Headless commerce is an ecommerce trend that you can’t ignore.

More and more large ecommerce retailers are utilizing “decoupled” backend systems, which are separate from any storefront, to streamline a truly omnichannel strategy.

Amazon, which sells through a variety of channels, including on its browser site, app, virtual assistants (like Dash and Echo), smartwatches, and more, is the most compelling example of how effectively this strategy can work.

By opting for headless commerce, you can make lightning-fast changes to your storefronts without affecting any backend processes. Amazon updates its store, for example, every 11.7 seconds.

Headless commerce also allows you to optimize your storefronts quickly, sell through numerous channels, and cut down on the time and resources it requires to update product information.

In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about headless ecommerce and how it impacts your store.

What will you find in this article?

What is Headless Commerce?
How Does Headless Commerce Work?
How is Headless Commerce Different from Traditional Ecommerce?
Why is Headless Commerce Important?
What Are the Main Benefits of Headless Commerce?
What are the Downsides of Headless Commerce?
How to Get Started With Headless Commerce: 5 Steps
Top 3 Headless Commerce Platforms
Headless Future of Ecommerce

Sounds good? Let’s dig in.

What is Headless Commerce?

The term “headless commerce” refers to an ecommerce “backend” without a storefront attached.

Traditional ecommerce stores have two parts: the “under-the-bonnet” management system, which stores information about your products, orders, inventory and so on, and the front-end storefront, which users see when they visit your store. A headless commerce system is essentially a standalone ecommerce management system.

Ecommerce system are integrated with systems of record
“Traditional” ecommerce systems usually comprise numerous commerce engines and individual integrations with “systems of record”. (Source)
You might be wondering, “Why on earth would you want to separate the storefront from the backend?

There are a handful of important reasons. Chief among them are streamlined omnichannel selling, faster testing and implementation, and consistent customer experiences across channels.

Headless commerce systems are designed for compatibility with a range of front-end systems: desktop and mobile sites, third-party platforms like Amazon and Instagram, voice assistants (like Amazon Echo), and so on.

Headless commerce systems are designed for compatibility with a range of front-end systems: desktop and mobile sites, third-party platforms like Amazon and Instagram, voice assistants (like Amazon Echo), and so on. Click To Tweet

Headless commerce also allows retailers to manage all of their inventory and orders from a single, central platform. This significantly reduces the time it takes to perform multi-channel updates, while simultaneously improving the overall user experience.

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How Does Headless Commerce Work?

Headless commerce primarily works through the use of APIs.

Retailers build or utilize numerous storefronts that integrate with APIs supplied by the headless commerce platform.

Headless commerce platforms also “hook up” to other important parts of ecommerce infrastructure like ERPs, CRMs, PIMs, accounting software, and so on. This creates a seamless flow of information that doesn’t require individual data-entry or updates across numerous ecommerce platforms.

Headless commerce communication platforms
Headless commerce platforms communicate with storefronts via APIs and rely on information stored in “systems of record”. (Source)

Because all data is essentially “centralized”, there’s no need to change records across numerous ecommerce platforms whenever updates are made.

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How is Headless Commerce Different from Traditional Ecommerce?

Headless commerce differs from traditional ecommerce in a number of important ways.

In the past, customers purchased largely through desktop sites. Now, they vary their habits. Online shoppers buy on Instagram, Amazon, apps, smartphones, through voice assistants, and more.

And managing multiple channels can be a huge headache for retailers. It’s difficult to provide a consistent experience using “legacy” commerce platforms, invariably leading to disjointed pricing, inventory, content, discounts, etc. across different platforms.

Traditional vs Headless commerce
Headless commerce platforms communicate with storefronts via APIs and rely on information stored in “systems of record”. (Source)
From a customer experience perspective, headless commerce is important because it caters to this increasingly-popular omnichannel approach by standardizing information across platforms.

What’s more, the customer journey is somewhat siloed in traditional ecommerce. A customer is expected to select and buy a product on the same platform.

With headless commerce, however, a customer can add a product to their cart on an app and it immediately becomes available on a web store, virtual assistant, and even on social media.

Why is Headless Commerce Important?

Headless commerce is important for two main reasons.

First, headless commerce holds the potential to significantly cut down on staff time and resources associated with managing multiple ecommerce channels.

Second, headless commerce allows retailers to quickly and cost-effectively reach new markets and channels.

Essentially, headless commerce allows you to bring core operational systems – supply chain management, customer management, financial management, etc. – under one roof. Furthermore, headless commerce enables you to connect customer touchpoints to this core operational architecture without any code crossover, allowing you to make changes quickly.

Headless commerce allows you to bring core operational systems - supply chain management, customer management, financial management, etc. - under one roof. Click To Tweet

It’s also worth noting that opting for a headless solution will usually enable retailers to “outsource” a variety of processes such as PCI compliance, server management, and fraud protection.

Headless commerce solutions are unique in the sense that they are hosted SaaS solutions designed to cater to large enterprises (the main market that is moving towards headless commerce solutions). This is important for retailers looking to streamline their operations.

What Are the Main Benefits of Headless Commerce?

Here’s a quick rundown of the main benefits of headless commerce:

  • Omni-channel management – Headless commerce allows you to deliver product listings, promotions, content (like blog posts and videos), reviews, and more, to any channel without the need to manage multiple databases and CRM backends. This is one of the crucial benefits of headless commerce. It allows you to deliver content to multiple channels without the need to manage separate platforms.
  • Design flexibility – Because the backend is decoupled from the frontend, it doesn’t matter which framework you use to design your storefront. This means you have a wider pool of developers to pick from, rather than requiring somebody knowledgeable about a particular ecommerce platform like Magento or Shopify, thus providing a key cost element in regards to designing for headless commerce systems.
  • Power over the customer journey – Because the frontend is separate from the backend, designers are not constrained by backend considerations. This allows for full control over the user experience. Every aspect of your storefront can be customized.

Headless commerce benefits
Headless commerce has challenges and drawbacks as well as benefits. (Source)

  • Fast updates – Headless commerce allows you to make updates across multiple storefronts in a fraction of the time it would take with a traditional ecommerce approach. Implementing a multi-channel marketing strategy, for example, is much easier when you can manage inventory, discounts, content, voucher codes, and so on, from a single platform. The centralized nature of this kind of inventory management system also makes it easy to launch international stores.
  • Greater potential for optimization – Headless commerce enables you to gather all your testing infrastructure, across different channels, in one place. What’s more, optimization tests tend to be specific to either frontend or backend processes, such as a new page design or CTA (frontend), or new shipping pricing (backend). Because testers don’t need to account for any frontend impacts on the backend (and vice versa), it’s much easier to run tests and implement results.
  • Lots of integrations – Because headless commerce works through a system of APIs, it’s possible to integrate with virtually all third-party tools.

What are the Downsides of Headless Commerce?

As a retailer, it’s always important to evaluate cost-increases associated with headless commerce in the context of any savings that transitioning to a new system might provide. In the vast majority of cases, it is more effective to opt for a headless platform.

Here are the main downsides of headless commerce:

  • High setup costs – Because headless commerce platforms do not come packaged with a storefront or associated app, retailers will often need to hire designers to build storefronts from the ground up. What’s more, updates and troubleshooting need to be undertaken by a development team, likely in-house. Invariably, if you implement a headless commerce solution, you’ll need a dedicated team.
  • Headless commerce platforms tend to be expensive – Because headless commerce solutions require quite complex software, they tend to be much more expensive than out-of-the-box ecommerce solutions.
  • Processes can span multiple departments – Because headless commerce systems are generally more complex to run, and because there’s a clear distinction between frontend design and backend development, testing and implementing updates and changes can often involve multiple departments, which may add time to previously straightforward processes.

How to Get Started With Headless Commerce: 5 Steps

If you’re ready to get started with headless commerce, here are some key points to keep in mind:

1. Recognize That Headless Commerce Requires Dedicated Coding Skills

Before implementing a headless commerce solution, you’ll need a specific set of in-house skills. Without the right team, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to implement and manage a new platform effectively.

Headless commerce requires dedicated development and design skills. Ensure that you have the right teams in place prior to transitioning.

2. Identify Target Channels

Which channels will you be targeting along with your own storefront? Amazon, voice search, social media, an app?

Equally, are you able to integrate with your existing ERP, CRM, OMS (order management solution), and financial infrastructure?

It’s essential to know which channels you’re targeting and which core systems you need to connect to. You can then ensure your chosen headless commerce platform has the functionality to serve them.

3. Pick a Headless Commerce Platform

There are many headless commerce platforms to choose from, each with their own unique mix of benefits. The big players, like Magento, BigCommerce, and Shopify, offer headless solutions. But lesser-known providers, like Core DNA, also have products worth exploring.

A roundup of the best three headless commerce platforms is included below.

There are many headless commerce platforms to choose from, each with their own unique mix of benefits, like Magento, BigCommerce Shopify and Core DNA. Click To Tweet

4. Implement Headless Architecture

Transitioning to a headless commerce system will likely involve an overhaul of large parts of your existing ecommerce architecture. You will need to transfer and collate data from different systems – inventory, pricing, content, etc. – to one central database, while also integrating core systems so they can communicate with your new platform.

Ensure you have a clear overview of how your new architecture will look before forging ahead. You’ll also need to select your frontends (API) and choose where to “build vs buy” (frontend solutions can be purchased out-of-the-box).

5. Establish Ongoing Processes and Testing

Many processes will need to be carried out in-house. Others won’t. In either case, headless commerce calls for a reevaluation of existing operational procedures.

It’s less likely, for example, that optimization teams will need to communicate with backend developers. Equally, people responsible for updating information won’t need to align with channel-specific departments (like social media).

Failure to clarify new boundaries of communication and departmental autonomy can have disastrous consequences in the long-term. Don’t overlook this key task.

Top 3 Headless Commerce Platforms

Eager to transition to a headless system?

While some platforms, like Magento, can be tailored for use as a headless system, here are the main companies offering dedicated headless packages:

1. BigCommerce

BigCommerce was one of the first big ecommerce platforms to champion headless commerce. Its dedicated solution offers a powerful set of APIs for use with custom and third-party front-end storefronts.

Everything is managed through a single control panel. It’s compatible with a range of CMSs and frameworks, including WordPress, Drupal, Bloomreach, and more.

2. Core DNA

Core DNA is a lesser-known but respected brand that offers a powerful headless commerce platform. The simple and intuitive central dashboard allows for content editing, product management, and visual design across a range of channels.

Core DNA is a hosted solution that takes care of a range of backend security and development tasks.

3. Shopify Plus

Shopify is one of the biggest names in ecommerce and, along with its fully-hosted frontend solution, now offers a headless commerce package.

One of the main benefits of Shopify is that it provides you with a set of SDKs for building custom storefronts, across a variety of touchpoints, using the Shopify framework.

Headless Future of Ecommerce

Many experts are predicting that the future of ecommerce will be headless. And it’s easy to see why. Headless commerce is uniquely positioned to cater to the fast-paced, omnichannel world of ecommerce.

Headless platforms also provide retailers with a range of benefits, from streamlined product management to lightning-fast testing, that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them.

It’s important to be prepared for headless commerce if you don’t want to get left behind. Transitioning can be time-consuming and costly initially. But in the long-term, it’s an absolute no-brainer for a vast number of retailers. Don’t be afraid of exploring the possibility of a headless solution.

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