Headless commerce might sound like a macabre Halloween event to promote early holiday shopping, but the reality of this e-commerce solution isn’t as grim as you might think.
For fast-growing brands, headless commerce offers a way to break free of plug-in heavy systems and build a seamless omnichannel experience for shoppers.
If you’re still not sure what decapitating — err, decoupling — your frontend from your backend system could look like, this complete primer on all things headless will tell you everything you need to know.
A Closer Look at Headless Commerce
- What Is Headless Commerce?
- Traditional E-commerce vs. Headless E-commerce
- The Top 10 Benefits of Going Headless
- 3 Headless Use Cases From Real Brands
- Best Headless Commerce Platforms
What Is Headless Commerce?
Headless commerce is a type of e-commerce infrastructure in which customer-facing, front-end elements like fonts, colors, and images are separated from back-end architecture like inventory, security, and checkout. Changes to the look and feel of the site don’t impact functionalities like pricing or order fulfillment tools, and vice versa.
This separation of frontend and backend systems makes it possible to quickly add sales channels or create immersive shopper experiences across brand touchpoints, without making massive updates to your infrastructure every time. A marketing, design, or other creative team can implement changes to the user interface and experience with relatively little tech expertise.
With the help of application programming interfaces (APIs) — essentially, code that lets two pieces of software talk to each other — headless commerce prevents e-commerce sites from becoming bloated with plug-ins or add ons. Site owners can easily retrieve data and display elements while keeping their infrastructure lean.Today, 77% of companies with headless commerce architecture are expanding into new channels, compared to 54% of non-headless companies.
Traditional E-commerce vs Headless E-commerce
In traditional, also known as “monolithic” e-commerce, the front and back end of a site are intertwined. The more complexity you add to your site, the more difficult it becomes to make changes, without risking slowdowns or crashes.
Here are some other core differences between traditional and headless e-commerce.
|Even minor changes require developer involvement
|Changes can be made with minimal coding and risk
|Initial investment may be lower, but each new channel, feature, or redesign can incur costs
|Initial investment may be higher, but costs may be offset by increased sales and lower CAC
|Every new channel requires back- and front-end changes that can temporarily bring the site down
|New features or channels can be quickly added, without jeopardizing backend functionality
|Adding new functionalities can slow page load and impact conversions
|APIs pull data in real-time to keep infrastructure lean
|Images, text and fonts may display incorrectly or appear differently from channel to channel
|Elements display correctly regardless of platform
|Time to Market
|New channels, user experiences and front-end designs can take weeks or months
|Front-end upgrades can go live within a few days or weeks
The Top 10 Benefits of Going Headless
Whether you’re looking to expand into new markets or delight users with novel shopping experiences, a headless framework can help make it happen.
Here are the top 10 benefits of headless commerce.
1. Scale Content Across Channels
Modern shoppers expect to be able to “buy now” from anywhere. But in the time it takes to shift from social media to your site, they may have already gotten distracted by something else.
Headless commerce makes it easy to scale your content to new channels, so you can meet customers where they are — whether that’s social commerce, mainstream marketplaces, emerging channels, mobile apps, or even overseas.
2. Easily Add New Devices
The Internet of Things (IoT) may have lost some buzz over the past few years. (Turns out, not everyone’s ready to reorder milk from dubious touchscreens on their fridges.)
However, certain types of device-oriented shopping are still seeing increased adoption. Voice commerce with Google, Alexa, and other home assistants is on the rise and in the not-so-distant future, your business may need to integrate with AI-based bots to survive. Whatever your future e-commerce tech stack might look like, a headless framework can facilitate the transition to any new platform, device, or wearable that enters the scene.
3. High or Unlimited API Call Volumes
Traditional e-commerce platforms offer a lot of customization, with endless templates and plug-and-play backends. But the more plug-ins, widgets, apps and add-ons you deploy — the slower and buggier your site may become.
APIs let you retrieve data from anywhere in your ecosystem in real-time, adding complexity without the bulk. There are fewer limits on the number of APIs you can deploy without hindering performance, allowing for deeper levels of customization.
4. Ownership Over Site Architecture
Headless commerce can also answer the need for stronger back-end performance or improved functionality. Changes are faster and easier to execute, with specialized back-end developers available for hire.
When the frontend and backend are decoupled, developers have more freedom to experiment with new functionalities, without impacting design or UX. They can pick and choose programming languages and composable tech stacks based on your needs, not the priorities or limitations of a third party.
5. Ease of Use for Front-end Developers
Headless commerce can help you keep your front-end developers happy, no matter their level of expertise. They’ll have more room to play and can spend more time creating unique user experiences, without worrying about the impact on your site architecture.
In a headless setup, developers can quickly build new e-commerce websites using existing templates and content instead of starting from scratch each time.
6. Faster Load Times
Headless e-commerce platforms solve the speed problem by centrally housing content and delivering it anywhere you need it with APIs. Your site runs faster, customers are happier, and you may see an uptick in traffic, given that page speed continues to factor into Google’s ranking criteria.
7. Rapid Speed to Market
For international and omnichannel go-to-markets (GTMs), headless commerce provides scalable back-end systems that easily transfer across borders. A decoupled backend is ready for international search engine optimization (SEO) and can quickly plug into your data infrastructure.
With headless, you can take a new concept, channel or market live in days or weeks, instead of months. This increased agility can help you take advantage of new marketplaces, social media platforms, and sales opportunities faster than your competition.
8. Higher Conversion Rates, Lower CAC
With an elevated customer experience, you may see a rise in organic traffic to your website and owned channels. This can help reduce your advertising costs and lower your overall CAC, resulting in higher ROI on a headless versus traditional setup.
Headless commerce also makes it easier to play with interactive experiences or campaigns that have viral potential, helping you double down on conversion and retention rates.
9. More Freedom to Experiment
Testing is critical to marketing ROI, but for many brand owners, it can be hard to put your website through the right experiments without breaking it. With a decoupled front and backend, headless commerce liberates developers to tinker all they want.
Split testing (AKA A/B testing) can be done in real time, without risk to site stability. You and your team can test new designs and concepts on your presentation layer, without worrying about damaging your underlying architecture.
10. Long-term Growth Potential
With a monolithic site, any new adaptation can mean months in development. While it may initially take a few weeks to build your headless e-commerce site, scaling is much faster once you’re up and running.
However long it takes to build, the flexibility you gain is forever. In a headless environment, you can easily shift to accommodate future trends and meet changing consumer demands.
3 Headless Use Cases From Real Brands
To visualize the full potential of headless commerce, let’s take a closer look at some real-life examples. Here are three brands who used headless e-commerce to elevate the customer experience.
1. Building to Taste with Garrett Popcorn
While their delicious aromas are great for attracting storefront foot traffic, Garrett Popcorn’s online store needed an uplift. In a conversation with Make it Big Podcast, Codal CEO Keval Baxi and Associate Director of Partnerships Ryan Bloms shared how they reinvited Garrett Popcorn’s website.
Developers spent weeks listening to customers and their questions, then built a headless commerce system around their feedback. Flavors, dietary considerations, and portion sizes were all folded into this unique, customizable system.
Some of the headless features they built were:
- A “build your tin” feature that let customers hyper-customize their orders — including multiple flavor selections, sizes, and optional add-ons
- Real-time inventory monitoring to avoid overselling
The redesign was built on a BigCommerce stack, which plays nicely with open APIs. Integrating the site with the headless content management system Contentful came next, allowing for a complex design that wouldn’t have worked with an out-of-the-box frontend.
2. Weather-Proofing International Sales with Gorewear
In another example shared on the Make it Big Podcast, premium sports apparel brand Gorewear leaned on a headless commerce approach to bring its legacy sites under one roof and streamline the brand’s global presence.
Prior to going headless, the team was using multiple systems for multiple sites. From Salesforce Commerce Cloud to a variety of custom sites, team members had to leap through a number of technical hoops to manage each brand. For Gorewear, going headless meant breaking the silos and bringing global teams together on one platform.
“Going headless is actually going to save an incredible amount of time for their team to design things once, then replicate it across all their sites,” explains Codal’s Ryan Bloms.
However, Gorewear’s headless framework also improved the brand’s returns process. A dedicated returns portal helped the team identify valuable defect information, offering a comprehensive picture of the potential liabilities in their product line.
Some of the return characteristics they identified included:
- Product line
- Year of origin
- Specific defect
With lifetime warranties on all their products, the returns portal was yet another route toward increased ROI on Gorewear’s headless strategy. Data can be routed directly to a certified Gorewear repair shop, with backend logic to help customers connect with the nearest location.
3. Going Under the Hood at Under Armour
Under Armour was one of the first large brands to adopt a headless commerce infrastructure and progressive web app (PWA). What prompted them to make the leap?
The mega sports apparel brand was struggling with low conversions, despite frequent mobile visits to its website.
“Having a nine-month waterfall project to solve these problems is the old way,” said former Senior Product Manager, Global Ecommerce Patrick Grissinger. Under Armour needed a flexible new infrastructure that could adapt quickly to a changing e-commerce ecosystem.
With headless commerce, Under Armour was able to:
- Seamlessly introduce new sites in 26 markets worldwide
- Increase conversions by 76% on optimized pages
- Use feedback data to continuously iterate and upgrade its e-commerce experiences
The changes also enabled the company’s mobile shopping app to retrieve customer data from fitness apps. It uses information like location, purchase history, and workout logs to offer personalized recommendations — for example, clothing recommendations that take warmer or colder weather into account.
As part of its partnership with MojoTech, Under Armour recently migrated from Salesforce to Vercel, where its new headless rebuild aims to further improve page speed, performance, and SEO.
Best Headless Commerce Platforms
Many retailers begin their headless commerce journey by choosing a dedicated platform. Here are some of the top industry providers to consider:
Adobe Commerce (formerly Magento) offers flexible store creation options that place it consistently high on industry lists. Its signature extensions and APIs offer multiple customer touchpoints regardless of the technology.
Salesforce offers an abundance of APIs, which can slow your initial deployment. The wealth of highly customizable storefronts, however, makes it worth the wait.
CommerceTools uses PHP and MySQL as its foundation, opening up a wide range of storefronts uncoupled from the frontend.
Elastic Path is the headless commerce platform of choice for store owners craving simple and scalable options.
Shopify Plus offers the ability to convert any digital screen or device into a marketplace with its highly customizable e-commerce platform.
BigCommerce can help you turn your e-commerce site into a Progressive Web App (PWA). It also integrates with content management platforms like WordPress and Contentful.
Spryker offers a modular, composable commerce stack tailored to your business needs, and a curated selection of leading vendor partnerships.
The Headless Advantage
No matter where your business journey leads you, headless commerce offers advantages for your business both today and in the future. But the first step is a big one, and can have initial financial implications. Only you can decide whether your business is truly ready to make the transition.
The right financial partner can help you stay forward-thinking. With flexible funding from SellersFi, you can give your site the upgrade it needs, while maintaining your cash flow and operations.
Explore our resource center to learn more about headless commerce and other proven paths to expansion.