The Rise of Headless Commerce: What It Is & Why It Matters

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Stephanie Trovato


If you're an ecommerce site owner, you've heard the buzzy term 'headless commerce' discussed before. However, you might not know what it is or even have a headless commerce example. Luckily, you don't have to navigate the world of headless commerce alone — we're here to help.

headless commerce: image shows hands holding bills

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This post will answer your most pressing questions, such as "What is headless commerce?" You'll also discover how it differs from traditional ecommerce, the benefits and potential pitfalls, the best business types for headless commerce, and an example.

What is headless commerce?

Headless commerce decouples the technical back-end functionality of an ecommerce application from the front end. As a retailer, you have the freedom and flexibility to build whatever you want. For instance, you won't have to alter the back end to provide an updated front-end experience. Therefore, there's more versatility in what you can present to visitors.

While traditional commerce platforms connect front and back end, headless commerce is growing in popularity thanks to its ability to streamline the digital experiences businesses offer visitors.

Your team may also appreciate the swap. With a headless system, your team can also pick the back-end system that works best for them — and use as many front-end publishing tools as they want. With a traditional commerce system, there's no way to pick and choose. That means your team might love the front end but hate the clunky back-end system they're battling with daily.

Let's dive into the more technical side of headless commerce. Headless commerce sits within a realm of technology known as MACH, which stands for:

  • Microservices. These are small modular software systems that solve a specific goal. Microservices simultaneously communicate and run seamlessly alongside the other components of your system.

  • API-first. Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) allow your system's different microservice elements to interact. They also allow you to distribute the same content to various devices, ensuring a consistent brand message.

  • Cloud-native. Cloud-based systems use software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers to host and store your data. This affordable option ensures functionality remains up-to-date and that there are no limits to how you scale your business.

  • Headless. Using a headless content management system (CMS) means you can publish your content to multiple channels, even those that are just emerging, like wearables. At the same time, your back-end systems remain the same.

Let's dive deeper into that last concept of a headless CMS.

What is a headless CMS?

A headless CMS handles only the back-end portion of content management. Therefore, the CMS has no say in how the content is presented to your site visitors. There are a lot of different options for those seeking a headless CMS. The best part? All of these will offer your organization the flexibility it craves. Our favorite options include Contentful, Sanity, and Butter CMS are just a few options.

To learn more about a headless CMS, check out our complete guide.

What's the difference between headless commerce and traditional ecommerce?

While many traditional ecommerce websites operate on a monolithic architecture, headless architecture is the opposite. With conventional ecommerce sites, there is an intricate link between the front and back ends. Of course, there are perks to this system — they're relatively efficient, and your tech team can retain complete control over your whole platform.

However, there are disadvantages associated with these systems, too. For instance, development costs can be high, and new systems and updates can take a while to release. Plus, traditional ecommerce systems are best suited for displaying website content.

With over 59% of global website traffic originating from mobile devices in the fourth quarter of 2022, it's increasingly essential your site looks great on new tech such as mobile apps, digital assistants, wearables like smartwatches, refrigerators, and other devices. Traditional ecommerce systems can't necessarily offer a seamless user experience across all these channels. That's where headless commerce comes into the picture — and why it's thriving.

headless commerce: image distinguishes the difference between headless CMS vs traditional CMS

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Because headless commerce decouples the front and back end of an application, you can attach as many front-end publishing tools to the back end as you desire. This enables your business to keep up with a changing ecommerce landscape while creating an unforgettable user experience, no matter what channel your customer uses to access your content.

The Benefits of Headless Commerce

We'll be the first to admit that some online businesses will find that traditional ecommerce platforms suffice just fine. However, some companies might find them restrictive. Moving toward headless commerce could be an excellent decision if your company falls into the latter category. Plus, your business will be one step ahead as users adapt their habits to a broader range of technology.

Advisory company Gartner has stated that one of the top strategic technology trends for 2021 and beyond is the "total experience," or TX. This term refers to combining multi-experience, user experience, customer experience, and employee experience into one entity. The end goal of TX is to improve the overall experience for all users and help businesses improve their outcomes.

Headless commerce can be an excellent stepping stone in helping businesses achieve TX. That's because headless commerce allows organizations to capitalize on various factors, from creating content with a WYSIWYG editor to developing personalized chatbots to improve the experience of back- and front-end users.

The result of an untethered back and front end is a seamless buying experience across channels. This omnichannel capability allows your organization to present consistent branding throughout your marketing collateral and materials, no matter how a customer views your content on a platform. This is especially important if you're looking to future-proof your business moving forward, as it's something that traditional ecommerce platforms can't offer.

The larger picture is that your team providing seamless purchasing experiences boosts customers' likelihood of completing their purchases.

The Drawbacks of Headless Commerce

As you can tell, there are many benefits associated with headless commerce. However, you should also be aware of the drawbacks before you jump right in.

For starters, headless commerce systems and, therefore, headless CMS options are more complicated than a traditional CMS would be. As you probably guessed, the initial setup and maintenance of the headless commerce system are more costly than a standard ecommerce site. (Psst: HubSpot's CMS Hub is free to start if you want to build a website on a budget.)

You may need to work with a developer to write custom code. Therefore, be sure you allocate enough time to get everything up and running seamlessly — it will likely take longer than expected.

Another potential pitfall of headless commerce is how content creators may end up working in isolation. This is because the front end of the system and the back end are severed. Consequently, sometimes previewing or editing content is not possible or easy. For some teams, that's okay. For others, that changes the game.

As you can infer, certain businesses would be better suited for headless commerce than others. Let's walk through those now.

What type of ecommerce businesses are best suited for headless commerce?

Headless commerce is flexible and can work with many different business models. Here are some businesses that can easily make the switch to a headless CMS:

  • D2C brands

  • Bloggers

  • SME

  • Manufacturing

  • Tech startups

  • Nonprofit organizations

  • Sports teams

  • Online retailers

What is a headless commerce example?

Let's walk through one headless commerce example. Say your small sterling-silver jewelry business has a ton of competition, and you want to excel in providing visitors with a seamless customer experience. You've done your research and noticed that most customers start their journey on a different device than they use to complete the purchase. Your D2C brand is an excellent example of an organization that could benefit from a switch from traditional ecommerce to headless.

By switching to headless commerce, you can rest assured that your business will have a cohesive experience regardless of which device visitors access your ecommerce site. This makes it more likely that visitors will complete their purchase.

Is the future of commerce headless?

Headless commerce offers many businesses an improved user experience for their customers and employees. A headless system enables visitors to purchase on a desktop, their smartwatch, or with the help of a voice assistant.
Choosing a headless commerce system can help your business stay relevant as new devices and channels emerge and stay ahead of the competition.

Editor's note: This post was originally published in June 2021 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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Topics: Ecommerce

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