Headless commerce: Everything you need to know (2022)

Contents
    Try Storyblok

    Storyblok is the first headless CMS that works for developers & marketers alike.

    In 2020, 62% of eCommerce leaders agreed that headless commerce could significantly improve conversions and engagement. Since then, headless has taken its place as the new normal in the world of online shopping. With all of the jargon flying over the internet, headless commerce can seem unnecessarily complex, but it’s not. This article takes a deep dive into what headless commerce actually is, its benefits, and how to get started before mapping out a budget to redesign your eCommerce architecture.

    What is headless commerce?

    Headless commerce means the front end of your eCommerce store is separate from the back end. Both ends are standing alone, independently functioning without each other. The frontend is the customer-facing aspect of your eCommerce franchise, your storefront (e.g., website, social media, etc.). As the name implies, the backend is responsible for the operations running in the background that the customer cannot see, such as integrations, billing, etc.

    Traditional eCommerce platforms strictly tie both ends together. Since the two ends are coupled, eCommerce brands must create content separately for different devices. If a business is going to be showcasing a product on a website, a mobile app, and a connected screen somewhere in a shopping mall, it must be created multiple times to fit each platform. This approach to eCommerce usually results in numerous content silos, which can slow down the operations.

    Application Programming Interfaces, known as APIs, are at the core of headless commerce. They’re the bridges that facilitate the communication between the multiple frontends and the backend. For example, when a customer clicks the “Buy Now” button on a retailer’s app and another clicks “Add to Cart” on the website, the frontend sends an API request to the backend to process both actions. The backend then selects the custom programming for both activities and sends it back to the frontend using the API.

    A diagram showing how headless commerce relies on APIs to deliver content to different platforms.

    Headless commerce uses APIs to deliver content to multiple devices simultaneously

    What are the benefits of headless commerce?

    Headless Commerce comes with a lot of benefits. The most significant advantage of headless commerce is its ability to create the content once and use it everywhere. You can also:

    Easily implement changes

    As your eCommerce business grows, you might have the need to add or remove some elements of your store setup. For example, there was a time when online stores did not come with a wishlist function or the ability to see what your items would look like via a mockup. These now-standard features are easier to implement in a headless commerce architecture.

    Traditional eCommerce platforms are tightly connected, so you might have to change the entire code, database, and frontend display when adding a new feature. Changes as small as adding a new form field to a customer’s profile can come with several hiccups on a traditional platform. Users might not even see these changes until hours after the developers or marketers made them. Sometimes, they have to shut down the entire website before these changes can take effect.

    Headless commerce eliminates this issue, as frontend updates occur instantly. Developers can easily add new experiences to retail touchpoints, make several changes, and add and remove backend functionalities in the shopping process without breaking the shopping experience for the customers.

    Build an omnichannel experience

    Headless commerce is the perfect tool for building an omnichannel experience. The entire point of having an omnichannel setup is that customers don’t have to repeat steps in the purchase journey. For example, if a customer signs into an online store from their desktop and adds a couple of items to their cart, they should be able to log in from their phones and checkout without having to add to the cart again. One of the main goals of headless eCommerce is to provide a consistent user experience across multiple channels, making it a fundamental pillar to achieving an omnichannel shopping experience.

    With headless commerce, a customer’s experience can involve a smartwatch, a mobile app, a simple Buy button, or asking Siri to “add to cart.” If you try to use a traditional commerce platform to build an omnichannel retail experience, it’ll take a long time to bring your brand to the market and an even longer time to scale. A headless commerce platform removes these complexities because of the unified backend. A customer’s actions are stored on the backend and will automatically be visible to them regardless of the frontend interface. It also makes it easier for retailers to personalize offers, browsing capabilities, and promotions according to the customer’s preferred purchase channel by using customer data, such as past purchases.

    Increase website flexibility

    Flexibility is one of the core strengths of a headless commerce architecture. Themes, templates, and plugins set on the backend dictate the display of the frontend. With an independent front end, designers can get creative with layouts, and programmers can try new functionalities without worrying about breaking everything. They can create different features and experiment with new user interfaces on the website.

    With the frontend and backend already decoupled, brands that are comfortable with their content delivery and want to make changes to their management operations can do so without worrying about their frontend changing. It also works the other way around, i.e., brands can customize a different customer-facing experience for mobile shoppers without changing the backend code.

    Accurately personalize customer experiences

    Online shoppers are 40% more likely to go higher than their shopping budget if the shopping experience is personalized. Even in a world where privacy is the most critical consideration, online shoppers are still willing to share behavioral data if it means they get a smoother and easier shopping experience.

    With headless commerce allowing businesses to deploy multiple frontend experiences to customers, personalization becomes easier. For example, if a buyer creates a profile on your website using their phone and places all their orders on a smartwatch, headless commerce lets you sync the data across both devices and personalize product recommendations to that customer behavior. 58% of smartphone users feel more favorable toward companies whose mobile sites or apps remember who they are and their past behavior.

    When shopping trends and behaviors change, having a headless architecture helps you keep up without losing touch with the customer. For example, if shopping via Alexa or Siri is the trend, you can sync your customer’s order history from their phones to their voice control devices. This way, they still get the best product recommendations and don’t have to set up their payment and shipping information all over again just because they switched devices.

    Faster website load time

    Having various tools and applications, such as payment platforms and email marketing, operating at once can slow down your backend, causing slow load speeds that may drive customers away from your website and reduce conversion rates. APIs can connect and transmit information faster with your content delivery system separated from your content management system. This means that customer requests get to the backend more quickly, increasing the overall load time of the website. A faster website will also help with search engine rankings as Google recognizes speed as an essential SEO factor.

    What are the possible challenges of going headless?

    Headless commerce offers many great benefits for eCommerce brands, but there is a significant drawback to incorporating a headless commerce architecture.

    Setup and maintenance costs

    It’s no surprise that bigger eCommerce retailers are quicker to adopt a headless architecture than smaller brands. The custom programming of a separate frontend and backend is expensive, time-consuming, and requires skilled developers. The higher the number of frontend channels you want to have, the higher the implementation costs.

    Brands with more extensive IT and development teams will still need to pay for more development hours than they’re used to when setting up a headless architecture. Smaller eCommerce brands will need to spend a lot of money to bring in additional human and software resources to set up their headless architecture and keep things running smoothly.

    The headless commerce architecture is more complex than the traditional setup and requires developers to write custom codes requiring advanced technical maintenance.

    How can a business get started with headless commerce?

    Going by recent eCommerce trends, it’s safe to assume that desktop websites will no longer be the default for eCommerce and online retail. Buyers can now shop via social media, smartwatches, etc. There’s no better time to create a flexible shopping architecture as a business. That’s where headless commerce comes in, and here’s how you can get started.

    Determine if a headless commerce solution is a right fit for your business

    As great as headless commerce sounds, some businesses are perfectly functional with the traditional eCommerce platform setup. To know if headless commerce is right for your business, here are several questions to ask:

    • Do you have customers you’re looking to convert across different channels?
    • Do you want to make changes to your frontend constantly?
    • Do you want more customization without installing more plugins?
    • Do you have a dedicated team of developers in-house or elsewhere?
    • Is your marketing team well equipped to take control of the frontend?
    • Can you afford to go headless and maintain it?

    If you answered yes to more than one of these questions, it might be time to switch to headless commerce.

    Consider your frontend options

    When going headless, an important step is choosing your frontend solution. You can build a custom framework from scratch, buy a pre-built frontend template as a service (frontend-as-a-service), or use a digital experience platform (DXP). A custom frontend is built and managed by a team of frontend developers or a headless platform of your choice. When creating the frontend, developers use coding frameworks like React, Angular JS, or Vue JS. With a custom framework, you get to include only the necessary components you need in your backend; however, a custom build is expensive to implement and manage.

    The frontend-as-a-service (FEass) is easier to implement. Many retailers prefer buying a frontend service to building a custom frontend because its low-code environment lets them quickly set up, update, and optimize the overall functionality of the online store without hiring full-time developers. When purchasing FEass, ensure you use a vendor that offers the option of first-time setup, i.e., they’ll help you set it up to perfectly align and integrate with your eCommerce platform. FEass is excellent for businesses with small-sized teams, limited resources, and that want to make rapid innovations.

    Digital experience platforms (DXP) are more sophisticated than FEass. They allow businesses to deliver unique customer experiences across multiple channels. They’re the best options for companies with multiple stores in different regions and an extensive database of products and customer data. DXPs allow these businesses to have central quality control of their eCommerce operations and provide comprehensive analytics on each channel.

    To choose a frontend solution that’s the best fit for your business, you need to consider factors such as cost, your business size, the number of stores, and the number of customer experiences you want to build. It’s also essential to consider your developer’s skillsets and the types of changes you want to implement later.

    Choose a suitable headless CMS for your eCommerce platform

    A vital component of a headless eCommerce structure is a headless content management system (CMS). Businesses that want to create multiple unique customer experiences will combine a headless CMS, a commerce system, and other integrations, connecting them all with APIs for better functionality. There are several headless CMS solutions that allow eCommerce integration. To choose the best one for your business, you should consider several things.

    Your choice of headless CMS should allow your marketers to quickly make changes and update website content without needing intensive technical support. It should integrate seamlessly with other tools in your marketing tech stack. It is also important that the CMS automates search engine optimization to save you from the problems that come with installing many SEO plugins like in a traditional commerce system. Since the CMS will be at the center of your eCommerce activities, it should make it easy for your entire team to collaborate, build custom workflows, and assign different user roles.

    Content Management for eCommerce

    Read our comprehensive marketer's guide to content management, complete with a free evaluation guide!

    Headless commerce is the new standard

    Headless commerce was the future in 2019. According to WP Engine’s State of Headless Global Search Report, 98% of eCommerce brands are currently headless or evaluating the option. Right now, eCommerce brands that aren’t going headless are running their operations in the past. Even if customers aren’t aware of how an eCommerce experience is being delivered to them, they’ll notice if their favorite online retailers don’t offer the level of seamless shopping they’ve come to expect. If you choose to go headless now, you are making the right choice. Your brand can catch up to the competition and customers’ shopping standards.

    Want to know more? Contact our specialists and learn more about headless commerce.

    Resource Links
    Headless CMS Headless CMS explained in 5 minutes
    CMS for eCommerce The new era of eCommerce CMS
    Headless stack or monolithic package Best-of-breed vs. all-in-one
    A complete guide to eCommerce content management Content management for eCommerce
    eCommerce integrations Storyblok’s eCommerce integrations