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Headless Commerce Explained in Simple Terms

June 12, 2020 4 min read
Headless Commerce

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User experience has become the main priority for retailers when setting up or improving their eCommerce website. In 2020, online shoppers demand a quick, and often personalized journey.

Delivering this cutting-edge eCommerce experience can require significant development work, especially for larger, older online stores.

This is where headless commerce comes in.

Headless commerce enables online sellers to change, optimize and add to their front end user experience without worrying about the back end functionality of their site. That’s why 61% of online retailers say they’re planning on leveraging headless commerce in 2020.

What is headless commerce? 

Headless commerce is a system that enables the separation of the front end user interface (UI) with the back end architecture.

Imagine every website as a head and a body. The head is the front end, or the website that shoppers see when they’re browsing for products. The body is the back end, which is the engine powering the site’s functionality.

With a traditional eCommerce system, both the ‘head’ and the ‘body’ are highly dependent on each other to work. If you make a change to the front end, reciprocal changes are required on the back end.

Headless commerce enables you to make changes to the ‘head’ without needing to adjust the ‘body’ as well.

This enables quicker updates, integrations with more channels on different devices, shorter development times, and many more positives for your online store.

How headless commerce works

How do sites using headless commerce function? Simply put, the answer is by using APIs (application programming interfaces).

An API facilitates the sharing of data between software or servers. Essentially, APIs act as a data middleman in headless commerce. They collect and deliver data between the headless back end CMS (content management system) and the front end of your site.

The fact that the front end and back end are detached provides you with greater flexibility with the tools that you use. You can use different technologies for your payment providers, site hosting, advertising channels and more.

The main advantages of headless commerce

Headless commerce has its advantages and disadvantages, like most systems. Here are the main positives.

1. Facilitates quick and easy updates to your UX

A good user experience (UX) today might fall below expectations in a year, or less. Keeping up and staying ahead requires frequent testing and constant optimization. Headless commerce makes this much more manageable.

If you’re using a headless commerce system you won’t need to add developers to small-scale website projects. This means marketers and web designers can experiment, iterate and improve quickly.

Headless commerce advantages
Headless commerce empowers your creative staff to make a bigger impact on your site

2. Makes multichannel selling easier

The emergence of new devices such as smart watches, smart speakers, and new social media channels means online sellers have to rapidly adapt.

If your competitors are seeing great success with a new channel, you should make sure you’re selling on it too!

If your site isn’t using headless commerce architecture, making your site compatible on a new device is a real challenge. A costly challenge as well, as big IT projects aren’t cheap!

3. Faster loading times

Using a headless commerce system often results in a much faster site.

There is a separate display logic when using a headless solution and as a result, your front end applications should work quicker. Your site won’t be slowed by processing in the back end.

4. You can mix and match the best tools

If you’re using headless commerce architecture, you’re able to use multiple different front end tools with ease. This allows you to cherry pick your software and switch when something better comes along.

5. Better use of your technical resources

Developer time is precious, literally! If your technical staff are having to spend hours enabling front end changes, their expertise is likely to be missed elsewhere. This means you’ll have to hire more staff and highly skilled developers don’t come cheap.

The disadvantages of headless commerce

Headless commerce isn’t suitable for everyone. Here are some disadvantages and challenges that come with headless commerce.

1. Initial costs

If you’re an established eCommerce business switching to headless commerce, it’s going to be painful initially. Decoupling your back and front end processes is a time-consuming, delicate process. It has to be handled with care, as so much is at stake.

On the other hand, it’s often larger companies with old, clunky databases that would gain the most from a headless system. It will be costly initially, but you’ll save time and money in the long run.

2. More technologies to manage

For companies that have the resources, mixing and matching technologies for different stages in the user journey is a good thing. You can pick tools that are best for each specific stage of the user journey.

For much smaller eCommerce companies, the use of multiple technologies could be a headache. For these companies, a partially headless solution is often the best way forward.

Shopify offers a range of templates that sellers can easily use for their front end design without worrying about the functionality in the back. You can also use Shopify apps to plug in, giving some of the benefits of a headless architecture.

For sellers that would like to use Shopify but desire a truly headless architecture, Shopify Plus is the one to use. As an entirely headless system, Shopify Plus offers more freedom to personalize, but will require more work to set up.