Oct 13, 2023
Sopha M. & Maisha R.
What Is Headless eCommerce and Which Platforms Should You Use in 2023
If you’re an online business owner, the term headless eCommerce has likely crossed your radar. This approach decouples an online store’s front-end presentation layer – what customers interact with – from the back-end database that powers it.
Before switching to headless commerce, it’s important to understand how it stacks up against traditional commerce platforms. This headless architecture offers superior flexibility and customization, but it’s not without its complexities and technical demands.
This article will explain what headless eCommerce is, how it differs from traditional eCommerce, and its pros and cons. We’ll also introduce five of the best headless eCommerce platforms that can elevate your business.
What Is Headless eCommerce?
Headless eCommerce is a web architecture solution where an online store’s front end or its “head” is separated from its back end. This approach offers increased flexibility, enabling businesses to implement custom solutions to enhance the shopping experience.
Like a headless content management system (CMS), headless commerce uses application programming interfaces (APIs) to communicate between the front and back ends. For instance, when a customer clicks the checkout button on a website or mobile app, an API request is sent to the back end to process the order.
Headless eCommerce vs Traditional eCommerce
A traditional eCommerce model relies on a monolithic architecture that couples the website’s front and back end. This is the default setup in a typical content management system and online store builder, mainly because managing both aspects within a single system is easier.
However, the traditional eCommerce model limits flexibility and agility because making changes to the front end often requires adjustments to the back end.
Headless eCommerce strives to solve this issue by decoupling the front and back end. It lets you adapt to market changes and integrate new technologies into your online store without major alterations to the back-end code.
For example, with headless eCommerce, you can add new sales channels and manage them all in one place rather than juggling multiple platforms and interfaces.
Major online retailers like Amazon also employ the headless eCommerce architecture. It allows them to offer a seamless and consistent shopping experience across all channels, from websites to mobile apps.
Check out the headless commerce vs traditional eCommerce comparison table below:
|Criteria||Headless Commerce||Traditional eCommerce|
|Best for||Complex, multi-platform eCommerce businesses.||Small to medium eCommerce businesses.|
|Difficulty level||High – it has a steep learning curve, which requires technical expertise.||Low to moderate – the user-friendly setup makes it easy for beginners.|
|Cost||High – headless eCommerce architecture involves more upfront costs for development and ongoing maintenance.||Low to moderate – many ready-to-use solutions are available at different prices, but custom solutions can increase costs.|
|Flexibility||High – a decoupled eCommerce architecture supports custom solutions and quick adaptations.||Low – in a traditional eCommerce model, changes in the front end often require changes in the back end, limiting quick adaptations.|
|Speed to market||Fast – an API-first headless commerce platform enables quick updates across multiple channels.||Slow – a traditional commerce architecture often requires altering both front and back ends, slowing down rollouts.|
|Third-party integrations||Easy – a headless ecommerce approach allows seamless API integrations with external systems.||Difficult – existing systems in traditional commerce platforms often need direct code modifications to incorporate third-party services.|
|Scalability||High – the headless architecture lets you easily handle increased traffic or expand to new platforms without overhauling the entire system.||Moderate – in a traditional setup, scaling up requires a more comprehensive system upgrade, which can be time-consuming and costly.|
Many eCommerce platforms support headless functionality by default through robust APIs and a modular architecture. This allows businesses to easily integrate third-party services, customize the front-end experience, and efficiently manage content.
Headless eCommerce Pros and Cons
Before choosing the best headless eCommerce platform for your needs, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of switching to this framework. This will help you better understand whether headless eCommerce is right for your business.
Headless eCommerce Pros
Let’s explore the main benefits of headless commerce.
One of the most significant benefits of headless commerce platforms is easy integration with third-party systems, thanks to APIs.
While traditional eCommerce systems can also integrate with third-party services, it is often at the cost of complexity and higher maintenance. Moreover, traditional eCommerce extensions can slow down website performance and eCommerce operations.
Headless eCommerce API integration streamlines operations by facilitating quicker data transfer and reducing the need for constant updates.
Moreover, headless commerce’s decoupled architecture lets you pick each component of the tech stack individually. You can pair your eCommerce platform with a content management system specifically tailored to your needs instead of relying solely on your existing system’s built-in options.
Let’s explore some headless commerce use cases where API integration offers distinct advantages:
- Customer relationship management (CRM). If you want to have customer data accessible across all departments, API-based integration ensures immediate data transfers and updates. With extensions, there may be delays.
- Enterprise resource planning (ERP). Headless commerce allows seamless connection with an ERP for real-time inventory management. It’s more efficient than an extension that may not sync data as quickly and require manual intervention.
- Progressive web app (PWA). With headless commerce, integrating a PWA is straightforward via APIs. Meanwhile, an extension-based approach may require working within the limitations of the eCommerce platform, affecting the mobile user experience.
- Payment gateways. API-based integrations let you add custom features and high-level security measures for payments.
- Digital asset management. API integrations allow a quick and streamlined management of images, videos, and documents. This ensures all digital content is up-to-date and easily accessible across platforms.
Today, major online retailers no longer manage a single storefront to grow their eCommerce business. Instead, they utilize an omnichannel strategy – a selling tactic that spans multiple online stores, social media, marketplaces, and even instant messaging platforms like WhatsApp.
The challenge with this setup is maintaining a unified eCommerce operation, especially in inventory management, pricing, and policies across different channels.
In a traditional commerce architecture, this often means time-consuming manual updates and inflexible systems that make real-time synchronization a chore.
Moreover, businesses with multiple brands face the added complexity of multi-store management, as each one may have unique procedures and policies. For instance, one brand may only need a receipt for a refund, while another requires photographic proof of a defect.
Traditional commerce platforms usually require separate and often redundant setups for each store, leading to inefficiencies and errors. Omnichannel commerce with headless architecture can address these challenges by decoupling the front from the back end.
You can centrally manage content and distribute it seamlessly across different channels and brands through storefront API integrations with the back end. This will streamline the whole eCommerce business and create a seamless digital experience.
Personalized Customer Experience
According to McKinsey, businesses offering personalized shopping experiences can generate up to 40% more revenue.
Headless commerce solutions allow for adaptable, hyper-personalized customer experiences. For instance, you can dynamically adjust content, layouts, and customer journeys based on real-time data and analytics. This makes it easier to anticipate and meet user needs.
In traditional commerce platforms, some personalization is possible through third-party extensions. However, they often lack the agility the headless commerce approach offers.
Traditional eCommerce is less flexible and has potential compatibility issues. It also requires frequent updates. Moreover, it can be difficult to offer a unified experience across multiple channels and brands with just extensions.
Here are some examples of how headless eCommerce can improve customer experience:
- Product recommendations. Unlike traditional commerce methods, headless eCommerce’s API-driven approach lets you fine-tune product recommendations based on individual user behaviors, offering a more targeted shopping experience.
- Personalized search engine. Headless eCommerce can enable customized search experiences based on user engagement on all channels and devices. This helps customers find relevant products quickly, boosting satisfaction and conversions.
- Targeted problem-solving. Unlike traditional systems that require global fixes, a headless eCommerce framework allows for region-specific solutions. If customers in Asia face a checkout issue, you can resolve it without disrupting user experience in other regions.
Headless eCommerce Cons
After talking about the advantages, let’s look into some common headless eCommerce challenges.
We’ve addressed some headless eCommerce benefits, but this framework also comes with its set of costs. Considering the following factors will help you understand the financial commitment required for a headless commerce system. Let’s break them down:
- Front-end development. Building a user interface from scratch can be pricey. You may need to invest in specialized tools or text editors.
- Back-end development. The expenses will depend on whether you’re going custom or leveraging an existing platform. Costs can include database setup, infrastructure hosting, order management, and payment processing. Integrating with external systems can also add to the cost.
- Maintenance. The complexity of your platform, the size of your development team, and the frequency of updates can impact ongoing expenses. If your platform integrates third-party tools and services, you may also incur costs to maintain them.
Complex Setup and Use
Headless eCommerce solutions can be complex to set up and manage. Therefore, hiring a developer team is essential for businesses without technical expertise. Developers can help handle various tasks, like constructing the front-end presentation layer from scratch.
Alternatively, consider hiring a third party to manage your headless eCommerce framework. While they come with a cost, they can help streamline the setup. This lets you reap the benefits of the headless architecture without an in-house team.
Keep in mind that this custom-built approach can complicate tasks for marketers further, as it lacks the ease of a WYSIWYG editor. This means that minor changes to a website require custom development.
Using a headless commerce system requires front-end and back-end developers to test many different APIs. This ensures third-party platforms integrate well with existing systems. It also helps you manage content across multiple channels.
For example, if you use WordPress for its content management features and Magento for eCommerce, maintaining both platforms is necessary. This increases your team’s workload – they must monitor various features like payment security, checkout functionality, and site speed.
The complexity of a headless commerce setup can also lead to a greater risk of bugs and errors. For instance, apps that usually integrate with traditional eCommerce platforms may require custom development to work with a separate front-end user interface.
5 Best Headless eCommerce Platforms
If you’re still interested in headless eCommerce after learning about its pros and cons, let’s look into the best platforms to run a headless eCommerce framework.
1. WordPress + WooCommerce
For businesses looking for a familiar yet versatile platform, WordPress with WooCommerce offers an excellent headless commerce solution. Its extensive RestAPI capabilities make it easy to integrate with other services and customize the website to your liking.
Additionally, implementing a headless architecture with WordPress and WooCommerce provides an additional layer of security. It will separate the sensitive back-end data from the user interface, making it more challenging for unauthorized users to access it.
While WordPress can serve as the CMS for a headless eCommerce architecture, not all themes and plugins are directly compatible. Some may require additional development work or specialized extensions to function properly.
To kickstart your online business on headless commerce, check out Hostinger’s managed WordPress hosting. We offer the LiteSpeed tech stack for lightning-fast website speeds and a one-click staging tool, making it easy to test changes to your front-end user interface.
For businesses experiencing rapid growth, our Cloud Startup plan is the perfect fit. Designed with advanced WooCommerce users in mind, it includes 200 GB NVMe Storage, unlimited bandwidth, and an in-house CDN to keep your store fast and smooth.
2. Adobe Commerce
For businesses seeking scalable eCommerce solutions, Adobe Commerce stands out as an ideal headless platform.
With over 500 REST and GraphQL operations, users get unparalleled flexibility and functionality in the front-end layer. This approach ensures seamless and consistent customer experiences across desktops, mobile devices, and IoT.
Another advantage of Adobe Commerce is adaptability. You can build a fully customized eCommerce website using any technology, from popular frameworks like React and Angular to server-side technologies like Node.js. If you’re looking to implement augmented or virtual reality (AR/VR) features, the platform can also accommodate these needs.
For those prioritizing mobile responsiveness, Adobe Commerce also supports progressive web app technology. This way, you can create app-like shopping experiences for smartphone users.
Adobe Commerce pairs well with Adobe Experience Manager CMS. You can also integrate it with third-party headless CMS platforms or other front-end technologies to fine-tune your eCommerce store’s user interface.
BigCommerce is a great fit for those who want a headless commerce architecture with a user-friendly interface. With the BigCommerce control panel, business owners can easily manage orders, inventory, products, and customer data all in one place.
The platform supports popular front-end frameworks like Next.js, Gatsby.js, and Nuxt.js, offering flexible design options. Developers will also appreciate BigCommerce’s powerful REST and GraphQL API options and its comprehensive documentation.
If you use WordPress for its content management features, you can link multiple WordPress sites to one BigCommerce account as separate channels. In the BigCommerce control panel, you can specify which product appears on which site. You can also funnel all orders into a central area for efficient management.
BigCommerce offers varying API rate limits depending on the plan. Standard and Plus plans cap at 20,000 API calls/hour, maxing 150 requests/30 seconds. The Pro plan ups this to 60,000 API calls/hour and 450 requests/30 seconds, while the Enterprise plan eliminates these limits altogether.
The Standard and Plus plans may be sufficient for small to medium businesses. However, larger operations with complex needs may find these limits restrictive and should consider higher-tier plans.
4. Shopify Plus
Shopify Plus is an excellent choice for enterprises looking for an intuitive headless commerce platform. With its storefront API, developers can easily tap into the software’s robust features using any programming framework.
Developers can also use Hydrogen – Shopify’s React-based framework – to quickly create dynamic web storefronts. Then, launch them in one click on Oxygen, the platform’s built-in hosting.
If you have existing systems for processes like order management, you can integrate them using Shopify Plus’s API and SDK. This results in a unified commerce experience across all aspects of your business.
One of the perks of Shopify Plus is its all-in-one services, like Shopify Payments and Shopify Shipping. These features can simplify the setup process and potentially save you money by eliminating third-party transaction fees.
Moreover, you can collaborate with skilled Shopify Plus Partners to craft custom online stores that meet your needs.
commercetools is built on the MACH stack, which stands for microservices, API-first, cloud-based, and headless.
Microservices in eCommerce enable modular development. This lets you modify specific services without overhauling the entire online store, making it an efficient way to implement changes.
As a cloud-based platform, commercetools leverages Google Cloud and Amazon Web Services. You only pay for the cloud resources you actually use, which can help lower overall costs.
commercetools offers over 300 API endpoints covering various use cases, from inventory management to payment processing. Its patented API extensibility lets you add custom functions to meet your specific business requirements.
For those interested in commercetools, consider signing up for a 60-day free trial with full access to its platform and APIs. If you decide to continue, contact their sales team for a customized quote. The pricing will be based on factors like usage level, API calls, and number of products.
What to Look For in a Headless eCommerce Platform
When choosing a headless eCommerce platform, it’s essential to know what factors to consider to meet your business needs. From scalability to security, each aspect plays a critical role in the success of your online store.
Scalability and Performance
The platform’s scalability and performance capabilities should be your first consideration. Choose a headless solution that can adapt as your business grows, efficiently handling increased traffic and demand spikes.
A headless architecture in eCommerce should offer a flexible infrastructure and horizontal scalability. You can allocate resources specifically to the presentation layer, back end, or database, depending on your needs.
As your eCommerce site expands, your data and transaction volume will increase. Choose a headless platform with a database that can scale through techniques like sharding or replication.
Scalability isn’t just about your eCommerce platform – your hosting plan should be adaptable too. Check out our guide on how to choose a web hosting plan to ensure you’re fully prepared for growth.
Web developers should have the flexibility to tailor the eCommerce site to specific business needs using a robust set of headless commerce development tools, frameworks, and libraries.
Additionally, it’s good to use a platform with an intuitive and well-documented interface. This simplifies the development process and enables quick adaptation for new team members.
Besides these functional aspects, check if the platform has a strong developer community and support. They should have extensive documentation, active forums, and responsive customer service for troubleshooting and optimization.
API Support and Integrations
Not all platforms have robust and comprehensive API support. Choosing a headless eCommerce platform with an API-first approach is important to ensure seamless access and control. This helps developers integrate various components of your business easily.
The number of API endpoints a platform offers is another critical factor. More endpoints mean more functionality and customization options, which is particularly beneficial for complex eCommerce sites.
Security and Compliance
A key advantage of a headless architecture is that separating the front and back ends can minimize attack surfaces. This makes it harder for unauthorized access to occur and limits the impact on sensitive customer data if a breach occurs.
That said, security in headless eCommerce remains an important aspect to pay attention to.
The eCommerce platform should support secure, user identity-led access to shopper APIs. Services like the Shopper Login and API Access Service (SLAS) enable high-scale authentication and authorization, safeguarding information as it flows in and out of your eCommerce website.
Lastly, the platform should offer the capability to integrate specialized features like secure payment gateways, fraud detection systems, and real-time monitoring. This ensures a secure and trustworthy customer checkout experience.
Total Cost of Ownership
Total cost of ownership (TCO) is the upfront and maintenance cost of using a platform. No matter which headless solution you’re considering, calculating TCO is vital to ensure your investment matches your long-term business goals.
Consider these factors that make up the TCO:
- Vendor costs. These are ongoing fees paid to the platform provider. They can include subscription plans, licenses, maintenance contracts, and any extra services. These recurring costs should fit the overall budget and earning expectations.
- Support and maintenance. Once live, your eCommerce store needs upkeep. This includes regular monitoring and updates to maintain security and performance. Whether you have in-house staff or hire externally, these costs should be part of your TCO.
- Internal resource. Your own team’s work also adds to the expenses. Consider costs like salaries and education to develop the skills needed to manage headless platforms.
- Integration and customization. The flexibility of a headless architecture can lead to extra expenses. These may include connecting the new system with the ones you already use, like CRM software, or changing how the user interface looks and works.
Future Headless Commerce Trends
Headless commerce adoption is on the rise, with a 40% increase during the COVID-19 pandemic. By 2025, nearly 35% of businesses plan to switch from traditional to headless platforms.
This shows that headless commerce is not just a fleeting eCommerce trend. It’s setting the stage for future online business innovations.
As artificial intelligence continues transforming various industries, it will also significantly impact headless architecture in eCommerce.
Expect to see more platforms offering AI-powered eCommerce tech stack to personalize shopping experiences. Developers can quickly add these features and connect the data needed to power them using APIs.
Voice commerce is also gaining traction. Recent data shows that 27% of US shoppers use voice assistants to pay online. The flexibility of the headless approach lets you add voice command features to your eCommerce website, making shopping even more convenient.AR is also further revolutionizing eCommerce sites. 56% of shoppers believe that AR gives them more confidence in product quality. Through headless commerce’s APIs, businesses can insert all kinds of information into AR experiences, making them more robust and useful for shoppers.
Headless eCommerce is a system where the front end and back end of an online store operate independently, giving businesses more freedom to customize and manage each part.
This model seamlessly integrates third-party services, enabling a unified and personalized shopping experience across multiple channels. That said, it can also be resource-intensive, requiring significant investment in both setup and ongoing management.
Let’s recap five of the best headless eCommerce platforms:
- WordPress + WooCommerce. Ideal for businesses familiar with WordPress, this platform offers a versatile headless commerce solution with robust API capabilities.
- Adobe Commerce. Perfect for enterprises. With over 500 REST and GraphQL operations, it can enable a seamless shopping experience across various digital touchpoints.
- BigCommerce. Suited for those seeking a user-friendly interface. It also lets you manage multiple WordPress sites and offers tailored API rate limits based on your needs.
- Shopify Plus. A top pick for enterprises desiring an intuitive, all-in-one headless solution. It has built-in services and easy integration with existing systems.
- commercetools. Built for businesses looking for modular, cloud-based eCommerce. It offers a flexible API-first approach and pay-as-you-go cloud resource pricing.
We hope this article has given you a better insight into headless eCommerce. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.
Headless eCommerce FAQ
Let’s dive into some commonly asked questions about using a headless commerce platform.
How Does Headless Commerce Impact SEO and Online Visibility?
When implemented properly, headless eCommerce can generate positive SEO results. An efficient architecture leads to faster page loading times, which can improve search rankings. Additionally, it enables greater control over content management and delivery, improving the shopping experience for users.
What Are Some Examples of Businesses That Use Headless eCommerce?
Amazon, Nike, Tesla, and Samsung are some eCommerce website examples that have adopted headless commerce platforms. This approach enables them to provide seamless, personalized customer experience across multiple platforms and devices.
How to Implement Headless eCommerce in My Business?
To implement a headless eCommerce solution, choose a suitable platform. Then, focus on building a robust front end that interacts seamlessly with the back end via APIs. Ensure easy integration with third-party apps, like payment gateways. If you need custom solutions, consult with web developers.
Is Headless eCommerce Suitable for Small Businesses?
Headless eCommerce is ideal for small businesses aiming to scale and create customized customer experiences with enhanced agility. However, it is more costly than a typical eCommerce environment. It also requires a skilled development team to implement and manage.