A headless ecommerce platform is one of the latest ways ecommerce businesses take advantage of technology to enhance their digital presence and to keep up with the modern consumer’s evolving demands. Significant innovations are required to move the ecommerce industry further, and platforms with a headless commerce architecture are at the forefront of that movement.

Within this article, you will find information on the nature of headless ecommerce solutions; how they work and compare to traditional ecommerce models; what the benefits of their decoupled architecture are; when to use such an ecommerce system; and how to choose the right one for your ecommerce store.

What is a headless ecommerce platform?

A headless commerce platform is a solution that separates the front-end and back-end of an ecommerce website.

Definition and overview of headless ecommerce

The ‘head’ in headless refers to the front-end part that users interact with, such as the website’s design and user interface

When there is no head in an ecommerce business platform, the front end is decoupled from the back end – the ‘body’ of the website, responsible for its functional operations.

Comparison with traditional ecommerce platforms

The traditional ecommerce platform follows a monolithic structure, meaning it comes coupled with both front-end and back-end tools to help you make changes to both parts of your website without using separate services. That can be useful, but it also has some limitations.

By having the two sides be interconnected, they also become interdependent. Should any changes be made on one side, they may affect the other, potentially leading to lower flexibility and speed than headless models. Plus, in most cases, you would use a service that primarily relies on pre-built integrations, tools, and functionalities without viable options for personalization.

Traditional ecommerce platforms were the legacy ecommerce platforms years ago, and they are still preferred by many due to their approachability in terms of technical knowledge required from the one who manages them. You ought to know your business logic before choosing a traditional ecommerce model or a headless one.

How does a headless ecommerce platform work?

In a headless ecommerce solution, you have a decoupled commerce system and a decoupled customer management system.

Decoupled architecture and separation of front-end and back-end

The decoupled approach means there is a separation of the two parts of the website – front-end and back-end. As such, it is essential to take note of the difference between the building blocks of each of those parts.

A headless content management system (abbr. Headless CMS) and a headless commerce solution are two separate components – customer-facing (front-end) and the internal structure and functionality (back-end), respectively. They make up the headless architecture of a website.

When we looked at each component separately, we saw that a headless ecommerce system provides the required infrastructure for online selling, but it does not dictate how the front end should be built or presented. That is the role of the headless CMS, which is designed to manage and deliver content on a front-end presentation layer or, simply put, multiple channels that are visible to and accessible by users.

In other words, front-end developers and back-end developers bring together the customer-facing side and the infrastructural side of the website or mobile application so that they operate seamlessly. That way, the development team has complete technical control over the online store, and to that extent, you have complete creative control over how you wish it to look or function.

API-driven approach and flexibility

In the headless commerce system, the front and back ends are independent entities communicating through APIs, which serve as a bridge between them. That way, front-end developers can use whatever tool they prefer as long as they can connect it to the back end through an API.

API (Application Programming Interface) is a set of rules and protocols that allows and defines how software applications communicate and interact with each other. 

There are different types of APIs, based on their purpose and usage, such as web (ex. HTTP), service (ex. Twitter, Facebook), library, and operating system (ex. Linux, Microsoft). All of those make transferring data in various formats possible by exchanging requests and responses, making the platform functional.

Businesses that utilize API properly have great flexibility in developing websites and native mobile apps. In addition to the core functions they can set in the back-end commerce engine, they can add additional features to improve the customer experience and deliver content across multiple touchpoints – different channels (web, app, social media, etc.) and interfaces customers can interact with.

Content delivery network (CDN) and caching

Another component is content delivery networks (CDN) – geographically distributed networks of services that work together to provide fast delivery of internet content. 

Basically, the CDN stores a copy of the website’s pages – a process called caching – so that the load on the main server can be reduced and site performance can be improved. This is especially useful for users far from the main server’s location.

CDN caching should not be confused with your browser’s caching, which occurs when you open a website by storing cache files on your device. Headless ecommerce platforms utilize CDN caching to decrease the overall loading speed of web pages, and local browser caching reduces them even further.

Benefits of using headless technology for ecommerce

If you decide to go with a headless model for your ecommerce platform, you will enjoy several benefits.

Increased flexibility and customization options

Since the front-end and back-end operate separately, businesses have much more freedom in customizing the user interface and improving the user experience without worrying about affecting back-end operations.

This flexibility also extends to third-party integrations, which enable the usage of specialized services to better their website’s ecommerce functionality. Ultimately, all of that results in more opportunities to innovate and differentiate oneself in the already saturated online market.

Improved performance and scalability

The decoupled nature of headless platforms allows for independent scaling of both the front-end and back-end. Even if the traffic increases suddenly (as it tends to do around holidays and Black Friday), the system won’t be overwhelmed.

Earlier, we mentioned APIs, CDNs, and caching – these are some of the factors that contribute to faster load times and smoother user experience.

Streamlined integration with third-party services

Another one of the benefits of headless ecommerce platforms is the ability to integrate third-party services without much friction.

In doing so, businesses open to various external services, such as CRM, ERP, PIM, etc. All of them essentially serve to leave no holes in the operations of the complete online shopping experience.

Simplified content management and delivery

The headless model also facilitates content management and delivery from the back end to the front end.

Businesses can manage their content via the back end and push it to the front end, which may be a website, a mobile app, an IoT device, or even a VR experience. A capability like that ensures consistent content delivery across almost all channels, contributing to a more cohesive brand image and, to that extent, more consistent customer experiences.

Better mobile responsiveness and user experience

The headless approach makes it easier to build a responsive mobile website and app that does not deviate from the desktop version in its user experience. This model also supports the development of a progressive web app, which behaves like a native mobile app, but is accessed via a web browser.

When customers know how to navigate both without having to go through the learning process twice (as short as it may be), they have a better time. In some cases, this could be the fine line between having a lead and having a client.

Use cases and examples of headless ecommerce platforms

Numerous businesses have leveraged the capabilities of headless commerce solutions to make their online presence known in a more differentiated manner and deliver the authentic customer experience they aim for.

Large-scale enterprise ecommerce sites

The larger the ecommerce business, the more complex the processes and the more scalable and flexible the solutions need to be.

As a versatile solution for enterprises with large online stores, the best headless ecommerce platforms make the management of massive product catalogs much more feasible while serving a global audience.

Multi-channel ecommerce experiences

In today’s retail environment, businesses need to maintain a consistent brand presence across multiple channels to maximize customer touchpoints. 

Headless ecommerce systems enable this by decoupling the content from the presentation layer, allowing businesses to use a single back-end to deliver content across multiple customer touchpoints, regardless of their front-end.

Customizable product and service offerings

With the front end freed from the limitations of the back end, headless ecommerce websites can create unique interfaces that allow customers to customize elements of whole products and services, thereby providing a more engaging shopping experience.

Herein composable commerce becomes more feasible as well. This trend in ecommerce is where businesses compose their distinctive solution using best-of-breed services and applications.

The back end is also more customizable thanks to this decoupled architecture. You can perform various operations and tests without directly influencing the front end and improve the infrastructure of features that your marketing team uses, such as inventory management to track the available number of units of your products.

Innovative user experiences and interfaces

Empowering businesses through innovation is one of the most important use cases of headless platforms because, with their help, it’s easier to try out new user interfaces and build fresh user experiences.

From a technical standpoint, it’s also possible to create interactive product demonstrations and even virtual reality shopping experiences without the constraints of traditional, coupled ecommerce models.

Choosing the right headless solution for your business

Several factors can influence your decision as to which headless platform is right for your business. 

When performing this process, the steps outlined below may help you.

Evaluating your business needs and goals

The first step to any shift in business is to evaluate your enterprise’s needs and goals. Begin by defining the short-term and long-term objectives.

For instance, do you need to improve your online user experience or expand to new markets? You may simply need more sales – in that case, it may not be just up to the platform you are using, but other factors such as your marketing funnel.

Having objectives plays a significant role in guiding your final decision. Furthermore, other factors may not be as relevant if you already own a large online store. Most of all, consider if you have an in-house team of backend and frontend developers who can manage and maintain a headless system or if you need to invest in hiring such individuals first.

Comparing available headless ecommerce platforms

Once you know your business goals and needs, your next step is to evaluate whether the available platforms will fulfill them. Research the most popular options, and see if one matches your needs.

Consider their core offerings, unique features, and customer reviews. Additionally, pay close attention to the user-friendly interface of each system. While you can customize the front end of your ecommerce platform, having a user-friendly back end for effective management is also preferable.

Think about it like this – the ideal option would meet your needs while also giving you additional power features that you can use to develop and maintain your store.

Assessing scalability and flexibility

Crucial considerations of every ecommerce business are the growth potential and how the chosen headless platform can support that. 

When it comes to scalability, you should look for a stable option that could handle a spike in traffic and transactions without impacting operations. As for flexibility, you need the freedom to build whatever front-end you wish to represent your brand and give the best user experience.

Since headless models rely on API first and foremost, most platforms you check out will be similar. However, it would be best if you spent time verifying which strikes the best balance between price, scalability, and flexibility. You can even make an official inquiry and see what offers you would get and how your customer experience would feel like.

Analyzing integration and development capabilities

From a development perspective, you need to assess the coding requirements of each platform so that you know to what extent you can rely on the possibilities during development and the kinds of integrations that can be made efficiently.

Not all platforms require a high level of coding knowledge, but not all offer out-of-the-box solutions. This is where the development team you have gathered will play a key role because, depending on their abilities, you may wish to go with one option over the other.

To that end, when you already know what kind of business systems you will use for CRM, ERP, PIM, payment gateways, and so on, you can better assess the integration capabilities as well. Pre-built integrations generally come with most platforms, though you need to develop custom integrations in some cases when what you need is not on the list.

Considering budget and resources

Throughout the process, you must be aware of your budget and resource constraints. Headless ecommerce technology varies in price, sometimes significantly, so before you commit to one, you need to know the total cost of ownership.

The total cost includes licensing and subscription fees and costs for implementation, maintenance, and potential future upgrades. That’s where the long-term and short-term planning from step 1 comes into play – as long as you know the direction you are headed in and can project accurate numbers, you can make a well-informed decision.

The earlier-mentioned resources, such as technical staff, must be accounted for during this step. Some benefit more from in-house talent, while others prefer outsourcing

The more expensive the platform, the more features it usually has. Cheaper plans generally have limited functionalities. The best way to balance your budget and resources with your business needs and goals is to inquire directly.

For instance, if you send an inquiry to NEXT BASKET, you will quickly notice that there are no one-fits-all plans but, instead, custom-tailored plans that are appropriate to the specificity of the business. 

Those who need full support for their online store and just wish to manage their brick-and-mortar ones; those who want a helping hand but not with everything – whichever type of business yours is, we are confident we can point you in the right direction and accommodate your needs.

Frequently asked questions

What is the difference between headless and traditional ecommerce platforms?

Traditional models of ecommerce platforms have a coupled architecture where the front-end and back-end intertwine and influence each other. Headless ecommerce relies on a decoupled architecture, where the front-end and back-end are separate, offering more flexibility and control over the user experience for the price of a more complex development process.

Can a SaaS platform benefit from SEO?

Yes! Software as a Service platforms can significantly benefit from SEO. Every website seeks search engine optimization because it is a set of strategies to improve the ecommerce stores’ visibility in search results, leading to higher traffic, more leads, and, eventually, more sales.

Can small businesses also benefit from a headless commerce approach?

Small businesses, in particular, can benefit if they aim to scale their ecommerce activity and customize their platform to provide a more unified experience for customers and users alike. They should, however, consider their technical resources and capabilities, as headless systems require more development knowledge.

Are there any potential drawbacks to using headless commerce platforms?

While there are many benefits to this type of platform with a decoupled architecture, some potential drawbacks exist. These are the need for technical resources for setup and maintenance, higher costs, and possible challenges in managing a more complex system.