What is headless commerce? Everything you need to know in 2022
Updated: March 01, 2024
Published: July 22, 2021
12 mins read
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eCommerce platforms powered by legacy systems are finding it difficult to satisfy their customers. Why? Because most consumers want more control over when and how they make their purchases.
With an evolving digital landscape accelerated by the pandemic, it’s no wonder most people are getting more comfortable making purchases from their mobile phones, through kiosks, innovative Internet of Things (IoT) devices, and even through their gaming consoles.
Little wonder then that platforms like Amazon encouraging the use of IoT devices are reaping rich rewards.
Suppose a legacy system currently powers your eCommerce platform. How can you get your slice of the pie without having to completely reinvent yourself, build back-end solutions from the ground up, or invent your IoT device?
In short, you need to use a headless commerce structure.
But what is headless commerce exactly? This post covers everything you need to know about headless content management and headless eCommerce. Some of the questions we’ll answer include:
- What is headless commerce?
- Is headless commerce better than traditional commerce?
- What are the benefits of headless commerce?
- What are the disadvantages of headless architecture?
We’ll also consider some use cases of headless commerce. In the end, you’ll have enough knowledge to determine whether to adopt it or not.
What is Headless Commerce?
You’ve likely heard about headless eCommerce. It has slowly become a common buzzword in the eCommerce world, but unfortunately, it’s one of the least understood.
In its basic form, headless commerce is the separation of the front end and back end of an eCommerce application or platform.
Think about the eCommerce platform as a human body. There’s the head and the rest of the body.
In this instance, the head refers to the platform’s front end, while the body is the platform’s back end. With this in mind, headless eCommerce has the head detached from the body. In headless commerce architecture, a brand has the freedom to build whatever it wants, however it wants.
And apart from making the platform an open sandbox for the brand, it enriches your customers’ experience.
Since the front and back ends are separated, developers have the freedom to use APIs to deliver whatever they want to any device or screen. These can range from products to reviews to content like blog posts.
These APIs, therefore, make it possible for consumer touchpoints to exist on mobile phones, wearables, kiosks, and so on. And because of this flexibility, the front-end developers can present the content however they desire.
With headless commerce, there’s a separation between the presentation layer of your platform from the vital business aspects like inventory management, payment processing, and shipping.
With such a system, you can focus on improving consumer interaction on the presentation layer without worrying about its effect on back-end systems.
How Does Headless Commerce Work?
The architecture’s primary concern in this system is the background processes and data availability to front-end applications through commerce APIs.
Because the front and back end is separated, the vital processes that run in the back-end, like infrastructure, checkout, security, pricing, and so on, run in the background invisibly.
Does this separation mean that there is no communication between the front-end and back end? No. Instead of the traditional means of communication, the ‘head’ and ‘body’ interact through simple API calls.
For instance, let’s assume a user wants to make a purchase using a mobile browser. The platform creates an API call to the engine to process the transaction. This call collates data from the ORS, payment processing infrastructure, and other systems to complete the transaction almost immediately.
Headless Commerce vs. Traditional Commerce
If you still aren’t clear on what headless commerce is, then perhaps a comparison with traditional commerce will assist you in gaining a clearer picture.
We will compare them across four main categories: flexibility, speed, security, and customization.
Flexibility and Adaptability
Traditional commerce requires long hours of coding or adjustments if you decide to make changes to the system.
You can easily make changes with headless commerce —whether minor or significant — to your front-end since it's decoupled from the back-end.
Customization and Personalization
You can’t customize or personalize a traditional commerce architecture to an extent outside the predefined bounds of the platform you’re using — although you might sometimes find these bounds to be more than enough.
The story is different in headless commerce’s case. You can customize your store to meet your customers’ needs and improve their user experience using headless commerce.
The use of APIs in headless commerce enables it to pull content faster than traditional commerce.
Since the APIs only pull content or resources called, it doesn’t bring up unnecessary info that could otherwise slow your store down.
Traditional commerce, especially those hosted on a Content Management System (CMS) like WordPress, is often at risk of hack attempts. And when these attempts are successful, it could shut down your store and make you potentially lose thousands of dollars.
Since headless commerce doesn’t rely on a single system, it’s almost impossible for hackers to compromise your store.
Scalability and Innovation
Your customers’ needs are always going to change as time goes on. You’ll need to test new ideas and experiment with different touchpoints to improve your customer experience.
Making any changes or running experiments is easier when you use a headless commerce structure. You can quickly build an experience from scratch that meets your customer needs and expectations without a considerable time or monetary investment.
On the other hand, traditional commerce comes with many constraints and limitations that don’t accommodate innovation and scalability to different touchpoints.
Key Differences Between Headless and Traditional Commerce
Here are 3 main differences between them:
Headless commerce is easier to scale
Because of its design, the headless architecture allows the front-end developers to pull content from back-end systems and modify the delivery and layout as much as they like.
This ability allows your business to scale to reach new touchpoints quickly.
Headless commerce gives faster content delivery
Although headless eCommerce has more systems, the API can pull and push content without being dragged by code or other processes.
With a simple API call, the exact content required is pulled. Traditional commerce has to share resources, which is why it usually lasts in times of peak traffic. You don’t have this problem with headless architecture.
Headless commerce is more secure
Access controls lists are essential in any networked environment because they limit access from other users or systems. Headless commerce relies on independent systems that work together, which prevents a hacked account from causing problems to the entire infrastructure.
Advantages of Headless Commerce
As you might have guessed, headless commerce comes with many advantages. Here are some of the most significant benefits:
With agility comes competitiveness, and this is arguably the most significant benefit your business will enjoy using headless eCommerce.
With this system, you can quickly update the front end part of the platform to keep up with customer’s needs (which are forever changing). And you can make these adjustments without any effect on the back-end processes and systems.
Whereas traditional systems update their front-end experience weekly, a headless system can deploy changes to the front end every 11.7 seconds.
The accrued benefits to your brand and platform are immeasurable. For instance, you’d be able to go to market faster, build a more responsive business, and have an eCommerce strategy that’ll not be taken by surprise.
Flexibility of Customizations
As we have seen, the headless architecture gives you more control over the way your customers experience your platform. Since a template or theme doesn’t constrain the web store, your brand can completely control the front-end.
Furthermore, you can make changes to the front end without putting pressure on the back end. This also allows your consumers to have a consistent experience throughout their interactions with your brand.
Perhaps the most significant advantage of headless eCommerce, particularly for an eCommerce brand, is that it allows content to appear wherever you want — allowing you to deliver your content to whatever channel you want.
With headless commerce, you can sell your products through virtually all channels — whether on mobile, refrigerator screens, web apps, and so on.
What’s more, it means you can sell products to future channels that might emerge without having to turn your entire infrastructure on its head.
Better Customer Experience
Customer needs are constantly changing; however, some things remain the same. For example, customers desire a consistent experience across all touchpoints. Headless eCommerce makes this consistency possible.
In addition, you can cater to the customer’s needs even before they realize that it’s a need. With the headless system, you have consumer data at your fingertips and can deploy this automatically to improve personalization experiences for your customers regardless of the channel they use.
By removing data silos between touchpoints, customer data can be more easily obtained and worked on. This boosts the ability of brands and retailers to use predictive analytics.
Higher Conversion Rates and Lower Acquisition Costs
If you don’t want paid advertising to take a large chunk of your budget, then you might be better off with a headless architecture system.
This system allows brands to use content or experience-led strategy to boost customer acquisition, which is cheaper than paid advertising.
Furthermore, the adaptable and smooth UX due to headless can boost your conversion rates. Customers today can find themselves shopping on their favorite social media platforms, their wearables, cars, refrigerators, and more.
Every channel has different structures, and a headless system makes it easier for brands and businesses to tweak their approach to each channel.
Better Employee/Developer Adoption
Some brands hesitate to use new technologies because they’re afraid that their employees might have difficulty adopting them.
Headless architecture is excellent because of its overall simplicity. With this system, everyone can easily access and update the front end without needing advanced skills.
Many legacy systems impose a specific programming language, but that’s not the case with headless. This system allows developers to build using whatever programming language or framework they’re comfortable with.
The apparent advantage of this is that it reduces the learning curve needed to use the solution. But another advantage is that your developers will be more confident in their skills and can build exactly what you want.
Disadvantages of Headless Commerce
While the headless approach is excellent, it comes with downsides. Let’s consider some of them.
This system is complex and needs custom code to be written. Therefore, the standard features might need to be revised and tweaked to work well with the headless system. Unlike legacy systems, headless is not good to go out of the box. It requires frequent technical maintenance.
Costs over time
For this system, your developers need to create templates and interfaces from the ground up. Also, they will need to troubleshoot their front-end creation, which increases costs over time. And your marketing team would depend on the IT team to launch content and landing pages, all of which add to your overall costs.
No Continuous Updates
Unlike other systems, the headless option doesn’t enjoy continuous updates. You cannot use an API to update the system.
Without upgrades, you might be more susceptible to security breaches as well.
The IT team is charged with launching content and landing pages across channels, which will isolate the marketing team.
They cannot check the content to see what it’ll look like on the customer's end, and they have to rely on other departments before they can do their work.
Examples of Headless Commerce Platforms
Although this system is just growing, several eCommerce platforms provide APIs that can facilitate a headless approach. Some of these platforms include:
- Magneto 2
Magento 2 comes with a quality API that improves the online store experience. However, for it to function effectively in handling content at scale, a CMS is required.
- Shopify Plus
All users of Shopify Plus have access to APIs. The API enables transparency as third-party systems can gain access to essential information about each product. A CMS is needed to manage additional content at scale efficiently.
Apart from these, some brands currently use headless architecture.
A leading example is Amazon. This giant has moved from a legacy architecture supporting its small online library to becoming the biggest retail giant with its cloud-based microservices platform (AWS).
Another example is Spotify. The brand has scaled to have more than 300 million users in several countries across the globe by moving to a microservices platform.
Should You Use Headless Commerce?
As we have seen in this article, a headless commerce system offers you several advantages. However, it also comes with its fair share of issues.
If you want a system where all you need for an eCommerce store is in one place or need to run data and store on internal servers, then a legacy platform might be a good option for you.
Headless commerce offers you flexibility and choice regarding the front end you use. It hastens time to market and has all the tools needed for a great shopping experience for your online customers.
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