Headless Commerce Explained
“Headless commerce” is one the most debated and least understood eCommerce buzzwords. Loved by tech developers who have endless discussions about "headless nuances" and a bit mysterious for business people who often can't get what exactly headless commerce means, it is about to re-shape the eCommerce industry.
In this article you will find a headless commerce definition which sets things straight, embracing technical issues and "translating" them into business values.
Let’s take a deep dive into the headless commerce approach.
What is headless commerce?
Headless commerce is a term for software architecture in which the central assumption is separating the UI (frontend) from the business logic (backend). These two layers communicate via API, and there are no strict dependencies between them.
Headless commerce meaning, however, may seem a bit vague as it requires a deep understanding of the value of separating these two units.
So, what does headless commerce MEAN?
This type of software architecture opens up almost limitless possibilities in terms of customizations, speeds up time-to-market, and enables eCommerce brands to enrich and differentiate the customer experience.
Long story short, headless commerce - by providing a high level of technical flexibility - enables businesses to build a platform that meets their current business needs and fulfills customer expectations.
Headless commerce architecture
Headless commerce architecture is a relatively new concept in software development. How does it work, and what benefits does it bring to an eCommerce business?
What is headless commerce architecture?
Headless commerce architecture separates a system's frontend (presentation layer) and the backend (business logic) layer. As a part of a broader composable commerce approach, it includes multiple types of solutions:
Frontend as a Service (frontend architecture),
a headless commerce platform,
a headless CMS,
search and payment solutions, and more.
Headless architecture? eCommerce needs it more than any other industry! As headless architecture has been embraced mainly by online retail, the term headless commerce has been trending upwards.
How does headless commerce architecture work?
Headless commerce architecture allows for the construction of streamlined systems by putting together loosely coupled elements - just like digital LEGOs. Merchants can freely compose their headless stack by adding, removing, and altering particular services to build a best-of-breed stack tailored to their needs. How? Thanks to “headless” API and the headless commerce "bloodstream".
Headless commerce architecture gives your business the agility and flexibility to operate in the highly competitive eCommerce market and meet ever-changing customer expectations.
You can choose the best way to build your frontend layer as you are no longer tied to the frontend technology provided by your eCommerce platform or CMS. This allows you to work on web performance, mobile optimization, and customer experience without the help of a developer team.
Headless commerce vs. traditional commerce
Traditional commerce, often referred to as a monolithic, legacy or all-in-one system, ruled the eCommerce industry for over a decade. Now its time is done and it is stepping aside, making room for the new, headless approach. To better understand the differences between headless commerce and traditional commerce, let's start with a basic explanation of what is what.
Traditional, monolithic commerce systems provide all the components needed for handling business logic, displaying the UI layer, managing and publishing content and more, with a single, tightly coupled codebase. This is why we can call them an "all-in-one" system.
Headless commerce refers to a separation of units responsible for performing particular services: frontend (displaying UI layer) from backend (business logic), from CMS (managing and publishing content), and any other third-party tools such as loyalty programs, search engines, payments, analytical tools or CRMs. All of the units "talk" to each other via APIs.
Monolith systems fifteen years ago were the only option for eCommerce businesses. They represented a seemingly convenient "all-in-one" approach and guaranteed full control of the system. However, with time more of their drawbacks came to light.
Customers' habits are constantly changing in the eCommerce market, and sellers must be agile enough to implement modern UX features. With legacy monolith systems, where all elements are tightly connected, moving to modern JS frameworks that deliver, for instance, better web performance can be risky.
Frontend developers can't just alter the frontend element to adjust it to, for example, a new brand identity because it can potentially interfere with the underlying database code.
Updates made in monolithic systems are highly time- and money-consuming. They need to be thoroughly tested because even the tiniest ones can potentially cause the whole system to fail. And the time of developers doesn't come cheap.
Limited customization possibilities
The all-in-one approach seems convenient as there is no need to search the internet looking for additional solutions. Everything is simple to develop, test, and implement. The problems start during growth when default features turn out to be not the best ones.
Within monolith systems, merchants have limited freedom to alter pre-defined features or services and replace them with the ones that work better for them.
Monolith systems enter the "legacy phase" so working with them often requires large IT departments, specializing in old frameworks like DB2, C, Pascal, .NET, Java, or Cobol, to maintain infrastructure and solve technical problems. Maintenance takes up the time that should have been spent building modern features for users.
Monoliths are simply incapable of keeping up with the pace of business and providing a satisfying experience both for users and developers.
Headless commerce steps in as the answer for all the above challenges.
Read more about benefits of headless commerce .
The role of API in headless commerce
API (Application Programming Interface) can be defined as a bridge for data transferred between the services. Within headless commerce architecture, API connects frontend and backend, and any third-party services. These elements communicate with each other while remaining separate entities.
API can be used to pull information to the desktop, mobile, wearables, smart cars, IoT (Internet of Things) and other devices, enabling merchants to go full omnichannel and secure their capacity for scaling the business.
Learn more about API in Headless Commerce .
Headless architecture vs. microservices vs. composable commerce
API-first architecture allows independence in the development and freedom of choice of tools (language, framework) within each application. Yet, there is still a lot of confusion around headless-related issues, which have become even bigger recently with the rise of trends like headless commerce, API-first, etc. They are not the same, but the differences may seem subtle.
To make things easier to understand, let's start with the basic definitions:
Microservices are small applications dedicated to serving a specific task. Microservices architecture allows marketplaces to cherry-pick tech providers for each business function without a need to change the rest of the system.
Composable commerce allows eCommerce businesses not only to decouple backend and frontend but also to select and assemble best-of-breed commerce solutions and compose them to satisfy their unique business needs. It is similar to microservices but focuses instead on the business perspective.
Headless commerce mainly emphasizes decoupling frontend and backend layers, which falls under the umbrella of microservices.
The growing popularity of headless makes the issue a bit water down. It is often confused with microservices, composable commerce, packed business services, and MACH architecture. And - truth to be said - no wonder, as all of them focus on API. Yes, headless emphasizes decoupling the frontend (client layer) from the backend system (business logic and data).
It differs from microservices, but - in general - it is all about composing systems by putting together loosely coupled elements in a LEGO-like way. It is not just "techie" stuff that only developers might be interested in. That architectural assumption opens up a way to various business benefits, conversion growth included.
Patrick Friday, CEO at Vue Storefront.
Leading headless commerce solutions
The ecosystem of “headless-oriented” services is expanding, and they are more and more accessible and straightforward. It would be an exaggeration to compare it with the eCommerce SaaS-like situation, but there is no doubt that we are witnessing an armaments race. More and more brands are dying to win the title “headless standard” and - despite the fact that the overall landscape can be a little bit foggy - this is great news for eCommerce businesses.
A few years ago, the only way to go headless was to code it from scratch. There are various frameworks, builders, and even a whole cloud-based platform that can spare this necessity. Finding a genuinely API-first headless commerce platform is not an easy task. Most providers have already sensed the trend and put “API-first” on their banners, but their interpretation of being “headless” was sometimes far-fetched.
The same thing applies to headless CMS. This sector has been skyrocketing recently, and choosing a headless CMS can be difficult for any organization. They all look similar on the surface, and by "on the surface," I also mean the marketing claims displayed on their websites.
We can read about omnichannel, boosting customer experience, retention, providing marketers with easy-to-use editors, and so on. However, as much as these statements are true, they don't reflect the nuances that characterize particular solutions. And there are differences between them. The situation is slowly clearing up, with the significant involvement of companies gathered in MACH Alliance .
Gaining the flexibility and usability of the headless stack typically relies on three main components: frontend, headless commerce platform, and headless CMS, but it’s not limited to these parts.
Headless commerce platform
What is a headless commerce platform? In this section of the article, we dive deeper into the definition of a headless platform.
What is a headless commerce platform
A headless commerce platform is a cutting-edge, powerful software that runs as a decoupled system. The headless platform architecture separates the presentation layer from the commerce engine. Since it’s API-based, the implementation is fast and the system runs seamlessly.
What companies will benefit from the use of headless commerce platforms?
Choosing a headless commerce platform is a good idea for businesses with significant potential for scaling. As the project grows, brands are faced with the need to expand web functionality to improve their customer experience.
Who will benefit from the use of a headless commerce platform?
- Brands that want to implement an omnichannel business strategy. Headless commerce solutions let you gather all available content and product data to give shoppers quick access to the channels they use to shop online.
- Companies that seek more flexibility. Headless commerce platforms allow companies to introduce new features quicker even when buyer preferences change overnight.
- Organizations that want to improve customer experience. Implementing a headless commerce platform lets you experiment with customization and UX, as well as improve web performance and customer experience.
Key benefits of headless commerce to your store and team
When the eCommerce industry accelerated, the convenient “all-in-one” approach represented by monolithic eCommerce platforms occurred to be a significant drawback.
Merchants were struggling with legacy systems issues, old-fashioned tech stacks, lack of agility, and dependencies from one provider who - let's not be afraid to say that - often was rather a Jack of all trades than a master of one.
Headless commerce changed the game, bringing significant benefits, such as:
Unlimited UX and UI control
Decoupling units allowing developers for unfettered operations at the frontend without affecting the backend unties merchants’ hands when it comes to marketing and UX. They can implement advanced tools to create visually pleasing user interfaces, omnichannel and well-performing web experiences.
Additionally they can launch a new product line, associated brand, or a new touchpoint addressing a different audience within hours not months.
Headless commerce future-proofs the system as continuous iteration and innovation are secured. An eCommerce platform can work freely with any frontend and third-party extensions, preventing delays that would arise because of the number of deploys needed in a monolith.
Flexibility and customizability
API-first architecture allows merchants to cherry-pick the best services in their niches and customize their eCommerce system to make it exactly what they need it to be.
Improved developer experience
Decentralized architecture splits the process of engaging the entire dev team. Before applying headless technology, a monolithic architecture involved operating with many different eCommerce layers at the same time and prevented frontend developers from choosing the modern JS frameworks to work with.
Lightning-fast web performance
Choosing modern, JS frameworks to build frontend layers allows to significantly improve performance and so deliver a better user experience (UX).
PWA (Progressive Web App) Features
PWA is not directly related to headless commerce, but it can be the perfect entrance to "full decapitation". Launching a PWA that’s separated from the backend results in a faster, mobile- and SEO-friendly PWA with a flexible and customizable architecture.
Omnichannel Retail Possibilities
These days eCommerce companies must address the omnichannel expectations to provide excellent customer experience. However, as omnichannel requires flexibility both on the organizational and tech levels, it is often challenging. And legacy tech stacks do not make it easier.
Headless commerce is different. Within this approach, changes in the visual layer do not affect the backend layer, and - thanks to headless CMS - the personalized content can be spread over multiple touchpoints from one single source.
Thanks to the headless commerce approach, development teams can develop, deploy, and scale the services independently of others. The entire system, but divided into parts, enables them to work at different speeds, making the new developer’s onboarding process more straightforward.
Taking all of that into account, it is clear that adding new features is way faster within the headless commerce platform model than within monoliths.
Learn more about the benefits of headless commerce .
Headless commerce development: Where to start?
There are two preferred methods of headless commerce development: a full replatforming and a gradual, frontend-first migration.
The process of full replatforming requires exchanging the entire legacy system with a new, full-fledged headless commerce stack, composed of several headless solutions like:
- Frontend as a Service
- eCommerce platform
- headless CMS
- search solution
- payment solution
- other third-party tools
This "all in or nothing" approach to headless commerce development is more complex, time-consuming and costly than the step-by-step method, which starts with the frontend.
A gradual, frontend-first migration allows you to reap the benefits of headless commerce without ditching your current legacy software. Instead of implementing multiple solutions to compose an entirely new eCommerce stack, you can focus solely on the frontend part of the system, which is where the entire customer experience happens.
Instead of changing the entire engine, you add a performant, mobile-first frontend to your current eCommerce platform. Fortunately, thanks to solutions like Frontend as a Service you don't need to build the frontend layer from scratch – pre-build UI components, ready integrations with headless CMS and other third-party solutions, as well as pre-optimised frontend architecture save you plenty of development hours. Instead of building, you can focus on customisation.
Headless Commerce Use Cases
Headless architecture used to be reserved only for the Silicon Valley unicorns that were about to disrupt the old order. Their market positions almost forced them to make bold decisions, and going headless was one of them.
- Netflix was one of the first. When the components within its monolithic app were tightly connected, even the tiniest error could lead to several days of downtime, which this VOD service can't afford.
- Amazon is another example, and the reason is pretty evident given the scale of its operations. Long deployments and difficulties with adding new features would have slowed down the company’s growth, which was not part of the plan.
- For Uber, a monolithic app was just fine when the company was a local enterprise. Yet, similar to Amazon, it became a massive roadblock when scaling the business.
- Zalando hit a similar ceiling. In 2010, the company switched from monoliths to speed up innovations and A/B testing, bringing the best conversion.
Is headless commerce beneficial to your business?
Switching to headless architecture requires some digital maturity level or the willingness to explore digital sales’ potential. Still, especially nowadays, many mid-size companies seem to fulfill these requirements.
The popularity of headless commerce solutions, which started going beyond the tight circle of developers and CTOs, also helps.
So… when is the right moment to choose a headless model? There is no universal answer to this question, of course, but - if you answer "YES" to most of the following questions, headless Commerce should be the direction that can help you.
- Do you struggle with sluggish web performance?
- Does your predefined UI layer need to be refreshed to align your brand identity?
- Does your tech stack prevent you from implementing new features?
- Do you struggle with tech debt?
- Do you find it challenging to deliver content across multiple touchpoints?
Headless commerce examples: Businesses just as yours
Nowadays, headless commerce stopped being limited to the big, global brands. In fact, the technology is very democratic, simply because it doesn't force a bloody revolution in the system by killing off the whole class of existing functionalities and restarting the architecture from the very beginning.
Here are a few headless commerce examples:
The first Dutch open food B2B marketplace was launched right before the Horeca industry closed down. Yet, Foodl had no intention to waste time. Instead, it chose to make the most of given circumstances and make the platform perfectly suited for its clients. Chosen tech stack, which consisted of commercetools at the backend and Vue Storefront as the frontend, turned out to be the foundation that made it possible.
Zadig & Voltaire
Zadig & Voltaire, a well-known fashion brand, was one of the very first merchants to have chosen Magento back in 2008, and for over a decade, this solution, which set eCommerce standards, was a perfect fit for the French company. At some point, however, it decided to revamp the front-end layer to unify the UX across the markets. And that required the entire new tech stack.
Read Zadig & Voltaire's case study
LoveCrafts is not a traditional eCommerce business, focused on increasing sales quarter by quarter and constantly conquering new markets. It is something much bigger. Besides commerce, the company provides an extensive pool of inspiration for crafters and a community.
To successfully embrace these two sides of the business, its software had to meet extremely high demands and - it would not be an exaggeration to say - that there was no one particular technology to meet them all.
Discover more headless commerce examples .
Where to start with headless commerce
To make a swift shift to headless technology , merchants can apply a cost- and time-effective approach, and instead of full-blown re-platforming, start with replacing just a frontend.
"Headless" storefront is a frontend presentation layer that supervises and orchestrates the user-side of eCommerce.
A proper headless frontend can be described as a progressive tech ecosystem that binds together all of the headless components and assures the proper and efficient functioning of the digital storefront.
Reasons to start your headless commerce journey with the frontend:
- Frontend drives customer experience. Most of the digital customer journey happens on the frontend. This means your frontend platform must tick all the right boxes for a generation of buyers who demand a personalized experience, the ultimate ease of use, and short wait times. By choosing frontend as the first step towards a composable approach, you start with your customer needs.
- Frontend drives performance. Only ultrafast architecture can deliver outstanding customer experience. The current legacy system is crippling your page speed, performance and the entire customer experience. Instead of costly point solutions, you need an entirely new underlying frontend technology optimized for web performance and SEO out-of-the-box.
- Vue Storefront allows easy and smooth migration for quick ROI. With Vue Storefront as your frontend platform you can easily take the first step towards a modern composable commerce architecture and quickly see the business results of your digital transformation. Contrary to the common approach, you don’t need to build your storefront from scratch – with Vue Storefront you can assemble your presentation layer with pre-built blocks optimized for performance.