Headless Commerce: Definition, Examples, and Platform Guide

Headless Commerce: Definition, Examples, and Platform Guide

Think headless things only appear in horror movies? Well, think again because headless ecommerce is making waves in the online retail industry. But instead of haunting you and scaring your customers away, headless commerce intends to solve problems that are inhibiting your growth. 

Headless commerce knows that today’s customers use multiple channels, from apps and smart voice assistants (e.g., Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant) to wearable tech and in-store devices. And it’s keen to help merchants deliver exceptional customer experiences across these touchpoints. So, what exactly is headless commerce? We explore its definition and more below.

What is Headless Commerce?

Headless commerce separates the front and backend ecommerce experience, allowing for a more flexible digital architecture. With headless commerce, you access a software solution that stores, manages, and delivers content without the need for a frontend delivery component. The “head,” otherwise referred to as the theme or template, is removed to leave a simple backend. 

Headless commerce brings the ecommerce logic behind your store to the surface. With this core functionality, you can attach as many customer touchpoints or “heads” as you like. Developer APIs allow for creating blog posts, product information, and customer reviews on any device or screen. The frontend developers then have the freedom to determine how they want to present that customer. 

Separating the front and backend of your ecommerce structure might seem complex, but it actually makes it simpler to decouple the development and customer interaction elements of business success. You can focus on delivering the experience customers want without worrying about harming the backend. 

what is headless commerce

Headless ecommerce brings content to any device with programmatic management, making it excellent for the age of things like IoT (The Internet of Things). Since the platform isn’t coupled specifically with a backend, commerce brands can deliver payment gateways, products, and contents on kiosk screens, smartwatches, and even intelligent assistant skills.

How Does Headless Commerce Work?

Headless commerce removes the presentation layer of your website or mobile app from the ecommerce functionality on the backend. The ecommerce platform can still perform common tasks like security, inventory management, and transaction management. 

Like other headless software, headless ecommerce tools bypass requests from the presentation and application “head” layers to the backend via Application Programming Interfaces (API) calls. APIs allow for much more flexibility when sending data back and forth between different channels, providing a more seamless and creative experience for customers. 

For example, if a user clicked a “buy now” button on a kiosk screen or smartphone app, the presentation layer for that device would use an API call to send a processing order to the backend system. The application layer then sends an API call to the backend to access information about the status of an order.

Headless Commerce vs. Traditional Ecommerce

In traditional ecommerce, the front and backend environments are tightly connected. The backend is responsible for the content, as well as the code for the plugins or layouts used on the frontend. Everything comes packaged in a single box. This has some benefits, such as a simpler, all-in-one environment suited to companies who want to get online fast.

However, if you’re in an agile company currently evolving and you want to make changes to customers’ frontend experience, a traditional environment would make this difficult. Changes to the code can have unintended consequences when the two components of your ecommerce solution are linked.

Headless commerce provides more flexibility and opportunities to improve the customer experience. With a headless architecture, the frontend experience isn’t dictated by any commerce platform and backend CMS. Merchants can choose whichever frontend platform makes sense for them, experiment with unique solutions, and design new experiences from scratch.

headless commerce vs traditional ecommerce

Developers using a headless commerce solution can even design different brand experiences for each channel. This means it’s much easier to adapt solutions for different customer needs. APIs can easily deliver commerce and content to websites, applications, social platforms, and smart devices. The potential is even there to offer frontend experiences that enable opportunities for further personalization and instant reactions to adaptations in trends.

It’s also worth mentioning that most headless ecommerce systems are built using JS-based frameworks. While this provides you with sufficient space for expanding your website, it also restricts you from making additional frontend customizations without relying on JS developers. Added to that, it takes time to build an ecommerce storefront using a headless architecture. Despite these shortcomings, businesses can’t afford to ignore headless ecommerce due to the many advantages it brings.

Advantages of Using Headless Commerce

A headless commerce platform allows you to deliver personalized experiences to customers on various devices and channels. The right solution can keep you one step ahead of the competition by ensuring you reach your customers on the platforms they prefer. What’s more, headless commerce solutions integrate with third-party software offerings, which help your business to evolve. 

The key benefits of using headless commerce include:

  • Scalability: Traditional commerce platforms don’t give you many choices when it comes to scaling your solution. With a headless service, you can create brand-new transaction experiences depending on your customer’s location, language, and even the device they’re using. This opens the door for new kinds of sales. 
  • Reduced IT costs: Headless commerce solutions often use SaaS business models, so you pay for what you need, as you need it. The cloud platform experience reduces IT costs while improving uptime, flexibility, and scalability. 
  • Less lock-in: A headless architecture permits developers to use their preferred libraries and frameworks. There are almost infinite ways to customize the presentation layer, with APIs connecting the right “head” environments more flexible. 
  • Centralize content: Ecommerce platforms are fantastic environments for storing data and information, but a headless approach can take this to the next level. You can create a backend where you have access to all the content you need and valuable experiences for audiences, then simply attach the solutions to the right frontend.
  • Enable IoT: Headless commerce allows you to display content and deliver customer value through various IoT devices and digital signage options. This can help you stand out in a retail environment where various merchants are competing for consumer attention.
Benefits of using headless commerce
  • Streamline deployment: One of the biggest advantages of headless commerce is that once you’re ready to implement a new solution for your business, you can do so almost immediately. You can deploy commerce experiences to mobile devices, PWAs, and frontend environments within a matter of seconds. Going omnichannel is much easier with a headless architecture. 
  • Improve competitiveness: A headless commerce platform allows you to experiment with new experiences for customers, which means you can also stay one step ahead of the competition. Nothing is stopping you from exploring new avenues and bringing new experiences into the market whenever you choose.
  • Be agile: Headless commerce platforms can accommodate new technologies as and when they surface. This allows you to roll out changes across multiple touchpoints in much less time. And because headless platforms are API-driven, they’re easy to integrate with other systems and ensure the data is transferred easily and quickly. You likely won’t need to update a headless commerce integration, as the APIs allow the platforms to form seamless connections and efficiently manage data transfers between them.
  • Achieve better security: With a traditional platform, merchants face the risk that an account breach could result in a full compromise of their business data. Although you can configure user accounts with restricted privileges, any breached account with elevated privileges could give an adversary access to your data on both the frontend and the backend. As headless commerce depends on different systems working together, it reduces the risk of a compromised account causing complete chaos.


Best Headless Ecommerce Platforms

Now that you have some idea of headless ecommerce, let’s take a look at the platforms that make it possible to implement the technology. Here’s a list of the top headless ecommerce platforms: 

1. Shopify Plus

Shopify’s headless commerce platform offers merchants complete creative control over all touchpoints to provide a cohesive customer experience. You can plug in your content management systems and business tools to build creative storefronts and render content on channels like smart mirrors, kiosks, billboards, vending machines, and wearables. Shopify Plus headless commerce is also designed to simplify the transition to having a Progressive Web Application (PWA) seamless. PWAs are incredibly fast, innovative, and, as you’re likely to discover, challenging to achieve through a traditional ecommerce platform.

2. CommerceTools

CommerceTools offers a cloud-native headless ecommerce platform that boasts the tools you need to deliver engaging and innovative experiences. It exposes backend calculation, storage, and processes through a flexible API, making it possible to attach all types of heads (frontends) from car infotainment and voice assistants to traditional webstores to mobile commerce scenarios. CommerceTools’ API also allows users to A/B test and experiment with new features fast without disrupting the backends’ stability.

3. Kentico Kontent

Kentico Kontent utilizes Microsoft SQL and ASP .NET servers to create online stores, websites, and web 2.0 communities. Its headless CMS allows you to develop content from anywhere and collaborate with team members via features like tasks, reviews, and inline suggestions. Although the platform does offer inventory management, users don’t get other ecommerce features out of the box. The good news is that you can integrate Kentico Kontent with Shopify and other ecommerce solutions to add more capabilities to your ecommerce site.

4. Moltin

Moltin offers a headless commerce architecture for organizations that desire speed, control, and flexibility. It combines a set of flexible cloud infrastructure, APIs, pre-built applications, and development toolkits to make store development fast, lightweight, and simple. Moltin also makes it easier to scale into new markets, test new channels quickly, and keep up with changing consumer trends. With Moltin’s APIs, incorporating features like checkout flow, inventory, and shopping carts into any application or website is a simple process. 

5. Foxy.io

Foxy.io (formerly FoxyCart) is a flexible platform that empowers designers and web developers to add ecommerce features to existing solutions. Although it’s not an all-in-one system, Foxy is built to integrate and provides a great checkout and cart system. Plus, Foxy offers APIs that allow you to create super powerful and tight integrations. Developers with advanced skills can also parse JSON data and showcase it on their website however they’d like.

Examples of Headless Commerce

Chilly’s 

Headless ecommerce examples

An eco-friendly insulated bottle brand, Chilly’s transitioned to a headless ecommerce architecture by integrating Shopify Plus with DatoCMS. The move brought a range of benefits like improved SEO, faster deployment, and better speed and performance. Also, Chilly’s gained the ability to achieve a PWA and use one store to offer various languages and currencies from a single CMS.


JB Hi-Fi

Sites using headless ecommerce

JB Hi-Fi is one of Australia’s leading retailers, but it’s best known for having one of the most popular Shopify Plus stores in the world. However, many people don’t know that they use Shopify’s storefront API to keep things flexible at the frontend and make faster performance improvements. After the transition, the average page load time of JB Hi-Fi’s ecommerce store reduced by more than 15% compared to the same time earlier when they were on another platform. Moreover, the brand has been able to deliver a cohesive experience across online, social, click and collect, and other channels.

Conclusion

The decision to use or transition to a headless ecommerce platform should be a no-brainer for brands with big IT budgets, but it’s not a straightforward choice for a smaller merchant. When considering this technology, keep your store’s growth potential in mind. Do you have multi-language/international requirements? Are your customers using voice assistants or wearables to access your website? Answering these questions would help you determine whether it’d be wise and profitable to invest in headless ecommerce.

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