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

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Stephanie Trovato
Stephanie Trovato



In 2020, 88% of consumers shopping online decided to abandon their order. To prevent customers from leaving your site, your ecommerce customer journey needs to be seamless, no matter which channel they’re using to access your site.

Ecommerce business owner using headless CMS to set up website

That’s where headless commerce comes in.

Headless commerce is growing in popularity thanks to its ability to streamline the digital experiences ecommerce businesses offer their customers. In this post, we’ll take a look at exactly what you need to know about headless commerce and why it’s rapidly becoming the go-to choice for many ecommerce businesses.

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What is headless commerce anyways?

Headless commerce decouples the technical backend functionality of an ecommerce application from the front end. All that essentially means is that your developers have the freedom to build whatever they want, however they want, and can then use external publishing tools to present content on any channel.

Headless commerce sits within a realm of technology known as MACH, which stands for:

  • Microservices. These are essentially small modular software systems that solve one specific goal. At the same time, they communicate and run seamlessly alongside the other components of your system.  
  • API-first. Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) allow all the different microservice elements of your system to interact. They also allow you to distribute the same content to a range of different 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 is an affordable option that 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 your content can be published to multiple channels, even those that are just emerging, like wearables. At the same time, your back-end systems remain the same.     

The real value of headless commerce is its ability to create seamless buying experiences across all channels. This omnichannel capability allows you to show a consistent brand message throughout your marketing collateral and materials, no matter how or on what platform a customer is viewing your content.

This is especially important if you’re looking to future-proof your business moving forward, and is something that traditional ecommerce platforms simply can’t offer. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the key differences between headless and traditional commerce.

How is headless commerce different from traditional ecommerce?

Many traditional ecommerce sites operate on a monolithic architecture. With this type of architecture, the back end and front end are linked and you can’t use one without the other. These systems are relatively efficient, and allow your tech team to retain full control over your entire platform. The disadvantages of these systems is that development costs can be high, and new systems and updates can take a long time to be released.  

Furthermore, these traditional systems are best suited for displaying website content. As buyers shift toward newer tech like mobile apps, digital assistants, wearables like smartwatches, refrigerators, and any other device with an internet connection that’s capable of presenting content, businesses need to rapidly shift their content to match these new purchasing habits. Traditional ecommerce systems don’t necessarily have the capability to offer a seamless user experience across all these channels, but headless alternatives do.

That's because headless decouples the back and front end of an application. That way, you can attach as may front-end publishing tools to the back end as you want. Here's a diagram to help visualize the difference:

headless cms vs traditional cms diagram

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The flexibility of headless commerce allows you to create a truly unique user experience, no matter what channel your customer uses to access your content. This has plenty of benefits for your business.

The Benefits of Headless Commerce

Once upon a time, online businesses could rely on traditional ecommerce platforms to meet all their needs, and their customers’. While these platforms are still the best solution for plenty of businesses, some may start to find them restrictive.

As your business expands and users adapt their habits to using a wider range of technology, switching to a headless commerce system can allow you to stay one step ahead.

According to research by the advisory company Gartner, one of the top strategic technology trends for 2021 and beyond has been coined the “total experience,” or TX. This refers to the combination of multi-experience, user experience, customer experience, and employee experience into one entity. The end goal of TX is improving the overall experience for all users and helping businesses improve their outcomes.  

Headless commerce can help businesses to achieve this TX by allowing them to capitalize on a range of factors, from creating content with a WYSIWYG editor to developing personalized chatbots to improve the experience of back- and front-end users. By helping to streamline not only the creation but also the consumption of omnichannel content, headless commerce makes it more likely that your team can provide seamless purchasing experiences and that your customers will complete their purchases.

If you’re not sure which headless CMS is going to work best for your business, the good news is there are plenty of options to choose from, all of which will offer the flexibility you’re looking for. Contentful, Sanity, and Butter CMS are just a few options.

To check out some headless CMS options in depth, read What Is a Headless CMS? What Content Marketers Should Know.

The Drawbacks of Headless Commerce

Headless commerce offers many benefits, but there are some drawbacks to consider before jumping straight in.

Because headless commerce systems are more complex than a traditional CMS, the costs of setting up and then maintaining this type of system are usually higher. You may need to have custom code written and it can take a while to get everything up and running smoothly.

Separating the front end of your system from the back end also means content creators can end up working in isolation. It’s not always possible to preview or edit content as easily when using a headless system. For some teams, that’s fine. For others, it might be a deal-breaker.  

What type of ecommerce businesses are best suited for headless?

The great thing about headless commerce is that it has the potential to work for any and all business models. Examples of businesses that have made to switch to headless CMS include:

  • D2C brands
  • Bloggers
  • SME
  • Manufacturing
  • Tech startups
  • Nonprofit
  • Sports teams
  • Online retailers

Is the future headless?

For many businesses, headless commerce offers an improved user experience for their customers as well as their employees. A headless system can allow customers to make a purchase on your website, on their smartwatch, or using a voice assistant.

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, you can’t pick and choose. That means, your team might love the front-end but hate the clunky backend system they’re battling with daily.

Deciding to choose a headless commerce system can help your business stay relevant as new devices and channels emerge and stay ahead of the competition.

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