What is headless ecommerce?

Headless ecommerce is something that everyone talks about for the last year and a half. And it’s not really surprising - it offers a new approach to the current problems of a modern business by separating your website’s front-end and back-end. Learn more about headless ecommerce and its advantages in this article.
Updated: June 12, 2020 | Ilse Lauwens, Marketing Director

Explore Virto Commerce headless ecommerce architecture.

Headless ecommerce has been receiving a lot of attention lately, and a lot of people are switching over to it as their basic approach to the way they showcase their products and product info.

And it’s not just the customers and companies, either – headless ecommerce is also implemented in different ways in companies like Prismic or Contentful (both - headless CMS), or even popular platforms, like Magento, BigCommerce and others – opening their API for more variations of headless implementation. Thanks to that, now there’s a lot of different platforms that you can use to implement headless ecommerce and front-end de-coupling.

The architecture of headless ecommerce

Why are we talking about headless ecommerce?

Omnichannel is gaining ground. You need grant access to your ecommerce data for multiple applications from Progressive Web Apps, ChatBots and B2B integrations to IoT devices, AR, XR, and even the VR experience.

Another concern is that the storefront technologies are changing very often: Angular, React, VueJS are now available and very popular. But new technologies such as Microsoft Blazor are coming. Today, it is increasingly challenging to compete in the market if you are stuck with old technologies and need to rebuild the solution from scratch when you want to use a new storefront technology.

Let’s begin with what headless ecommerce actually is. Headless ecommerce’s architecture is a situation when your site’s front-end part is separate from the rest, including ecommerce platform, delivery engine, order management system and other elements. By separating the front-end and the back-end you’ll be able to become more flexible when it comes to different, feature-rich content and satisfying user experience.

The most obvious use case for such an approach is brand-focused content-heavy websites, but that’s not to say that it works the same way for every business type. Here’s how it works: classic approach to commerce experience implies that the storefront needs a way to retrieve an info from the platform, and it can get time-consuming, depending on the connection type. De-coupling those two implies that the API is getting the info from the back-end instead, allowing developers to have much easier time customizing websites on both front-end and back-end without them relying on each other too much via code.

Benefits and challenges of headless ecommerce

Obviously, headless ecommerce isn’t the “fit-for-all” solution, nor is it perfect. We will go over the benefits and challenges of using a headless ecommerce platform, starting with advantages:

Benefit – Speed and flexibility

Due to the nature of headless ecommerce, organizations do not need to make any adjustments to the app layer to change the content presentation layer. This goes a long way in creating a more consistent experience for your customers.

And it is not just flexibility, either – headless ecommerce can also increase responsiveness so companies can quickly adapt their content to changes in the market. Headless ecommerce does not need to re-deploy the entire system every time a change is made, and both the speed and the flexibility are critical for the vast majority of companies.

Benefit – Integration and customization

The appliance of headless ecommerce allows developers to create much more versatile and unique experiences, because you do not have to limit your ambitions to the restrictions of your traditional platform. The integration capabilities are also much more efficient than traditional systems, allowing companies to stay relevant and deliver satisfying content in time for customers to enjoy.

Benefit – Personalization and experimenting

Personalization is one of the key factors that allows companies to be remembered by their customers to begin with. Many companies try to make their customer experience as unique as possible, and headless ecommerce can help them with that immensely.

Experimenting with headless ecommerce is also much easier because companies have no need to re-upload the entire app to apply changes to the design or within the system itself. This also works to the developers’ benefit, so they don’t have to spend additional time making adjustments to both the front and backend of the site to make everything work properly.

Of course, headless ecommerce is not perfect, and there are a number of things to consider before moving your entire business over to a headless ecommerce based platform.

Downside – Troubleshooting and updates

If traditional platforms have more or less streamlined update process, headless ecommerce is all about updating not only your API, but also your hardware, which is typically handled by the traditional platform’s provider.

It is extremely noticeable when it comes to security matters, your developers should basically build the majority of security measures themselves, which is an extensive amount of work, and supporting everything that was previously created is not exactly easy either.

Troubleshooting is another problem that may arise if you choose to work with headless ecommerce as a platform, the more layers of the system you have – the more development skill you need to successfully find and fix various issues that may or may not arise when you do not need them to.

Downside – Limits in functionality from the start

In its current form, your functionality within a headless ecommerce platform is strictly limited to what this specific platform supports in the first place. Not all headless ecommerce platforms are created equal, and it is important to remember that a company must ensure that its future platform integrates with third parties, the global search function and the ability to connect to other ecommerce solution (to get catalogs, products, prices and/or promotions), at the very least. Another risk of using a headless ecommerce platform is that your administrative interfaces become limited by your custom presentation layer and are not designed to handle transactional ecommerce to begin with.

Downside – Management and development

Headless ecommerce-based systems are not exactly “set up and forgotten” kind of systems, far from it. You pay for the increased flexibility of the system with the need to constantly monitor and manage the entire system, and this requires both experience and resources. Sooner or later, issues will undoubtedly arise, so you will basically have to pay the development team to constantly monitor your system, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and so on.

Development costs are also a big deal when it comes to headless ecommerce, as the complete front-end needs to be developed from scratch, often with sufficient changes to the majority of standard systems. It is a project that will quickly waste your money and time – and it is not even a 100% chance that your future ecommerce store would be as perfect as you want it to.

Is headless ecommerce right for your business?

As with most business decisions, the choice of whether or not to use a headless ecommerce platform strongly depends on many different factors, and both the popularity of headless ecommerce and its apparent ease of use are not really the biggest factors here. Below is a list of factors that companies should consider before implementing headless ecommerce:

  • Companies that already have a sophisticated CMS in place;
  • Large enterprises with many different brands/divisions/smaller companies under their belt;
  • Companies that rely on the use of many different systems that require integration with ecommerce;
  • High-growth companies;
  • Enterprises with complex and/or one-off business regulations and ordering processes;
  • Companies accustomed to constantly changing content.

Of course, this list is not definitive, but companies and businesses that share these factors may find headless ecommerce much more attractive and valuable than others.

Headless and Frontend

Headless approaches do not expect out-of-the box frontend applications. At the same time, we need to present ecommerce content for the people and we recommend having at least one fronted kit and multiple client SDK.

Fronted Kits and SDK like Storefront Kit, Chatbot Kit, JS Shopping Cart Kit, Mobile App Kit, etc help a new customer build ecommerce and go to live with MVP faster.

Headless ecommerce platforms to think about

Headless ecommerce is somewhat new on the market, but there are already many companies that can work with it to a significant extent. Here’s three top examples:

Virto Commerce

Virto Commerce users can take advantage of the solution’s seamless integration capabilities, as well as seamless & flexible customer experience and unlimited amount of B2B, B2C, B2X, D2C channels.

Shopify Plus

Shopify Plus users have access to various APIs that are able to expose product information to third-party systems, but they will still need a CMS to handle bigger amounts of content.

Magento 2

Magento 2 users can take advantage of Magento’s API, but still need to rely on an outsider’s third-party web content management system to successfully work with large amounts of content.

Conclusion

The problem with the current world’s situation is that you can’t just set up your store and not change it for months. The world is constantly changing, and you’ll most likely need to make a lot of frequent changes, going as far as to do weekly or daily changes to your website. That’s the only way to keep your customer base interested and attract more customers at the same time.

It’s no wonder that headless ecommerce has been the talk of the year – it fits right in to those tight adaptability requirements. Severing ties between the front-end and back-end of a website allows you to completely concentrate on optimizations, custom content variations and other new ways of selling your product.

Download white paper to learn why the business must change its mindset to headless ecommerce

Ilse Lauwens
Director Marketing