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What is headless ecommerce and how does it work?

When you hear “headless commerce,” you probably can’t help but picture the Headless Horseman, the disgruntled dude from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, riding off on his black stallion. Don’t worry, nobody’s talking about beheading Internet shoppers. In the online shopping world, “headless” refers to cool new technology that many brands are using to streamline their ecommerce platforms in order to keep up with shoppers’ demands and increase revenue. 

Why have online shoppers’ demands so urgently come to the forefront? Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, people have been turning to retailers’ websites in droves. Initially, with brick-and-mortar stores closed, there was no other option. However, the online shopping trend has continued despite physical stores reopening, as consumers have discovered the advantages of shopping from home. So demands for a more interactive and personalized shopping experience have pushed businesses to adapt, revamp, and optimize their online practices. 

Headless ecommerce: a definition 

So what, exactly, is headless ecommerce functionality? To come up with a headless ecommerce definition, it helps to first identify the differences between the front end and back end of an ecommerce application. The front end experience of an ecommerce website is the storefront that shoppers use and interact with. The back-end system is for handling data input, product images, pricing, promotions, and order details.  

In traditional ecommerce applications (such as Shopify), the front and back ends are together. The problem with this model, however, is that adding applications at the back end — a widget to create a site pop-up, for example — could affect the front end, potentially decreasing page speed or causing a 404 error.

When we talk about headless commerce, the “headless” part refers to severing the front end (the head) of ecommerce store applications. Cutting the link between the front and back results in less developmental dependency: it means developers can make changes to the back end without compromising the integrity of the front end. For businesses looking to scale their online offerings and meet customer demand for a more sophisticated shopping experience, a headless solution is ideal. 

How does a headless ecommerce platform work? 

The idea of separating the front and back segments of an online store seems strange, doesn’t it? It’s like taking the stockroom out of a store and moving it miles away. The distinction between the front and back ends of a website, however, is more than just “customer facing” and “behind the scenes.”

With traditional ecommerce platforms, all customization to the front end takes place on the back end. Any updates to the design of the site, for example, are implemented in the back. The front is dependent on the back, which does double the work (and is slower as a result).

With headless ecommerce, the ability to make these changes is moved to the front end. The back end is reserved for pure functionality: processes like billing, pricing, reports, and analytics. An application programming interface (API), a software intermediary that lets the two sides “talk,” is placed between the sections.

To put it another way, in a headless architecture, the front end takes on more work. It’s more independent and self-contained, and, through the API, it communicates with the back end only when necessary. 

Headless commerce vs. traditional commerce 

We’ve talked about the distinctions between a headless commerce architecture and the traditional model. But how do the two differ feature by feature? Let’s take a look.

Rigid vs. flexible architecture 

Traditional ecommerce developers often complain about having too many restrictions in terms of design. Ecommerce content management systems (CMSes) like Shopify have a set number of design templates, and more-sophisticated design changes usually require a plug-in, which can slow down the page-load speed on the site or cause the site to crash.

Headless ecommerce solution development teams have more flexibility. Front-end developers have more control over the site design and templates, so they can create a better user experience. The intermediary API enables developers to innovate on the fly — make rapid changes without impacting the entire platform. So for online businesses looking to scale their site quickly and adapt to changing customer demands, headless ecommerce is a great option. 

 Fast vs. slow storefront 

We’ve talked about how an API improves page-load speed on the site, and how this is an important benefit of a headless CMS compared with a traditional one. With the traditional model, making changes to the back end impacts page-load speed, download time, and time spent at checkout. All of which impact sales. A slow-moving or clunky ecommerce interface will make shoppers want to drop off the site. As a result, to avoid a high customer bounce rate, traditional developers have made changes tentatively.

With a headless CMS, consumers will notice that the pages load faster and they’re enjoying a better user experience, which, for the company, equates with higher customer loyalty and conversion.

With the enduring shift to online shopping, and with consumers expecting a more sophisticated user interface, many businesses are having to play catch-up. Offering a seamless, expedient shopping experience in as little time as possible can greatly improve sales. And the only way some companies have been able to make this happen is through implementing a headless ecommerce model. 

Personalized vs. generalized experience 

One hallmark of headless ecommerce is personalization. Since the pandemic took hold, traditional commerce sites have not been palatable to customers. Who wants to have to navigate back to a product page (and scroll down), discover that their shopping basket is empty after logging out and then logging back in, or get impersonal search recommendations?

A bad customer experience is frowned upon. Developers working on traditional commerce applications have been able to use plug-ins to create personalization, but as we discussed, these add-ons slow down the site speed.

 With headless commerce, developers have the freedom to create more-personalized features across different touchpoints, improving the customer experience. Product data and customer information from the back end can still be used to inform personalized features and ecommerce experiences on the front end.

Head (and shoulders) above traditional commerce 

Now that you’ve got a solid grip on how headless ecommerce works, you can undoubtedly understand why so many businesses are going headless. In ecommerce, customer demand has always driven change, and the movement to headless solves a variety of problems. Headless applications facilitate higher-level development on commerce sites, allowing businesses to make changes and scale more quickly. The adaptable framework makes it easy to implement personalization, which helps ecommerce sites better meet shoppers’ standards.

Looking to capitalize on the benefits of a headless architecture, future-proof your ecommerce site, and delight your customers with personalized product information? Get in touch with our team to find out more about our API-first platform or request a free demo.

About the author
Vincent Caruana

Sr. SEO Web Digital Marketing Manager

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