Headless e-commerce vs. monolithic e-commerce

Discover why headless e-commerce platforms have been steadily growing in popularity and are embraced by some of the world’s biggest brands.

Chapter 1

The dawn of e-commerce

The roots of modern web-based e-commerce trace back to the 1990s. In those early days, e-commerce businesses were forced to spend an enormous — and often excessive — amount of time and money cobbling together different systems for storing, managing, and presenting content. Compatibility issues were rampant as various technologies failed to integrate, and updating information was a tedious manual process that was rife with input errors.

As the clock ticked on the new millennium, the e-commerce platform marketplace gave way to a solution that combined (a.k.a. “coupled”) both front-end and back-end functionality in a single, centralized product. For the first time ever, the technology that governed what customers experienced and engaged with (e.g. product descriptions, reviews, etc.) directly and seamlessly connected to the technology that governed e-commerce store functionality (e.g. inventory management, shipping, fulfilment, etc.). To reflect the all-in-one nature of this approach, it was dubbed a “monolithic” e-commerce platform.

Chapter 2

Cracks in the monolith

Despite the transformative advantages, it did not take long for cracks to appear in the monolithic approach. These included:

Lack of Customization: As noted earlier, the signature feature of monolithic e-commerce platforms is a tightly coupled front- and back-end system, ultimately allowing non-technical users to quickly and easily set up storefronts. However, what this approach gives in convenience takes away in customization.

As a result, when adjustments are desired or required — for example, to support a use case that was not envisioned by the vendor — developers must spend a lot of time (and their employers must spend a lot of money) updating the front-end platform and database code. What’s more, these ongoing customizations make the e-commerce platform more complex, which in turn makes future changes even more difficult, time consuming, risky, and costly.

Lack of Agility: In the e-commerce world, it is not necessarily the biggest or even the richest that survive. Rather, it is the most agile. Customer expectations and preferences are always changing, and the businesses that can “sense and respond” have a major competitive advantage over ones locked in a discover-and-react stance.

Monolithic e-commerce platforms are a liability here rather than an asset. They are bloated, bulky, and exceedingly complicated to update. This slows down the DevOps cycle, and pushes brands out-of-sync with, by far, the most important group in their ecosystem: their customers.

Threats to Business Continuity: For brands, one of the scariest words in the e-commerce vocabulary is downtime. For example, on “Prime Day” in 2018, Amazon’s website crashed for one hour, costing the company an estimated $72-$99 million USD. In e-commerce, downtime is the enemy. And unfortunately, in this context, so are monolithic e-commerce platforms. Coupling various parts makes them inherently dependent: if one part has a problem, the entire platform can crash. Or at the very least, there will be time consuming and expensive issues to fix.

Testing, Testing, and More Testing: In order to mitigate the possibility of issues and problems, all updates to a monolithic e-commerce platform must be thoroughly tested (and then re-tested). This is a time-consuming process that requires a large team of software engineers.

Chapter 3

From monolithic to microservices

One does not need an advanced degree in computer science to grasp that if the core problems associated with the monolithic approach are rooted in the coupling front-end and back-end systems, then the solution lies in decoupling them. That is where headless e-commerce enters the story.

A headless e-commerce platform is one in which some — but not all —parts of the system are decoupled; specifically the content delivery application (front-end) and the content management system or digital experience platform (back-end).

What makes a headless approach essentially different — and fundamentally superior —is that the back-end content management system or digital experience platform does not have a built-in presentation layer. Rather, content is published to sites through a communication layer in the form of third-party APIs. It is precisely because the platform is headless — i.e. there is no technical barrier — that content can be accessed and pushed through simple, standardized API calls.

Chapter 4

The benefits of headless e-commerce vs. monolithic

Headless e-commerce platforms have been growing in popularity over the last several years and are is embraced as the best-fit approach for some of the world’s biggest and most profitable brands. There are eight key benefits of headless e-commerce vs. monolithic:

1. Increased velocity

As discussed earlier, making changes to a monolithic e-commerce system is time consuming and increasingly complex (i.e. today’s changes make tomorrow’s changes more difficult). Conversely, making changes to a headless e-commerce system is significantly faster, as changes to the front-end do not require modifications to the back-end.

2. Lower total cost of ownership (TCO)

Headless e-commerce platforms can be deployed in the cloud, which means that brands do not have to purchase and maintain costly on-site hardware and hosting. In addition, vendors that offer monolithic e-commerce platforms usually release updated versions throughout the year, and in many cases these changes are fundamental to the core. If brands do not make these updates, they are no longer eligible for support. This is not a requirement or risk with cloud-based headless e-commerce platforms, as the software is continuously updated by the vendor.

3. Supports a best-of-breed strategy

Headless e-commerce platforms enable brands to leverage integrations through APIs, and ultimately create — and as necessary, adapt and evolve — their unique best-of-breed technology strategy. Monolithic e-commerce platforms require that all customers use the exact same tech stack (e.g. .NET, Java, etc.). This is not because enforcing a standardized tech stack is a better option. Rather, it is because the architecture is inherently inflexible. Basically, it is a one-size-fits-all approach.

4. Easily extend ordering options

With monolithic e-commerce platforms, the front end and back end are coupled. As such, changing the front end to extend ordering options to suit new channels, devices, or customers will invariably trigger changes to the back end — which is time consuming, costly, and risky. This is not the case with headless e-commerce platforms, which are designed to support multiple front ends that all connect to the same back end. As such, it is easy to run and manage a variety of user experiences across multiple devices and channels. Brands enjoy clarity instead of experience chaos.

5. Improve conversion rates

Progress on the customer journey is measured by conversions, which could include watching videos, downloading guides, scheduling consultations and demos, or any other positive actions that support a transaction and foster customer success. The flexibility of e-commerce platforms allows brands to establish and optimize a unique interface for various devices and platforms, which improves customer experience and ultimately increases conversion rates.

6. Accelerated time-to-value

The back-end business logic, functionality, and capabilities of an e-commerce platform typically comprise most of the overall software development process. With a headless e-commerce platform, brands are already starting from the point of competition. As such, they can focus immediately on user experience and delivering a solution for much less cost, time, and effort than with a monolithic e-commerce platform.

7. Individual scaling

With a headless e-commerce platform, brands can extend services as required — but without being forced to adjust the entire platform. As a result, high traffic on the front end (for example, a surge of visitors on Black Friday or Cyber Monday) won’t adversely impact back-end operations. This is not the situation with monolithic e-commerce platforms, which must be horizontally and vertically scaled as a single stack.

8. Ease of integration

A headless e-commerce platform allows brands to retain many of their existing monitoring tools and systems. This makes integration easier and accelerates time-to-value.

Chapter 5

Migrating from monolithic to headless e-commerce

Below, we highlight some core best practices for successfully migrating from a monolithic to a headless e-commerce platform:

Set the vision

  • Understand users by mapping a clear picture of all user types (buyers, administrators, suppliers, etc.).
  • Understand how orders will flow between user types.
  • Understand product information by mapping what products are for sale, how they are categorized, where product data lives, and which products are customizable.
  • Understand how the new e-commerce platform will fit within existing systems, and what additional best-of-breed applications are required or desired for integration.

Set priorities

  • Prioritize the workflows and processes that need to be migrated first, which need to be reassessed, and which can be dealt with at a later stage.
  • Analyze priorities based on dependencies.

Create a development timeline based on

  • Buyer experience, which is where customers view products, place and manage orders, and control their account information.
  • Commerce management, which is where administration takes place (users, orders, and product set-up and management).
  • Supplier management, which is where supplier product and order management takes place.
  • Integration management, which includes integrations with existing, back-end systems and with other best-of-breed applications.
  • User experience (UX) and user interface (UI).

Create the migration plan by answering these questions:

  • What data needs to be migrated from the old platform to the new one?
  • Where is the data being stored today and where will it be stored in the new system?
  • When is the right time to migrate data?

Prepare to launch by …

  • Performing significant testing to ensure that customer management, commerce management, supplier management, and integrations management are working properly.
  • Determining if it is desirable or necessary to do a Beta release or a phased launch plan, which is when customers get early access to the e-commerce platform, before it is rolled out to the entire audience.

A deeper look at each of these best practices for successfully migrating from monolithic to headless e-commerce is available in this Guide.


E-commerce sales have surged

E-commerce has been surging in popularity for more than three decades, and during the pandemic it shifted from an alternative option to an essential channel. Current global retail e-commerce sales are an estimated $4.9 trillion (USD), and by 2025 e-commerce transactions are forecasted to be 24.5% of total global retail sales.

To thrive in the digital business landscape, brands need to ensure that their e-commerce engine is firing on all cylinders. This means migrating from a monolithic to a headless e-commerce platform — and reaping the significant rewards, benefits, and competitive advantages.

Intuitive digital storefronts are essential to the omnichannel customer experiences you want to create. For a frictionless buying experience, brands need a flexible e-commerce platform that streamlines ordering, inventory, and fulfilment processes.

Visit the Sitecore Knowledge Center and learn about the most important commerce trends and discover what capabilities matter most to success.