The Ultimate Guide to Headless Commerce: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go Headless

by Martha Kendall Custard October 12th, 2021

In the eCommerce realm, 2020 will forever be remembered as the year of headless commerce. After dreams of modern microservices architecture for almost a decade, headless commerce finally took online retailers by storm in 2020.

Person holding black Android phone

61% of eCommerce executives said they would leverage headless commerce in 2020, and the commerce strategy has since increased in popularity. 

62% of eCommerce executives agree that headless commerce can significantly improve engagement and conversions. 

In this post, we’re talking about headless commerce-- what it is, why it’s gaining traction, and why you should consider going headless. Let’s get into it.

What Is Headless Commerce?

Headless commerce is an eCommerce solution that allows you to store, manage, and deliver content without the front-end delivery layer. This eCommerce method separates the front-end presentation layer from the website’s back-end eCommerce functionality. Its purpose is to open up opportunities for creative building. Splitting the front and back ends allows brands to build a customer experience that meets their specific needs. 

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With headless commerce, you don’t have to utilize the same technology on the front-end and the back-end of your website. You can choose a front-end technology that offers highly customizable, quality content experiences, and an eCommerce solution on the back-end that manages your commerce functionality.

Back-end developers then use APIs to deliver content to devices while front-end developers get creative with the presentation of said content. Headless commerce opens the door for site elements like forms, blogs, banners, products, and more to be managed with complete control. 

Headless commerce uses APIs to pass requests between the presentation and application layers of a website. 

What's the difference between content-led and commerce-led? 

Ecommerce is typically structured in one of three ways: monolithic, commerce-led, or experience-led. 

Monolithic is the OG method, created back when hardware and software were linked. 

The commerce-led strategy uses a commerce platform front end for user experience and checkout but uses APIs for data orchestration. SaaS and open-source technologies often use this model. 

This approach was developed by businesses that couldn’t get enough commerce-focused functionality from monolithic options. Commerce-led strategies place eCommerce at the heart of the business model. With that said, the increased commerce functionality limits the potential for content and SEO

The content-led approach (also called the experience-led approach) addresses this issue. Headless commerce is a content/experience-led strategy. It places content at the center of the business model, utilizing SEO for organic traffic. With this approach, businesses use content management systems to build their sites, rather than relying on the limited design capabilities of eCommerce platforms.

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The experience-led strategy separates the eCommerce platform from the presentation layer, allowing businesses to utilize content management systems, digital experience platforms, progressive web apps, and customer front-end solutions for unique customer experiences that make their brand stand out. In this model, the eCommerce platform provides PCI compliance and inventory management and can be connected to additional systems via APIs.

What's the difference between headless commerce and traditional commerce? 

The main difference between headless commerce and traditional commerce is the way the software running your store is designed. The best option for your business depends on your goals. If you want to capitalize on content and take advantage of organic search results, headless commerce is the way to go. You can find our run-down of the two options down below:

Traditional commerce

Traditional commerce often uses the monolithic model-- this is especially true for enterprise-level businesses. It provides IT departments full platform control. Roadblocks of this method include slow go-to-market times, high development costs, and stunted innovation. Traditional commerce platforms have a predefined front-end that is tied to the back-end, which limits the customization of features. These platforms are typically designed to deliver content as websites and native mobile apps. 

The main advantage of traditional commerce is that everything is packaged together, making it easy to set up and run. However, this advantage can become the biggest drawback, as the backend database stores content, code for layout, and all plugins used by the frontend. This limits customization. 

Traditional commerce systems are also limited to the framework on which they’re built. Because admins and content creators access the system through one console, the security of your data is at risk. The last thing you want is for an unauthorized user to access content, customer records, payment information, etc. 

Headless commerce

Headless commerce uses either a content-led or commerce-led strategy, letting brands deliver API-driven experiences through front-end solutions, with a commerce solution managing everything on the back-end. With headless commerce, brands can deliver content, products, and payment gateways to more modern destinations like smartwatches, kiosks, etc. Traditional commerce often forces brands to compromise on content to achieve agile eCommerce. Headless commerce eliminates this issue, giving brands the best of both worlds-- beautiful, easily customizable content designs backed by flexible, functional commerce solutions.

Headless commerce eliminates the need for brands to create a front-end presentation from scratch. The use of API calls means there are no design constraints. 

In a headless system, admins can lock each system by limiting access as well as the amount of data available to one API. This system is also more conducive to A/B testing, as rapid adjustments can be made to underperforming designs. 

What Are the Benefits of Headless Commerce?

Headless commerce has the potential to benefit you, your customers, and your employees. Front-end updates can be made faster and easier. This helps your employees enhance the customer experience more often, which pleases customers and increases revenue. It’s a win-win-win for everyone involved. Here are some of the main benefits to consider: 

Control over site architecture

With the front-end and back-end decoupled, the content management and content delivery application environments are separated, resulting in more site control overall. This is perfect for brands that are happy with their current front-end solution but need more functionality on the backend, or vice versa. Headless commerce allows brands to keep the technology that works for them and fill the gaps in functionality with additional solutions.

Easier on your employees

Business runs smoother when your whole team knows how to access and update the front end of your site. For this reason, you might want to keep things simple by avoiding innovative technologies that come with a steep learning curve. Separating the front end from the back end of your site lets you have the best of both worlds. You can use innovative technologies while keeping the front end easy to access and update for your whole team, regardless of their skill set. 

The right tools for creativity

The right tools can make or break your customer experience. Customers want personalization. They want a customer experience that works for their needs and fits your product or service to the tee. To achieve this level of personalization, you need tools that help you create a custom shopping experience specific to your brand. You also need application programming interfaces that help you coordinate your customer experience consistently across multiple channels. 

Brands using headless commerce can test new technology. Developers can get creative, free from the restrictions of a traditional CMS. The front-end of most eCommerce sites is the theme or template that dictates what customers see. Headless commerce gives developers flexibility by allowing them to connect a CMS, DXP, or IoT device designed to create content-led customer experiences. 

Saving time

Front-end updates are quick and easy. Back-end updates take more skill and special attention, which in turn takes more time. Headless commerce separates the two, saving developers time on user interface adjustments. You can also implement headless templates to make the process even faster. This helps businesses react quickly to market trends by adjusting their front-end experiences with ease. 

Because headless commerce platforms store content centrally, APIs can be used to deliver content anywhere. This method is faster than traditional eCommerce platforms allow, which further contributes to the customer experience. 

The speed to market benefits can also apply to international and omnichannel google tag managers. Once the headless system is in place, it can be easily replicated and optimized for international SEO

Better customer experience

When changes are made through the traditional commerce architecture, it can be hours before the change appears for users. Headless commerce eliminates this issue, as front-end updates occur instantly. 

The customization abilities that headless commerce brings about give developers control over every aspect of the customer experience. Brands can get creative with every little element of their user interface, creating a unique design their customers will remember. 

Headless commerce also creates a seamless customer experience across all devices and viewing formats, eliminating the need to account for responsive design

Lower customer acquisition costs

When brands use headless commerce to implement a content-led strategy, they can attract organic traffic to supplement paid advertising costs, ultimately reducing the cost of customer acquisition. 

Easier to go omnichannel

A headless content management system allows brands to distribute content to all existing channels-- and even to those that might arise in the future. This allows brands to sell all throughout the IoT. 

Who uses headless commerce?

Headless commerce is taking over the online retail space. It’s especially popular among experience-focused brands that sell lifestyle products, direct-to-consumer brands, and brands that rely on influencer and native advertising. Companies who sell to a variety of channels, want to create amazing user experiences, or want to add commerce capabilities to an existing CMS take advantage of this strategy. 

person using macbook pro on white table

Headless commerce use cases

Here are some of the most common headless commerce use cases:

  1. Personalize messaging to different geolocations. Headless commerce allows for region-specific channels that deliver personalization to all your target audiences, boosting revenue and conversions in the process. 
  2. Overcome language barriers. With headless commerce, content creators can accurately translate content before it is distributed. 
  3. PCI compliance mitigation and checkout security and fraud protection. The risk is passed to the SaaS provider, taking the load off IT teams. 
  4. Open architecture and extensibility. Brands can utilize pre-built integration with ERPs, CRMs, or go custom with APIs and SDKs.

Check out these examples of websites that are killing the headless commerce game. 

Why use headless commerce

There are many benefits to headless commerce, but whether or not you should make the switch ultimately depends on your eCommerce goals. If the outcomes below align with your goals, headless commerce is the way to go.

Capture mobile spending

Mobile spending is at an all-time high. It’s expected to hit $270 billion by 2025. Online retailers can capture that mobile spending by using headless commerce. They can keep the back end as-is while creating customized, personalized mobile buying experiences and social commerce features that maximize conversions. Headless commerce allows you to sell where your customers are looking to purchase, without impacting the backend of your site. 

Improve your site’s core web vitals

In June 2020, Google updated its algorithm to put more emphasis on page speed. Your site’s core web vital metrics are a big part of what Google’s algorithm assesses when ranking your page. As these core web vital metrics all relate to page loading speeds, ensuring your site loads faster has become a big part of SEO. 

Because headless commerce separates the front and back end, site videos and search engines can access the site with only the front end loaded. This increases page speed and improves a site’s overall core web vital metrics. 

How Will Headless Commerce Shape Online Shopping?

Headless commerce is the future of online commerce. To stay competitive, brands have to market and sell their products across all digital channels, devices, and digital touchpoints-- and they have to do this with a seamless, personalized user experience. 

As smart devices become increasingly common household appliances, brands who wish to stay relevant have to make their products available to be purchased through new touchpoints like watches, appliances, and smart speakers. 

person wearing silver aluminium case Apple Watch with white Sports Band

The API economy is also taking off, allowing brands to market and sell their products through these new emerging channels. 

The fast-moving state of eCommerce necessitates the ability to rapidly customize and distribute content to new channels as they arise. Today’s customers expect a seamless, personalized, omnichannel buying experience. With headless commerce, brands can deliver just that. 

How To Get Started With Headless Commerce

The first step to getting started with a headless solution is determining what commerce platform best meets your needs. We recommend adding APIs for small businesses, and services-oriented architectures for mid-level to enterprise companies. Next, choose a headless CMS solution and connect it to your backend systems using APIs. 

Here’s a detailed look at the 3 steps you’ll need to take to get started with headless commerce:

Step 1: Choosing a commerce platform

You can use a monolithic or microservices-based solution for your platform, so long as APIs expose the backend. Small businesses using solutions like Shopify will have an easy time keeping their current commerce solution, as Shopify is loaded with APIs that can help you go headless without abandoning your current platform. 

Mid-level and enterprise companies might consider migrating to a service-oriented backend, as this offers more flexibility and scalability. SaaS options are best for this, as in-house solutions will leave you dependent on the original developers. 

Step 2: Choosing a headless CMS

Now it’s time to choose a system to manage your content. If you’re delivering content to multiple presentation channels, you need a headless CMS. This way, you can create content optimized for multiple channels on one platform, then distribute the content to different touchpoints using APIs.

The first type of headless CMS to consider is open-source. Open-source headless CMS solutions are the ultimate tools for customization, as they provide access to the software’s codebase. The one drawback is that they require more technical knowledge. 

The second option is to get a headless CMS from a SaaS provider. These solutions are easy to manage and quick to get started. Basically, they have all the benefits of open-source without the need for complex technical knowledge. 

Step 3: Sync APIs with headless CMS

This final step occurs once your CMS is in place. Syncing your APIs to your CMS helps data flow smoothly. Connecting a head to the CMS allows you to preview your content design. For companies transitioning from monolith to microservices, this is the step where you should gradually break your platform into individual components, slowly replacing APIs from the monolith. 

What are some of the leading headless commerce apps & platforms? 

When choosing the best headless commerce apps and platforms, consider the following criteria: 

  • The user interface - is it clean, appealing, and easy to navigate?
  • Usability - is the platform easy to use, with the support and training necessary to get you started on the right foot?
  • Integrations - does it integrate with your desired tech stack?
  • Value - are you getting your money’s worth in terms of features and functionality?

Here are some of the leading headless commerce apps and platforms, starting with our very own:

Unstack

With Unstack, you can create lightning-fast landing pages that give your customers the shopping experience that will convert browsers into buyers. Your team can see their ideas live on the web in just a few clicks using our pre-built, optimized components. Our platform even makes A/B testing nice and easy, so you can figure out what’s working and boost revenue with no additional apps needed. On top of that, your page speeds will be music to the Google algorithm’s ears. Learn more here

Magento Commerce

Magento Commerce has a headless architecture that allows you to analyze and optimize new customer experiences across all channels and devices. Customers mention their unique features and integrations that help make the shopping experience more engaging for customers. With Magento, you can utilize a traditional coupled storefront, a decoupled storefront in PWA Studio, Adobe Experience Manager, and robust APIs to reach all the necessary touchpoints. 

Shopify 

Brands can build custom storefronts with Shopify Plus. Use the GraphQL Storefront API to design fast, engaging storefronts for all digital touchpoints. Keep using the tools you know and love by plugging in your ERP, PIM, CRM, and CMS. You can also work with Shopify Plus Partners to bring your headless customer experience visions to life. 

BigCommerce 

BigCommerce is another platform that supports your headless commerce needs. Users can create flexible shopping experiences while utilizing the powerful commerce functionality on the back-end. BigCommerce will power your commerce on the back-end, allowing you to deliver API-driven experiences through a custom front-end, CMS, DXP, etc. You can even run multiple stores across different front-end solutions using the same BigCommerce account. 

Contentful

With Contentful’s Commerce Layer, you can add enterprise-level e-commerce to any website using the headless CMS, status site generator, and all your favorite integrations. With Commerce Layer, you can build flexible eCommerce websites from scratch, in record time. You can even add a shopping cart to your existing content-focused site, using the commerce API to make any page shoppable. 

Wrapping up on headless commerce

Now, for a recap: 

Headless commerce is an eCommerce strategy that splits the head (the front-end) from the commerce-focused back-end of a website. 

This strategy allows you to choose whatever CMS you want on the front-end while keeping your robust commerce functionality on the backend. Brands that go headless are able to enhance their overall customer experiences by making quick, easy, and timely updates. 

The added level of personalization increases conversions and boosts customer loyalty. Headless commerce also allows you to reach shoppers on a variety of digital touchpoints, so you’re not missing out on any potential conversions. With headless commerce, you can sell on mobile devices, smartwatches, and even smart refrigerators without worrying about creating a whole new responsive design. 

If your brand values keeping up with the latest trends in user experience, headless allows you to update accordingly and eliminates the lag that typically results from getting developers to do heavy technical work. 

Interested in going headless? Pair Unstack with your favorite commerce backend to create a unique customer experience with ease. Your customers will thank you.

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