O’Reilly Report: Decoupled Applications and Composable Web Architectures - Download Now

Empower your teams & get a 582% ROI: See Storyblok's CMS in action

Skip to main content

What Is Headless Commerce? (Full Guide for 2024)

Marketing
Gillian Mays

In 2020, 62% of eCommerce leaders agreed that headless commerce could significantly improve conversions and engagement. New data from 2023 shows that users took notice of the benefits: in the retail industry alone, 63% of users have plans to incorporate headless eCommerce, while 22% have already done so.

With headless commerce rapidly becoming the norm in the digital age, you might have some questions. We’re here to help. This guide will cover everything you need to know about the topic, from “What is headless commerce?” down to how to get started. Let’s dive in!

What is headless commerce?

There are two sides to your online business: the frontend presentation layer (where users visit) and the backend functionality layer (where transactions and data management occur). In headless commerce, the frontend and the backend of your ecommerce architecture are separated.

Removing this dependency allows for greater technological flexibility and adaptability on the backend. This in turn allows brands to deliver highly personalized, unique user experiences on the frontend.

Headless commerce and APIs

Headless commerce can decouple the frontend and backend thanks to the use of APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). APIs are the technical bridges that allow one centralized backend to communicate with multiple frontends without a direct connection.

For example, when a customer clicks the “Buy Now” button on a brand’s app and a different customer clicks on “Add to Cart” on its website, each frontend will send an API request to the backend. From there, the backend selects the custom programming for each activity and sends it back to the frontend using the API. This is why headless commerce is often referred to as API-first eCommerce.

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

Headless commerce uses APIs to deliver content from one backend to multiple independent frontend channels simultaneously.

What is headed vs headless commerce?

So if headless commerce separates the front and backends of your eCommerce setup, what’s the alternative? The answer is “headed” commerce – or as it’s better known, traditional commerce.

Traditional commerce tightly couples the frontend and backend. This can make things simpler to operate and get started with, but it also comes with a lot of downsides such as:

  • Brands need to create the same content multiple times to fit different devices, resulting in content silos
  • Changing backend technology is risky as it directly affects the frontend
  • Preset functionalities and tools mean creating personalized, captivating content is difficult
Traditional vs. Headless Commerce
What is Traditional (Headed) Commerce?What is Headless Commerce?
Frontend and backend are coupled as oneFrontend and backend are separate, communicating through APIs
Rigid structure leads to low customization potentialLimitless customization options
Using multiple channels creates problematic content silosDesigned for easy scaling and seamless omnichannel reach
hint:

Traditional commerce isn’t necessarily a bad option. These platforms are less dynamic and technologically advanced than headless commerce, but they also tend to be easier to use, so stores with simple needs – such as those with a single frontend, limited monthly sales, or a primarily brick-and-mortar presence – might prefer it.

Is headless CMS the same as headless commerce?

No, but they share similar principles. Headless commerce separates the frontend of your eCommerce store from the backend so you can embrace full technical freedom for your online shop.

In a headless CMS (Content Management System), all content is created on a backend and then provided to the desired frontends via APIs. It offers similar benefits to headless commerce: flexible technology choice, an omnichannel approach, and remarkable scalability to name a few.

While these are two different tools, many users choose to integrate the two for a powerful and flexible digital ecosystem. Using them together allows brands to create content-driven, personalized eCommerce experiences that are fully adaptable and without limits.

hint:

Learn more about how a headless CMS can improve your eCommerce experience.

Why use headless commerce?

Headless commerce’s reliance on APIs means that the sky's the limit. You have the flexibility to choose the exact technology you want, which in turn means you can create the exact personalized user experience that you want.

5 headless commerce benefits

The closer you look, the more upsides there are to using headless commerce platforms. Let’s go over the five major benefits.

1. Create accurate, personalized customer experiences

Personalization is still a key factor for shoppers. As of 2023, 56% of consumers were driven to purchase again after a personalized experience. One of the most important aspects of headless commerce is that it provides brands with all the freedom they need to highly personalize their user experiences.

With headless commerce, you can pick the exact tools you want to use every step of the way. Frontend frameworks, third-party plugins, channels you want to reach – it’s all up to you, based on the best fit for your customers.

In addition to being able to pick the best tools for the job, headless commerce also allows developers to create dynamic user interfaces based on real-time interactions and historical data. This ensures that your shoppers are receiving the best possible experience for them rather than a one-size-fits-all one.

On the less technical side of things, decoupling your commerce allows fast and easy content updates. Marketers will be able to edit the frontend as often as necessary without heavy developer involvement. That means you’ll be able to deliver relevant content to your audiences instantly.

And because all of this data is centralized on the backend, the experience is always consistent, even with multiple channels. You’ll be able to sync data across all devices, personalizing product recommendations according to each person’s customer behavior regardless of how they interact with your shop.

(Your customers will thank you: 58% of smartphone users feel more favorable toward companies whose mobile sites or apps remember who they are and their past behavior!)

2. Improved developer experience

Technical freedom improves life for your developers, too. That’s because they’re free to choose any framework they want. They can choose the technology that they’re most proficient with, eliminating the frustration of a learning curve and speeding up time to market.

FACT:

According to Zipdo, switching to headless commerce enables businesses to reduce time to market by 50%.

Moreover, they also save time and frustration since they’re free to work on the frontend and backend at the same time. This not only allows them to make changes whenever they want, but they can also experiment freely. Since each area is effectively isolated apart from APIs, any failure in one cannot affect the others, so there’s no reason to hold back.

The API-powered aspect of headless commerce is also a developer benefit: it makes it simpler to add new tools without disrupting the backend or other frontends. In addition to the benefits of future-proofing and more stability, this also greatly speeds up the development process.

3. Headless commerce is future-proofed, change-friendly architecture

When your frontends and backend are separated, it becomes much easier to implement agile changes. Adding new tools or channels to headless commerce platforms won’t disrupt the rest of the ecosystem, so you’re free to add or subtract as necessary.

And no matter how many frontends you decide to make, you will never have to re-platform the backend in headless commerce. The same centralized backend can serve any frontend you can imagine, making it fast and easy to integrate new approaches that will benefit your users.

Finally, headless commerce can also be a lifetime investment. The API-powered nature of headless commerce means that it’s future-proofed. Whenever you want to replace old technology, swapping it out is easy and poses minimal risk to the rest of your tech ecosystem. You’ll never have to worry about changing your tech because it’s outdated again.

4. Build omnichannel customer experiences

Headless commerce is designed to embrace omnichannel. You can expand to as many frontends as you want without ever having to deploy individual backends. That’s right – unlimited frontend possibilities, but only one backend to maintain.

Production will also go quickly. As we’ve covered, headless commerce makes adding new channels and technologies a breeze. That means you can expand to new markets and opportunities at the drop of a hat – and as we learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that the ability to quickly adapt to new customer demands is vital.

FACT:

Purchases made on mobile devices are responsible for 73% of newly acquired customers on headless commerce platforms.

As for the frontend experience of headless commerce omnichannel, it’s a remarkable one. It makes your brand as easy to access as possible while retaining a smooth, consistent experience as all the data is coming from one centralized backend.

It’s a huge convenience for shoppers: they can start shopping on an in-store digital kiosk, save some ideas on their phone throughout the day, and finish the purchase by telling Siri “add to cart”.

Since this omnichannel approach is powered by APIs, your content will also always publish quickly regardless of its final destination. This gives you an edge over slower competitors and provides a better user experience for your shoppers.

5. Improve site performance

Load speeds are essential. Today’s audience has a fleeting attention span, and if you can’t provide lightning-fast results, they’re more than happy to visit a competitor.

Semrush estimates that your main content should load in 2.5 seconds or less. How are you going to meet that benchmark?

You can take a huge step towards it just by choosing headless commerce. 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.

case study:

See how WÜSTHOF increased their traffic by over 50% by going headless

How does headless commerce impact your customers?

What does all this mean for your frontend users?

A better experience.

With headless commerce, user journeys are more consistent and available across a huge variety of devices. Pages load faster. Content is more personalized, something that 69% of consumers prefer. Happier customers can lead to higher conversion rates, meaning everyone wins.

What are the possible challenges of going headless?

Headless commerce is a powerful tool, but it’s not magic. You may find a few challenges with the shift to headless, and being prepared for them can help you tackle them if they come up.

Keep in mind that while these obstacles can be less than ideal right now, they’re all a part of the investment you’re making in the future of your eCommerce business. If you can navigate them, you’ll be free to embrace all the benefits of headless commerce.

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.

And to get the most value out of headless commerce, you’ll need specialized expertise. 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.

Difficulty migrating

Moving to any new system will have some growing pains. If you’re moving from traditional commerce to a headless commerce platform, they might be a little more pronounced as your team learns its way around the profoundly new technology.

They’ll need to carefully consider existing technologies, data structures, and workflows, not all of which will translate exactly to the new architecture. Choosing to switch to a headless eCommerce platform that makes migration as seamless as possible can help to cut down on roadblocks here.

Headless commerce examples

Countless companies have embraced headless commerce to deliver groundbreaking experiences to their customers. Here are just a few examples of companies who have embraced the power of headless:

  • Chronext, a luxury watch merchant that moved from a B2C eCommerce platform to a headless solution that could serve an iOS mobile app
  • Marc O’Polo, a sprawling global fashion brand that successfully relaunched its eCommerce system to reach customers in 6 languages across 40 countries
  • Xlash, a global beauty brand that went from maintaining 8 different WordPress stores to one centralized platform

How do I get started with headless commerce? (3 steps)

Headless commerce is the most direct route toward setting your business up for success and future growth. As users continue to shop on new channels like social media and smartwatches, there’s no better time to create a flexible shopping architecture. Here are three first steps to help you get started with headless commerce.

Step 1: Decide if headless commerce is a fit for your business

The first thing to consider is whether headless commerce is a fit for your organization right now. It’s a very powerful approach, but it’s not for everyone. Sometimes it can be too costly, too complicated, or simply unnecessary.

To find out if headless eCommerce is right for you, try asking yourself the following questions:

  • 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 one or more of these questions, consider taking the next steps towards headless commerce.

hint:

Did you answer “no” to any of the above? Just because your business isn’t fully ready doesn’t mean it never will be. Don’t be afraid to revisit the question if your organization’s needs change.

Step 2: Consider your frontend options

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.

There are three main options for choosing your frontend solution:

Build a custom framework

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. Companies with unique frontend needs and established teams of seasoned developers might want to choose this approach.

ProCon
Include exactly what you need and nothing you don'tCustom builds can be expensive to implement and manage

Buy FEaaS

The frontend-as-a-service (FEaaS) is more simple 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 FEaaS, ensure you use a vendor that offers help with first-time setup, as well as integration with your eCommerce platform. FEaaS is excellent for businesses with small-sized teams and limited resources that want to make rapid innovations.

ProCon
Easy to implement, does not require full-time developersReliance on third-party providers can limit control over security, data, and customization

Use a DXP

Digital experience platforms (DXP) are more sophisticated than FEaaS but less complex than in-house solutions. They allow businesses to deliver unique customer experiences across multiple channels. This makes DXPs the best options for companies with multiple stores in different regions plus 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.

ProCon
Integrated solution that can centralize data controlComprehensive design can result in higher costs

Step 3: Choose a headless CMS

Businesses often combine their headless commerce solutions and headless CMSs to get the full advantages of API-driven technologies. It’s also a good way of bringing content’s power to their sales efforts.

When choosing a headless CMS, there are dozens of different requirements to keep in mind, all tailored to your unique situation. However, there are some general pieces of advice to follow as well:

  • Think of your marketers. Choose a headless CMS that allows non-technical users to quickly make changes and update content without intensive tech support.
  • Prioritize integration. Take stock of whatever other tools you’re using and make sure they’ll work with the CMS.
  • Consider collaboration. A headless CMS should offer features that make it easy for all members of your team to work together, such as custom workflows, user roles, in-editor commenting features, and other content authoring capabilities.

Key takeaway: what is headless commerce?

With current predictions and available features, the secret is out: headless is the future of eCommerce. If you’re looking to provide fast, seamless, personalized experiences that have your customers coming back for more, headless commerce just might be the solution your company is looking for.

Want to learn more about headless commerce?

Reach out to our specialists today.

ResourceLinks
Headless CMSHeadless CMS explained
eCommerce IntegrationsStoryblok’s eCommerce integrations
CMS for eCommerceThe new era of eCommerce CMS
Headless vs Traditional TechBest-of-breed vs. all-in-one
A Complete Guide to eCommerce Content ManagementContent management for eCommerce