An ever-changing business landscape and constantly evolving customer demands are key reasons enterprises and software vendors alike are leaving behind the monolith and moving to headless e-commerce. But, what is headless e-commerce, exactly? Let’s dive into it.

What is headless e-commerce?

Headless e-commerce refers to an architecture where the front-end, or presentation layer of an e-commerce system, is decoupled or separated from the back-end, or commerce engine. By decoupling the front-end from the back-end, developers use the e-commerce platform’s API (such as GraphQL) to deliver the platform’s business logic (features, functionality, etc.) to whatever user experience they’d like. This means that any changes or updates to the user interface (UI) or user experience (UX) end and back-end are independent, allowing for greater flexibility and agility in designing and delivering the digital storefront. In traditional e-commerce systems, the front-end and back-end are tightly integrated.

You can think of the head in terms of any kind of user interface or experience. A vending machine can be a head. A desktop browser experience can be a head. A smartwatch can be a head. With headless ecommerce, you can update or change the head(s) without disrupting the backend.

In this approach, the commerce engine serves as the back-end, managing product information, inventory, pricing, and order processing, while the front-end is developed as a separate application that consumes data and services from the back-end through APIs (Application Programming Interfaces).

A quick refresher on software architecture: If you think about software as a “stack” of components, the top of the stack would be the user interface, or the part that the user interacts with (sometimes this is called the “front-end”). The rest of the stack is where the software derives all of its functionality, like the business logic and the data model (sometimes this is called the “back-end’).

So the “head” in “headless” is the user experience. You’re accessing that back-end functionality via API, and building any sort of “head”, or user interface, for both the buyer and the admin interface on top.

Headless vs. traditional e-commerce

Headless is the opposite of the traditional e-commerce approach. Do you know their differences?

1. Architecture

Traditional e-commerce: The front-end (user interface) and backend (server-side logic, databases) are tightly coupled and interconnected. The front-end and backend components are usually bundled together, making it difficult to separate them.

Headless e-commerce: Headless architecture decouples the front-end and backend, allowing them to operate independently. The front-end is usually built using a separate framework or technology stack, while the backend serves as an API that provides data and functionality to the front-end.

2. Flexibility and customization

Traditional e-commerce: Traditional platforms often provide a predefined user interface and template-based design, limiting customization and merchandising options. Modifying the front-end or adding new features may require extensive modifications to the backend codebase.

Headless e-commerce: Headless architecture allows for greater flexibility and customization. Developers can choose the most suitable front-end technology and have more control over the user experience. The front-end can be updated or modified without affecting the backend, enabling rapid design changes and experimentation.

3. Omnichannel experience

Traditional e-commerce: Traditional platforms may struggle to provide a consistent user experience across multiple channels (e.g., online store, mobile apps, smart devices). Each channel often requires separate development and maintenance efforts.

Headless e-commerce: Headless architecture facilitates the creation of an omnichannel experience. The backend API can serve multiple front-end applications, ensuring a consistent experience across various devices and channels. Developers can build separate front-ends for web, mobile, voice assistants, or any other channel.

4. Speed and performance

Traditional e-commerce: Traditional platforms may suffer from performance issues due to the monolithic nature of the architecture. Any changes made to the backend or front-end experience or can impact the overall performance of the system.

Headless e-commerce: Headless architecture allows for improved performance. Front-end and backend can be independently optimized, allowing for faster loading times and better user experiences. Additionally, the separation of concerns enables efficient caching and scaling strategies.

5. Development and maintenance

Traditional e-commerce: Developers need to work with a single technology stack and framework, where the front-end and back end are interdependent. This means the shopping cart, CMS, checkout, subscriptions, and site layout are connected. This can lead to limitations and dependencies on specific technologies.

Headless e-commerce: Headless solutions provide developers with the flexibility to choose the most appropriate technology for each layer. This can lead to faster development cycles, improved developer productivity, and the ability to leverage the latest tools and frameworks (like React and more).

Why is headless e-commerce important?

If your e-commerce business is looking to deliver highly customized experiences, support multiple channels, and rapidly adapt to changing market conditions, headless ecommerce can prove a valuable partner. Here’s why:

Omnichannel capabilities: Headless commerce platforms enable businesses to deliver a consistent shopping experience across multiple customer touchpoints, such as websites, mobile apps, IoT devices, voice assistants, and social media platforms. By leveraging APIs, businesses can connect their backend commerce systems with various frontend touchpoints, providing a seamless experience for customers.

Enhanced user experience: With headless ecommerce, front-end developers have the freedom to design and optimize ecommerce sites without limitations imposed by the backend system. This allows for more personalized and engaging user interfaces, faster page load times, and improved performance. By focusing on the ecommerce experience, businesses can increase customer satisfaction and drive higher conversion rates.

Future-proofing: With headless ecommerce, businesses can future-proof their e-commerce infrastructure by adopting a modular and API-driven approach. This makes it easier to adopt new technologies, experiment with emerging trends, and seamlessly add new features or touchpoints as customer expectations evolve.

Benefits of headless commerce

Now that you know how headless ecommerce works, it’s time to learn why everyone is talking about it. Here are 5 key benefits for brands:

1. Minimized the total cost of ownership

Typically on-premises solutions are sold in the form of core-based licenses. This cost model often becomes a problem for scale. As you grow and more hardware is needed to handle that growth, you need to buy more licenses. Additionally, monolithic software vendors typically release new versions a few times a year, and typically these changes are fundamental to the core. With headless architecture, brands wanting to take advantage of these upgrades won’t need to constantly review and rewrite parts of their custom code.

2. Gain agility and speed

Monolithic architecture requires the development team to work with many different layers. So accomplishing a seemingly simple task, like building a new, custom promotion and displaying it in the front-end user experience, often takes backend developers a few days to implement.

Because the front-end is completely separated from the backend on a headless e-commerce platform, changes to the front-end digital experience can happen a lot more quickly and with a lot less risk to the backend code.

3. Integrate efficiently and effectively

Unlike traditional, monolithic software, headless e-commerce solutions harness the power and agility of APIs to allow you to create a tech stack unique to your business. Headless, API-first platforms enable what’s called a “best-of-breed” technology strategy. Through various integrations like CRM and other popular tools, you’re able to create your own “virtual suite” of best-in-class software.

The beauty of a best-of-breed approach is that you’re not relying on the capabilities of an all-in-one suite option. You can choose the best-of-the-best capabilities across the board, so that your software does what you need it to do for your business. And you can switch applications out as your business needs change or as the software changes.

4. Easily extend ordering to new channels, devices, customers, and more

With headless e-commerce, multiple front-ends can be connected to the same backend. You can run and manage multiple user experiences across multiple devices without managing a mess of different systems – think wearable devices, IoT, vending machines, and more.

5. Improve time-to-value

No matter the e-commerce platform, the back-end business logic, functionality, and capabilities comprise up to 85% of a software development process. With a headless ecommerce approach, you are starting from the point of completion, which allows you to focus on the user experience and deliver a final solution for far less cost, time, and effort.

Creating new, exciting customer experiences

When e-commerce first came about, the majority of traffic to e-commerce websites came from desktop computers. The e-commerce platforms that sprung up were full-stack, monolithic architectures where the front-end and back-end were “prepackaged” and tightly tied together.

The path to purchase has evolved far beyond simple desktop browser transactions to mobile apps, wearable technologies, IoT, etc. As buyers’ preferences continue to change, the ability to adapt and evolve the customer experience requires the ability to control, add to, adjust, and change the user experience (aka the “heads”) more important than ever.

With new technologies, like the Internet of Things and progressive web apps (PWA), continuing to emerge, exceptional e-commerce functionalities are becoming an increasingly popular setup for brands. Headless ecommerce platforms (just like headless CMS and more) provide the customization capabilities, flexibility, and scalability needed to meet evolving customer needs in today’s B2B landscape. And the best part is that they work in just about any use case. Are you ready to step up your ecommerce store game?

Find additional benefits for a headless commerce approach.

Looking for more information on headless e-commerce?

Here are 5 resources to explore:

  1. 5 Steps for migrating from monolithic e-commerce to headless e-commerce: We’ve outlined how a typical migration project works with Sitecore OrderCoud.
  2. What is MACH architecture? Understand the set of technology principles behind new best-of-breed technology platforms. MACH stands for microservices-based, API-first, cloud-native SaaS, and headless.
  3. 5 reasons to migrate from monolithic e-commerce to headless e-commerce: Headless e-commerce platforms have quickly become the go-to solution for businesses...but why?
  4. The spectrum of headless e-commerce: With so many different definitions out there and so many different vendors to choose from, it’s difficult to decipher what headless e-commerce really means. Understanding the spectrum of headless options is important.
  5. 5 reasons CTOs are choosing headless commerce systems: Today’s CTOs understand that the pace of e-commerce and order management adoption is driving the need for enterprises to think ahead. Here are 5 reasons they’re opting for this more modern architecture.