eCommerce has been growing for years. Everyone knows this already. But what’s the next step?
A headless eCommerce platform is the next stage in store interfaces for most businesses.
- Online retail sales as a percentage of total retail sales jumped from 13.8% in 2019 to 19.6% in 2021. Experts expect them to grow to 24.5% by 2025.
- Companies with strong omnichannel investment retain 89% of their customers compared to just 33% retention for companies with weaker omnichannel engagement.
- Companies raised over $1.65 billion in funding for the development of headless eCommerce platforms in 2020-2021 alone.
A headless commerce platform is the solution of choice for companies who want to build a strong omnichannel retail experience.
So, let’s ask the obvious question:
Headless eCommerce is the separation of the front-end from the back-end of an eCommerce application. To explain further, the ‘head’ is the presentation layer, what the customer or visitors see. The back-end is like the body, and contains all the guts of the online store, such as its databases, prices, web content management system, and more.
Traditional eCommerce platforms link these two parts together. Companies updated their eCommerce sites by working on them as a whole, with front-end and back-end changes happening simultaneously for a single platform.
Here’s an example:
A company built a website for traditional commerce platforms. They could alter their website, such as adding a new product range. This change affected the website’s front-end (what the customers saw) and the back-end (what was stored in the store’s database) at the same time. But it required changes to their front-end presentation layer and their back-end and it only affected one platform.
By contrast, a headless commerce platform allows changes to the back-end without affecting the front-end, and vice versa. So a company can add to their product range, reconfigure their database, or create new content on the back-end without making changes to any of the front-end.
Why is this important? Let’s talk about that right now.
Here’s one important thing to understand: headless commerce works because of APIs.
Headless eCommerce platforms offer much more flexibility because of how they use application programming interface (API) calls. An API is like an adapter that translates the information in the back-end into useful outputs for presentation. APIs are platform specific, but adapt to the back-end of headless commerce platforms.
So, a company creates their eCommerce application and then connects it to their eCommerce website, social media platforms, and progressive web apps via APIs for each channel. There may be development work to make each API work, so the presentation creates a consistent customer experience, but this is usually much less than developing separate mobile apps and eCommerce stores for every sales channel.
Now that you understand that, let’s mention three advantages of a headless commerce solution for your eCommerce store.
Headless architecture means designers can create seamless digital experiences for every front-end. They can craft the perfect front-end look for sales on Instagram, Shopify, TikTok, a website, and a mobile app. Each sales channel uses an API to connect to the back-end. So the front-end can be connected to all the databases, content, and analytics for the online store. This approach allows designers to create the perfect store front for your business on each platform without being constrained by any of the back-end code.
Because the back-end does not affect the front-end in a headless solution, designers can craft every aspect of the customer experience. This opens up a new level of customization because everything is possible. Design changes on one digital commerce site don’t affect the design changes on another platform.
Note how this is a step beyond responsive design. Responsive design starts with a single eCommerce solution, the main website. Designers and developers create this solution to respond to the visitor’s device. However, the explosion in the number of devices and channels being used means responsive web design reached its limits. A single front-end, shackled to the entire backend system, simply cannot be responsive enough to meet the growing demand for customized and personalized shopping experiences.
A headless commerce approach is more flexible and adaptable than legacy eCommerce platforms. Because the front-end is decoupled from the back-end, it is possible to adapt quickly to multiple platforms and multiple channels quickly.
For example, a headless CMS contains all the content for the business. If a business needs a new channel for the eCommerce store, then all that is required is for the API and front-end to be configured correctly. The existing content will flow to the new channel automatically.
Without a headless commerce solution, each new sales channel must have a back-end and front-end created. This makes the entire business less flexible and adaptable.
Headless looks like the way to go for the entire eCommerce industry. It has tremendous advantages for online stores. Let’s look at seven of the most significant advantages of headless commerce solutions.
Omnichannel simply means ‘all channels.’ If there is a place to sell your products, a headless eCommerce solution will help you make the most of it. The same backend powers optimized frontend experiences. So, customers can browse your products on the Instagram feed on their phone, compare them with your competitors’ websites on their laptop when they get home, and then make a purchase later. New sales channels can be added quickly, such as selling through Alexa, the screen on the new refrigerator in the kitchen, or through a digital kiosk in the shopping mall.
Modern online businesses use multiple software packages to get the best results. Marketing, shipping, warehousing, customer service, refunds, analytics, and reporting are all key functions of many businesses. Traditional eCommerce platforms are typically able to connect to some of these services, but not all of them. Businesses might also be locked into a list of the preferred vendors of the platform instead of being able to choose their own.
Headless commerce systems integrate with almost any service by using APIs. This means businesses can choose the best app or software for their needs and connect to it. This creates a far more flexible eCommerce platform.
Do you know how many updates Amazon rolls out? On average, they roll out an update every 11.7 seconds. Because their backend systems are separate from their frontend systems, these updates don’t require the entire platform to experience downtime. That’s one more advantage of headless systems for eCommerce businesses.
Web developers can send out updates frequently without disrupting the entire eCommerce business. But this isn’t just a vanity metric. “Look how fast we are!” Instead, being able to update frequently allows online retailers to adjust almost instantly to changes in the marketplace. Minor changes, such as inventory management for an unexpected event, can be rolled out in minutes. Larger changes, such as launching a new sales channel, can be accomplished much faster.
Marketing teams can create websites, new native mobile apps, and fresh strategies for reaching customers faster because headless platforms don’t require the entire system to be developed for each new channel. This means eCommerce teams can work quickly whenever they see a new opportunity.
Headless eCommerce platforms deliver API driven experiences to customers on different devices. This means design teams can focus on the best experience for each sales channel without worrying how changing one will affect all the others.
A headless content management system has the same effect because it makes the content available to all customers regardless of their device or channel. Customers are not constrained by a web app or a website. They can access content wherever and however they want.
Customers appreciate personalization. In fact,74% of customers feel frustrated when content is not personalized. A headless CMS allows online retailers to connect all their persnalized data, stored in the back-end, to each sales channel. This creates a personalized experience for every shopper regardless of the channel they used to connect to your eCommerce stores.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch. A headless commerce platform is not an exception to this rule. The benefits, while substantial, come with some costs that must be paid. Let’s mention the most significant disadvantages of headless solutions.
Development may be faster with a headless commerce platform, but it is also constant. In a traditional commerce platform, non-developers could create new pages and sales collateral relatively easily. While content management systems can help, new front-end content in a headless system may require more developer collaboration, resulting in higher ongoing costs.
The marketing team may need its own developers to match the traditional eCommerce flexibility they enjoyed for smaller tasks. For example, a marketing team may need experienced developers to roll out a new sales page or category with a headless system. A traditional WYSIWYG editor gave them the ability to test these things on their own.
A headless commerce application is essentially two separate systems. There is the back-end with its databases, servers, and analytics. Then there is the front-end, with its APIs and connectors. The dual-system approach enables developers to have more flexibility, but it also creates two systems that must be maintained.
Headless eCommerce might be more expensive than a traditional platform. This is because there are multiple systems to build, maintain, and develop. This means businesses must generate the necessary sales to support a shift to headless eCommerce. However, its flexibility may unlock the business growth necessary required to justify the costs.
When comparing the best headless ecommerce platforms, here are the criteria we used to evaluate them.
Traditionally, the code for the website or application was developed first, and then the API. Reversing this creates the API first, which then informs the rest of the development. New features are added as independent services accessed by the API. This helps manage the complexity of cloud-based infrastructure. We think this is preferrable.
Headless systems are more customizable by default. But we also want to see the platforms allow as much customization and tweaking as possible. Essentially, they should be a digital experience platform, not just a code base.
Is the platform truly omnichannel or just multi-channel? Everyone expects web and mobile apps. What about the IoT? The Metaverse? Does the application really offer a commerce engine capable of reaching every platform?
We want to see the best headless ecommerce platforms with full support. You should be able to contact someone for help. A thorough knowledge base of articles and FAQ could be available. The best choices also have a community of active users.
Now, let’s get to our list. We’ve picked out what we think are the top choices. Have a look and see which one fits your business model.
Magento Commerce, now Adobe Commerce, is the top choice for a headless digital commerce platform. The Adobe Experience Cloud contains multiple apps and integrations for analytics, creating content, and incorporating new sales channels. Frequent updates and a huge support system make this an easy pick for the top spot. A Magento agency can help you get the most out of this amazing platform.
BigCommerce connects to a vast number of marketplaces, such as Amazon, eBay, and Google. Its headless features include tools for product listing, customer segmentation, payment processing, and cart recovery. One of the best features of BigCommerce is its WordPress plugin. You can use this to connect to WP seamlessly if you are already working with that platform. If you want to know more, check out our guide called, “What is BigCommerce?”
Shopify staked its claim as the most user-friendly of the big commerce platforms. Many new retailers and smaller stores use Shopify because of how easy it is to get started. Now, Shopify Plus offers headless eCommerce that is perfect for growing businesses. It is very stable and integrates with almost every major marketplace. Best of all, Shopify’s support is among the best in the business.
OroCommerce comes from the same team that pioneered Magento. Its focus is on B2B and wholesale customers. This means it has strong inventory management, CRM integration, and ERP software connections. Many B2B businesses connect it to the SalesForce Commerce Cloud for better results. Of course, since it’s headless, it can also be configured for B2C, dropshipping, and B2B2C business models.
Contentful helps businesses that focus heavily on content creation and new development. It is probably the best headless ecommerce platform for teams using the Agile development model. Contentful comes with multiple user spaces, a WYSIWYG editor, and integrates with apps like Jira, Dropbox, and other business tools. There is also a strong user community and support to help you.
Builder.io is brilliant for companies using Shopify without extensive design resources. It comes with a visual editor, making it easier to track changes and see what the outcome will look like. Builder.io also connects to Shopify using a high-speed data layer. There are also themes and templates to make deployment easier and faster for teams without lots of design experience or budget.
Commerce Layer is a truly global headless platform. They make it easy to move into new global marketplaces without requiring data duplication. For each market, you can define specific price lists, inventory models, payment gateways, delivery options, and more. There’s no need to create multiple accounts or versions for different international locations—Commerce Layer offers real multi-currency, distributed inventory, and localized shipping carriers.
If you want to compare some of these platforms, have a look at our BigCommerce vs Magento comparison to help you see some advantages of each platform.
Businesses know that customization and personalization are not going away. These are forces in the market that will require the best headless eCommerce platforms to maximize sales opportunities. Now is the right time to evaluate your eCommerce platform and decide if it is time to switch to a headless option.
For more information about how to switch, check out our guide to eCommerce replatforming.
For advice you can trust, contact Jamersan. We’ve been doing eCommerce as long as it has been around. Our team of expert eCommerce consultants can help you evaluate your current platform and choose the best next step for your business growth.