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What is Headless Commerce? The Ultimate Guide

Global eCommerce sales have continued to rise dramatically, with sales estimated at 4.9 billion USD in 2021 and rising to 6.4 billion by 2024, representing 18% of total global retail sales. The global pandemic accelerated the digital transformation toward eCommerce – and the move toward more progressive digital experiences.

In the past few years, and with the rapid changes of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers have come to expect more for their shopping experiences both in-person and online. Consumers today expect highly personalized experience supported by superior customer service – personal, curated, fast, seamless, and engaging. In order to deliver on these expectations, brands are having to rethink how they approach eCommerce. Optimizing the eCommerce customer journey is on top of the list for any business – it defines and determines their position in the market very significantly.

Customers have become accustomed to the highly curated experience provided by rich online shopping experiences – Guy Yehiav, Forbes

This guide will introduce the concept of headless commerce, a decoupled eCommerce architecture that introduces flexibility to deliver a faster, more dynamic and personalized experience to customers. The guide will define headless commerce, how it works, the benefits of a headless commerce approach, as well as best practices to get started on it.

Headless Commerce


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What is Headless Commerce?

What does headless commerce mean, truly? Headless commerce is the separation of the front-end layer (presentation, customer-facing) from the back-end layer (functionality). This separation of what the user experiences – known as the “head” – from the back-end layer is what drives the term “headless commerce.”

Headless commerce works by passing information between the front-end and back-end layers through application programming interface (API) calls. For this reason, headless eCommerce can also be called API-based commerce. With headless commerce architecture, updates can be made to the back-end without impacting the front-end – and vice versa.

The headless commerce architecture allows stakeholders/developers to build and connect different ‘heads’ (touchpoints) to the back-end via API calls, giving a choice to deliver a unique experience to your potential customers based on various factors including channel, device, site behavior, and past user data. In this way, headless commerce allows brands to deliver a seamless and customer-driven digital experience.

73% of businesses claim that improving customer experience (CX) is a strategic priority. However, according to Forrester, only 1% of companies deliver excellent CX.

To illustrate the three building layers of headless commerce, consider the following:

3 building layers of headless commerce are

Headless Commerce vs Traditional Commerce

Most organizations rely on monolithic eCommerce architecture: a single solution where the front-end and back-end are connected. This end-to-end system combines a uniform frontend user experience (UX) with the functional backend needed to sell the product.

While this adequately supports many brands, traditional eCommerce architecture can become bloated, impacting user experience and becoming difficult to update. Every time a new technology is introduced, the front-end experience has to be rewired. Imagine taking a year to build a new front-end for your eCommerce platform and realizing that a newer technology has disrupted the market. Wouldn’t it be a waste of effort and resources? To solve this problem, headless commerce is making its way into the market — an architecture that disconnects the back-end from the front-end.

To illustrate the differences between traditional and headless commerce, consider the following comparison (note, the dotted lines represent API calls):

differences between traditional and headless commerce

With traditional commerce, all of the code is in one place, restricted to one platform. Any customizations or new technologies are added on top of this platform, hacked together to ‘make it work.’ In headless eCommerce, the concept of microservices is introduced, allowing developers to piece together best-of-breed software for different elements of the commerce solution. This ultimately allows for greater control, better performance, and an IT system that is easier to maintain. Let’s break down some additional differences between traditional and headless commerce:

 
Traditional Commerce
Headless Commerce
Architecture Design Back-end and front-end are connected. Design constrained, optimized for one purpose in one channel with limitations based on built-in themes and templates. Front-end and back-end are disconnected. No design constraints for different devices or screen types.
Development and Deployment Constrained to one framework. Source code is long and complicated. Follows the microservices architecture
Customizations Take longer to customize and adds load on the developers Easy to customize and introduce new technologies through API calls
Performance Loading time increase as compiling the long and complicated codes takes time Loading times increase as API calls are easy to call and execute and individual components can be scaled as needed

Headless architecture offers the flexibility to experiment with new technologies, to create a back-end made up of disparate microservices that support different functions and processes.

We’re living in a world where experience is more important to many consumers than price. Now, more than ever before, these digital experiences are a key differentiator for ecommerce brands looking to deliver exactly what today’s consumers want across an ecosystem of touchpoints. – James Gagliardi, Digital River

What are the Benefits of Headless Commerce?

Why headless commerce? A headless eCommerce approach offers a competitive advantage, helping brands speed up their retail digital transformation and create digital experiences that meet the demands of today’s B2B and B2C consumers. Some of the most prominent headless commerce benefits include:

1. Offers High-Level Personalization

Today’s eCommerce experiences follow the personalization trend. Customers prefer to buy from digital commerce platforms that pay heed to individual preferences.

5 benefits of personalization include

Personalization can take the form of sharing highly reviewed products, location-based campaigns, or recommendations based on previous sales. Combined with testing and iteration, this forms the basis of Agile marketing: the application of Agile philosophy to marketing.

To build a front-end that takes care of customer needs and integrates the latest technologies while ensuring speed of implementation — consider headless commerce platforms as a go-to option.

2. Offers Omnichannel Experiences

One of the key capabilities of headless eCommerce is the ability to deliver a personalized experience to users regardless of which channel they choose to use. However, one step further is the concept of omnichannel delivery to deliver a seamless customer experience across each channel, whether retail, online, mobile, or even within a social channel. Omnichannel retailing shares one inventory and customer support experience, making it seamless for customers to jump between channels in their shopping purchase and to streamline how and where purchases or interactions take place.

A headless commerce solution offers the opportunity to use the best and latest front-end technologies and push them across devices and platforms — whether it is a progressive web app, a website, an IoT device, or a mobile web.

Omnichannel retailing delivers choice and seamless experience to consumers. Headless commerce offers the framework to deliver omnichannel retailing. Tweet This

Headless eCommerce can assess the incoming device and screen time, location, or link source to prevent the most relevant design and the most relevant data to each customer. This ease of pushing the desirable front-end wherever and whenever, in turn, helps offer an omnichannel experience.

Adobe recently found that companies with the most robust omnichannel customer engagement strategies enjoy a 10% Y-O-Y growth, a 10% increase in average order value, and a 25% increase in close rates.

3. Saves Development Time

Since the front-end is disconnected and does not require writing long and complicated code, the development time of a headless eCommerce platform decreases. This time saving is exponential over time, as it is possible for changes to be quickly introduced, making it possible to stay relevant in the eCommerce sector.

The use of APIs is a boon to development time, making it faster to add on new microservices or to add or update channels as new technologies or trends emerge. Coding time is often significantly less and less time is spent managing databases.

The headless commerce integration also lowers the cost of development — another add-on benefit that gives a competitive advantage.

4. Faster Time-to-Market

With speed-to-development comes speed-to-market. The newer front-end experiences can be introduced and/or tested quickly and without much effort from the developer’s end. Moreover, with headless eCommerce, the changes to the front-end are visible instantly without any delay.

When new technologies emerge, microservices can be rolled out off-the-shelf or quickly customized to ensure the eCommerce offering remains competitive.

5. Better Customer Experience

Customer expectations change rapidly; to attract, convert and retain customers (and gain their referrals too!) it is imperative to meet these changing customer needs. Headless commerce allows brands to test and optimize the customer experience in real-time. Changes made to the design layer are connected to the commerce layer by API, allowing for real-time testing without major development.

Developers can A/B test various technology integrations and settle with technologies that bring more conversions.

6. Higher Conversion Rate and Lower Cost of Acquisition

Conversion refers to the number of visitors to become customers; customer acquisition cost (CAC) refers to the total cost to acquire a new customer (cost of sales and marketing divided by number of new customers acquired). Customer acquisition is getting harder and more expensive than ever before, up 50% over the past 5 years with many changes to search and de-prioritizing of off-platform social links making it hard for retailers to land customers.

Headless commerce allows retailers to reach out to consumers where they are to complete the sales directly on those platforms in as few steps as possible. By simplifying the retail experience through microservices, retailers are able to deliver a seamless, high performance, and customized experience that increases conversion rates and lowers the CAC.

What are the Drawbacks of Headless Commerce?

Despite all the benefits of headless commerce, there are some important considerations when it comes to making the switch:

1. Cost of Operations is High

With the greater number of decisions required to be made on microservices, the up-front cost to set up, connect, and customize a headless commerce system can be higher. To avoid this, it’s best to go with an experienced development team and/or to follow specific combinations of microservices as a jumping off point.

Headless commerce systems also require more ongoing costs to maintain and roll out updates to each microservices, a process which needs to be carefully managed to ensure optimal system security.

2. Marketers Feel Left Out

Headless architecture can be problematic for marketers as the front-end can be (but is not always) less “user-friendly,” without the benefit of WYSIWYG editors or previews for content such as landing pages, blog posts, product pages, or personalization.

How Headless Commerce Works

In the case of headless eCommerce, retailers will have the flexibility to store all their website information in the back-end instead of operating the entire website as one chunk of technology.

A website owner can use APIs to push the desired content, products, and payment processing to the platforms where it gets delivered to customers: the platform could be any – mobile app or a website, and this, in turn, helps offer an omnichannel experience.

What is a Headless Commerce Architecture?

Headless commerce architecture is, as noted earlier, broken up into 3 layers. These layers compromise many different touchpoints and many different microservices all connected via API:

components of headless commerce are

  • Front-End / User Experience (UX) aka “The Head”
    The frontend user experience layers displays the products and features that the customer sees when navigating the site on their preferred device. The front-end can be customized for each channel (digital touchpoint).
  • API Layer
    The interface passes information between the front and back-ends. Developers build and implement APIs without disturbing the back-end.
  • Back-End / Technology Infrastructure / Commerce Features
    The back-end is the commerce platform and all the supporting features that help process the sale. These could be payment processing, promotions, user authentication, product database, fraud management, PCI compliance, SSL, and fulfillment systems.

Top Headless Commerce Platforms

Headless commerce tools, like any other tools on the market, come in many shapes and sizes. Some headless commerce platforms are more “all-in-one”, bundling microservices together for a more “traditional” feel, while others allow you to truly customize every aspect of architecture for an innovative, customized, high performance experience.

Some of the top headless commerce platforms include:

  • Magento 2
    A component-based eCommerce structure of modules allowing developers to enable or disable the components they want. Limited content options.
  • Drupal
    A leader in content in the enterprise market, supporting 100+ language, but with limited eCommerce options.
  • Shopify
    Simple editor and easy to customize per channel, great for supporting eCommerce stores with 100 or fewer products. Shopify Plus offers a more enterprise level experience. Shopify is known for fashion retailing.
  • BigCommerce
    Similar to Shopify, BigCommerce offers a streamlined front-end for simple editing and testing at a low total cost of ownership (great for small brands).
  • Salesforce Commerce Cloud
    An eCommerce platform that supports existing front-end frameworks as well as custom-built storefronts (including progressive web apps).
  • WooCommerce
    Open-source eCommerce platform supporting WordPress and a cart solution. Geared to hobbyists and small businesses.

In addition to these mainstream headless commerce platforms, you can use JavaScript frameworks like Angular and React to construct your own front-end from scratch.

Headless Commerce Examples

Burrow (BigCommerce Headless)

burrow - headless commerce example

Burrow wanted to revolutionize the process of selecting a sofa with an interactive sofa configurator. Burrow chose BigCommerce to support their multi-product, multi-channel, multi-vendor business, with the flexibility to create bundles, tiers, and discounts and support inventory management and customer service to be of the highest level.

J.Crew (Salesforce + Shogun)

j crew - headless commerce example

J. Crew leveraged the combination of Salesforce Commerce Cloud (backend) with Shogun (headless storefront) to create a new, more user-friendly experience for customers. The combination of services introduced greater agility and innovation into the retail offering.

West Elm (Shogun Frontend)

west elm - headless commerce example

West Elm supports its modern furniture and home decor retailing with Shogun, leveraging the headless commerce platform to offer personalized customer experiences. The brand realized that customers wanted a fluid experience of research (online or mobile), in-person testing, then online purchase. To support, West Elm used Shogun to develop a progressive web app, increasing time on site by 15% and revenue by 9%.

Bosch (Bloomreach Headless)

bosch - headless commerce example

Bosch Power Tools were struggling with the digital experience, faced with increased competition from Amazon and other online retailers. To regain a slice of the market, Bosch focused on the “flexibility and velocity” of headless commerce, powered by Bloomreach, to deliver a more competitive customer experience.

Grass Roots Farmers Cooperative (Shopify Plus)

grass roots - headless commerce example

As a small collective of family farmers, Grass Roots Farmers Cooperative wanted to deliver that same “one on one” personal experience to digital customers that one can expect at a local farm stand. Shopify Plus allowed the cooperative to create a progressive web app that created a seamless ordering experience across a variety of channels with experts available via chat on every screen.

The Best Headless Commerce Approach: Drupal + Magneto Integration

What do companies like Mint.com, Wilson, and Acquia have in common? All of these web stores are powered by the Magento and Drupal headless commerce integrated approach.

The Drupal and Magento CMS integration is a hybrid solution that delivers a powerful and engaging website. The integrated setup can move massive sales volume, personalizing the content based on demographics (gender, geo-location, age, etc.), customers journey, and handling substantial publishing flows. The top benefits to using Drupal and Magneto are:

  • Flexibility
    The Magneto modules provide the freedom to the developers to enable or disable the components that they want, thereby boosting the flexibility and performance of the Magento 2-powered website as the host of the eCommerce elements. Drupal, on the other hand, is great for enabling sales across the globe (100+ languages), making it ideal for the product marketing information.
  • Performance and Scalability
    More than 40k extensions are offered as unique add-ons to Drupal and Magento digital commerce modules, with many more constant updates added daily to the Magento and Drupal headless commerce integration.
  • Security
    Drupal follows a security-first approach with its dedicated security team that quickly reacts to vulnerabilities found in Drupal core. The team also provides assistance for contributed module maintainers to help resolve security issues and lots of documented support for security best practices.

Drupal + Magento is a clean, robust, and logical way to go for any organization with a large sales volume looking to implement innovative marketing content.

Benefits of Magento and Drupal Integration

The major benefits of Drupal and Magento integration include:

1. Side-by-Side Integration

In this approach, Magento handles the eCommerce store, and Drupal takes care of the content; both platforms exist on the public internet. Both Drupal 9 and Magento serve pages of the digital experience to the end-user in the side-by-side approach.

the network infrastructure for side-by-side approach for

Side-by-Side Integration Pros

  • Maximizes the values of both platforms since both will work on their strengths
  • Magento extensions are unlikely to be complicated by integration

Side-by-Side Integration Cons

  • Since two platforms are in total action in this case, thus, twice the attack surface than headless integration
  • Magento requires API-level tuning, and Drupal needs full-stack performance tuning
  • Two themes are required to be built and maintained

2. Headless Commerce Integration

In this approach, Drupal acts as a front-end of the website and Magento as the cart back-end. Visitors will always experience Drupal. In a headless integrated approach, the end-user interacts with Drupal, even in the shopping cart, which means Drupal 8 serves every page on your site.

In the Magento headless commerce integrated approach, the end-user interacts with Drupal, even in the shopping cart, which means Drupal 9 serves every page on your site.

the network infrastructure for headless approach

Headless CMS Integration Pros

  • Highly secure
  • Robust content marketing platform for editors
  • Fast time to market for content-first sites
  • Drupal and Magento themes cannot be shared

Headless CMS Integration Cons

  • Despite Magento’s robust and modern API architecture, headless is not the most common use case
  • Forward-facing Magento extensions will assume Magento is controlling the glass (the platform building the web pages that the end-user interacts with) and may require additional refinements to work

FAQ

What is a headless approach?

An approach that decouples the experience layer of the website from the eCommerce backend to introduce greater agility and customization.

What does headless commerce mean?

As above, the headless commerce approach that decouples the experience layer of the website (what the user sees) from the eCommerce backend to introduce greater agility and customization.

Is Shopify a headless CMS?

Shopify is a headless eCommerce platform when enabled. By default, Shopify handles both the front and backend.

Is headless CMS the same as headless commerce?

A CMS is a content management system. A headless CMS decouples the front and back-end of the content repository, with an API connecting the two, allowing custom content and experiences to be served. This essentially creates a 2-part CMS (front and back), a supporting piece of headless commerce architecture (just one element needed to support eCommerce).

What is a headless commerce API?

A headless commerce API is the layer that communicates between the front (presentation, multiple channel options) and back-end layers (technology powering the eCommerce) in headless eCommerce.

How does Headless eCommerce Support? Omnichannel Retail

Headless eCommerce removes the barriers associated with managing multiple channels, making it possible to create omnichannel shopping experiences that help convert site visitors into customers and support customer loyalty.

Conclusion

Today, businesses are looking for ways to build content-rich shopping journeys, and thus they are looking for tools to deliver a seamless, personalized, or omnichannel customer experience. Embracing headless commerce architecture is the answer.

Most organizations prefer best-of-breed solutions. At Net Solutions, our highly experienced, certified developers are skilled at optimizing headless CMS and commerce platforms such as Magento and WooCommerce or programming custom headless commerce experiences unique to your brand. Let us help you transform your brand with an eCommerce solution designed for you.

Request Free Consultation

Create Personalized Shopping Experiences with Headless Commerce


Lalit Singla

About the Author

Designation: Technical Architect
Forte: Programming / Logical Ability to solve any technical or programming issue
Likes: Indian Classical Music
Dislikes: Modern Rap songs
Claim to Fame: Attended the same school as a Punjabi singer
Biggest Tech Blunder: Built an entire project on the wrong stack and ended up redoing the entire thing
Wannabe: Social Servant

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