprises or companies with a muscular IT department and a DIY attitude. 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. 

If you’re thinking of making the switch to headless commerce, the four biggest benefits tend to be worth the effort.

  1. Better employee adoption. Some business users can be reluctant to use new technologies due to steep learning curves. The simplicity of headless commerce solves this problem since everyone on your team can easily access and update the front end without advanced skills. 
  2. Fewer steps to front-end deployment. Traditionally, front-end ecommerce website changes are routed through the IT team. Users of headless commerce can skip that step and deploy their own changes independently and absent developers. 
  3. Time savings across IT. Since non-developers can commit changes to the front end without having to submit tickets to the IT team, headless commerce helps developers save time on user interface changes. That way, they can focus on more critical work.
  4. Time to market. With headless commerce, businesses can launch new front-end experiences quickly. Reacting to a new market trend can be done rapidly and with a minimum of costly back-end development.

These are reasons why teams may want to transition from traditional to headless ecommerce. At the same time, retailers interested in improving their user experience should also know how headless can help them deliver even better customer satisfaction rates.


How does headless commerce impact your customers?

Customers can also benefit from headless applications and websites:


1. Instantaneous changes and optimization

As soon as a business introduces new content to its front end, those updates are reflected almost instantly. Sites built with traditional commerce architecture, on the other hand, can sometimes take minutes, if not hours (read: too long), before all users can experience a brand’s latest design. 


2. Rich user experiences and interfaces

As they are finally able to control all the elements users interact with more easily, brands can get more creative with the content they publish on their websites to provide experimental design. Additionally, the universal compatibility of headless commerce ensures your website works seamlessly and as intended between all devices and viewing formats. Managers of traditional ecommerce websites, however, have to account for responsive design to minimize the risk of elements disappearing or displaying incorrectly on different devices. 


How do you get started with headless commerce?

The fact is that most developers are not designers, and most designers are not developers. When you employ headless commerce, you let your creative teams focus on what they do best, which is optimizing the user experience and interface to improve customer engagement and conversions. And you make it easier for developers to prioritize enhancements to the back end — all thanks to headless architecture. 

One thing is certain: other businesses in your industry will likely soon evaluate headless ecommerce and build their own headless applications. To get ahead of the innovation curve and leapfrog the competition, you may want to choose headless commerce moving forward, making it easier for your designers to create compelling customer experiences.