Headless eCommerce has quickly become a popular site architecture for mid-market direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands and enterprise-level retailers alike. With headless commerce’s promise of flexibility, seamless scalability, and control over the entire customer experience… It’s no wonder why so many businesses view headless technology as an all-in-one eCommerce solution for their fast-changing needs.
But what exactly is headless commerce architecture? And how does it work? When it comes to eCommerce tech, it’s often all too easy to get lost in the latest trends and fads—without fully understanding whether or not what everyone else is doing is really the best move for you.
In this article, we’ll be taking a close look at headless commerce to understand: what it is, how the technology works, pros & cons of the architecture—along with examples and use cases demonstrating how headless commerce is leveraged.
- Key Takeaway: Headless commerce gives DTC businesses increased control and promises to “future-proof” their online stores. However, its reliance on APIs and custom integrations requires substantial developer resources, making it potentially problematic for mid-market DTC brands. It’s best suited for those with in-house tech teams or businesses that prioritize tech over eCommerce.
What is Headless eCommerce?
Headless commerce definition: Headless eCommerce is a type of website architecture that separates the front-end user interface (the presentation layer) from the back-end commerce functions (like inventory management, admin controls, and data processing).
A headless system splits your eCommerce site’s “head” and “body” into two detached parts that operate independently of one another.
- The head of your eCommerce site: Everything a customer interacts with while shopping on your online store lives inside the head. Content on your landing pages, add-to-cart buttons, banner ads—all the visual parts of your storefront, i.e., how your storefront looks—is found in the head.
- The body of your eCommerce site: The body of your website encompasses everything that happens in the background that maintains eCommerce functionality. Your store’s inventory management system, security features, order and payment processing… All the business logic parts that keep your store running are the body.
A key feature of headless commerce architectures is their use of API (Application Programming Interfaces) calls to create a conversation between the front and back end of your eCommerce store. By leveraging APIs, businesses can easily create a unified shopping experience across multiple customer touch points or devices.
Whether a customer is shopping on their phones, placing an order with voice-controlled assistants, browsing social media, playing video games, or accessing an online store with wearable tech, headless commerce empowers brands to meet customers wherever they go.
While the flexibility of headless alone might sound like a huge opportunity for growth, let’s take a closer look at how headless commerce actually works. That way, you can determine if a headless approach might be right for your DTC brand.
So How Does Headless Work?
Headless eCommerce is a modern path to creating an online store that uses an API to connect the front-end user interface with the back-end commerce component.
Notably, a headless architecture gives back and front-end developers more freedom in building digital experiences. By decoupling a website’s head from the body, brands can easily deploy new features and updates, and streamline content creation without disrupting existing customer journeys or requiring additional development time.
With all of this in mind, headless eCommerce can provide a powerful way to unlock customer data, improve tech scalability, drive innovation, and also give businesses more control over their user experience. So if headless commerce provides brands with more flexibility, does that mean traditional platforms are more restrictive?
Traditional vs. Headless Commerce Platforms
Headless commerce is often talked about as a way to stay competitive in DTC by future-proofing your tech. But how does a headless commerce platform compare to a traditional eCommerce platform?
Traditional eCommerce Platforms
Traditional, or monolithic platforms, closely integrate their back and front-end. This means that when changes are made to one part of a monolith build, changes will also need to be made on the other side to accommodate. Updates to landing pages, user interfaces, or anything to do with publishing content—would all need back-end deployment to keep store functionality.
With traditional eCommerce platforms, everything is packaged together into a giant box of features, thus the name “monolith.” As you might imagine, development times can be much longer on traditional platforms, and there’s also less room for flexibility or creative freedom.
For a DTC brand, monolith platforms might restrict the customer experience across various devices. Because when a monolith is translated from desktop to mobile or apps to voice, and so on, the experience on one device may be less user-friendly and enjoyable than the experience on another. And when your brand fails to deliver a pleasant and user-friendly shopping experience, it’s much more challenging to hold a competitive edge in your niche.
We’ve been talking a lot about the features of a headless eCommerce website, but how exactly does headless compare to a monolith platform? Headless, first and foremost, is API driven. So instead of having one “head” that’s tightly coupled and integrated with the rest of your tech stack, as is the case in monolith platforms, a headless approach creates multiple “heads” that can communicate and adapt to different devices thanks to APIs.
In this sense, you might think about headless systems like a chameleon changing its colors to match its environment.
The flexibility of headless helps businesses deliver consistent experiences across various channels while enabling their teams to update front-end interfaces without affecting commerce functionality. And vice-versa! For digital product teams, that means your marketing team and development team can focus on their own roles without interrupting the other team’s work.
|Traditional Monolith eCommerce Platform||Headless Commerce Platform|
|Architecture||Monolithic architecture is made up of tightly coupled components||Headless is a decoupled architecture with separate front-end and back-end components|
|Front-end Flexibility||Flexibility and ability to customize is limited||Greater flexibility to customize front-end—you can use any technology or framework|
|Back-end Independence||Back and front-end are integrated; changes to one side must be accommodated by the other.||Back-end is independent and can be modified or updated without impacting the front-end|
|Scalability||Scalability can be limited because of the system’s interconnected nature||Scalability is enhanced as components can be scaled independently|
|Development Agility||Development and deployment processes can be slower and more complex||Faster development may be possible due to the decoupled architecture|
|Omnichannel Support||Limited support for omnichannel experiences||Enables seamless integration with multiple channels and devices for omnichannel experiences thanks to APIs|
|Third-Party Integration||Integration with third-party services can be complex and time-consuming||Custom integrations needed for third-party applications|
|Innovation||Slower adoption of new technologies and innovations||Faster adoption of new technologies and innovations due to flexibility and modularity|
|Content Management||Content management features may be limited or closely integrated||Allows for specialized content management systems and greater flexibility in content presentation|
The Best Headless Commerce Platforms
In eCommerce today, even traditional platform providers have created paths for brands who want to take a headless approach but don’t want to deal with the common drawbacks of a fully headless solution.
Shopify Plus is an enterprise eCommerce platform built for mid-market and higher DTC brands. Known for its ease of use, high-converting checkout flow, and large collection of third-party integrations, Shopify Plus offers a headless commerce solution that leverages its familiar SaaS platform as a stable foundation.
- Headless storefronts on Shopify Plus will have access to Shopify’s admin tools, checkout, order management system, and much more.
- Shopify’s flexible Storefront API is built with GraphQL.
- Capable of integrating with enterprise resource planning software.
- Hydrogen is Shopify’s development framework for headless commerce implementations.
- Brands that build a headless solution with Shopify Plus don’t need to worry about a hosting solution; headless storefronts can be deployed using Shopify’s Oxygen.
BigCommerce Enterprise is regarded as a feature-rich eCommerce platform that provides brands with control over multiple storefronts out-of-the-box. Launched in 2009, BigCommerce is aimed at retailers and SMBs with a growing customer base.
- BigCommerce offers GraphQL and REST-powered APIs.
- Easily integrate your tech stack with the CMS of your choice.
- Leverage Next.js, Nuxt.js, and Gatsby.js frameworks for front-end development.
Salesforce Commerce Cloud (SFCC)
Salesforce Commerce Cloud offers a headless commerce platform with seamless access to its popular customer relationship management software (CRM), Salesforce. If your business currently leverages Salesforce as your preferred CRM, going headless with SFCC may be a good move for you.
- SFCC offers B2C, B2B, and B2B2C solutions.
- Extend SFCC’s AI tools, like Einstein AI, throughout your storefront.
- You can unify your data for personalization if you’re leveraging Salesforce CRM.
Adobe Commerce Cloud, once known as Magento, can help DTC brands enter headless commerce with its flexible APIs and intuitive data analytics dashboard.
- Adobe Commerce’s headless solution uses REST and Soap API frameworks.
- You can create custom integrations for your CRM, CMS, inventory management, and more.
How has Headless Commerce Shaped eCommerce Businesses & DTC?
For the last 5+ years, headless commerce has been a must for positioning your brand as an industry leader. The benefits of headless commerce, like faster site speed, better optimization of SEO, and streamlined development of a progressive web app, were huge for mid-market brands past $25MM.
Back in 2019, everyone at Anatta felt that the most successful DTC brands of the following ten years would be on a headless system. There simply was no way for DTC brands to build a customer experience that met consumers’ high expectations without headless. We had also taken brands like Rothy’s to a headless commerce platform.
That was until Shopify Plus caught up to the performance benchmarks only headless commerce used to achieve—and before going headless with Shopify was possible. Now, Shopify Plus offers DTC brands an extremely flexible commerce platform that can be either headless or modular. And going completely headless is mostly likely to parallel your tech stack instead of raising it to a new level.
Even though headless commerce still has the potential to be a powerful architecture for business growth, most mid-market eCommerce businesses would benefit more from leveraging a traditional commerce platform, such as Shopify Plus, and focusing on their products and customers. Or focusing on their store’s usability, branding, and messaging—before throwing new technologies into the mix.
Since a headless approach needs a dedicated tech team to maintain, eCommerce brands should carefully consider whether headless commerce is the right move for them.
Things to consider before building a headless eCommerce system:
- A fully headless build won’t automatically integrate with apps. You’ll need to build custom integrations yourself.
- A headless eCommerce platform needs the support of larger engineering teams to build new features and maintain your site.
- Headless commerce requires that you find a hosting solution for your eCommerce store. You must be ready to host the site yourself or find a provider.
- You’ll also need to integrate your data analytics and rebuild any tags you’ve previously created in Google Tag Manager or Elevar and manually cross-reference that data to confirm accuracy.
Headless Commerce Examples: Use Cases
So how is headless eCommerce put into action? What specific businesses leverage headless architecture, and why might they do so over a monolith platform?
- Big Companies & Retailers: Retailers use headless commerce to provide customers with a seamless shopping experience regardless if they’re on desktop, mobile, or voice platforms. Headless tech can enhance a brand’s omnichannel strategy by creating consistent user experiences from one device or channel to the next. Companies that use headless commerce solutions include: Walmart, Nike, Target, and West Elm.
- Your business is tech-first, eCommerce-second: A headless commerce approach may make sense for your business if you are truly a technology-first, eCommerce-second, brand. If this is the case and you have the resources to maintain a headless build, you may see the full benefits of headless commerce.
- Why Anatta took Athletic Greens headless: In 2019, our team took AG1 headless because of internationalization. At the time, it made sense for Athletic Greens to go headless so that their brand could:
- Maintain a consistent URL without localizing domain names.
- Unify brand experience over 8 storefronts (Shopify Markets wasn’t available in 2019).
- Leverage a single CMS for content translation and currency localization.
While more eCommerce businesses are considering headless architecture, the technology is changing. New technologies that leverage headless are coming into play.
How is Headless Commerce Changing?
A headless commerce architecture lays the groundwork for brands to build into a modular architecture. Modular commerce has paved the way for both a microservices architecture as well as a composable one.
Both composable commerce and microservices are a type of headless technology that leverages APIs, but as you move from headless to composable to microservices, your tech stack will become increasingly more granular. In headless architecture, the “head” and “body” are decoupled. In composable commerce, “arms” and “legs” can be swapped out. And with microservices, you can swap out individual “knuckles.”
Because the industry has been shifting to headless and microservices for a while, eCommerce platforms are becoming more and more like a decoupled commerce system than a closely integrated monolith.
For a full picture of the way commerce tech is changing, here’s a breakdown of the differences between composable and microservices architecture.
Composable commerce is positioning itself as a much-appreciated middle-ground between a headless commerce environment, a monolith platform, and a microservices approach. With composable commerce, you can modify the components that make up your store architecture without getting extremely granular as you would with microservices. Composable commerce leverages headless technology to create a modular tech stack that’s comprised of different modules. These modules are called Packaged Business Capabilities (PBC).
PBCs are software components that provide various functionalities for an eCommerce business. Let’s use a virtual shopping cart as an example. From the add-to-cart user interface to product data, these are the components that make up a virtual cart PBC. And, therefore, the different modules in a composable commerce tech stack. Composable commerce allows you to pick and choose the different PBC you want without being locked into a monolith platform’s default options.
- Shopify has made moves on both composable commerce and headless: Shopify launched Commerce Components in January of 2023 as its composable commerce solution. Shopify also offers a headless eCommerce solution via its Hydrogen and Oxygen language.
A microservices architecture takes the ideas of headless commerce and composable commerce and goes a step further. Now, you can take the individual parts within a PBC and swap them out or customize them to your liking.
Whereas a headless environment decouples a website’s front and back end, with a microservices architecture it’s not just the head that can be removed from a tech stack but individual knuckles on hands and fingers. For example, you could swap out the search functionality of your chosen content management system with another, while still retaining all the other functions of your CMS.
Headless eCommerce FAQs
What does headless mean in eCommerce?
Headless eCommerce is a way of building an online store that separates the front-end presentation layer from the back-end infrastructure. This allows for greater flexibility in how you design and develop your website, and enables you to customize the customer experience further. Headless commerce can also speed up development cycles and support scalability, allowing brands to launch new features and keep up with consumer demands quickly. Lastly, headless eCommerce provides better security by separating sensitive data from public-facing parts of your site.
Is headless eCommerce worth it?
Headless eCommerce may be worthwhile for brands that are capable of using the technology to its full potential. Headless offers the flexibility to build a custom experience that meets your unique needs and can be tailored for any device or platform. Headless eCommerce can also provide better scalability and performance than traditional solutions, allowing you to quickly adjust to changing customer demands and trends. Headless eCommerce can also lead to faster development cycles.
It’s our belief at Anatta, however, that most businesses really don’t need to go headless. Shopify Plus is incredibly flexible, fast, and intuitive. Shopify Plus also offers headless implementations and composable commerce. Sticking with a platform like Shopify Plus will allow you and your team to focus on what you do best (connecting with consumers, working on your products), without becoming a technology company that needs a dedicated team of engineers to build and maintain your store.
In fact, Anatta’s team has built extremely fast Shopify Plus themes that match the speed and performance of headless solutions. You can explore our Shopify Plus development services here.
Is a headless content management system good for eCommerce?
Headless CMS is a great option for eCommerce businesses because a headless CMS allows businesses to separate the content management system from the presentation layer. Giving you more flexibility and control over website design and functionality. A headless CMS can also help make updating or adding new features easier without requiring you to rebuild the entire site or push code for each new addition. A headless CMS offers better scalability and performance than traditional monolithic systems, allowing brands to adapt quickly as their business grows.
What is modular commerce? How is it different from a headless commerce system?
Headless commerce decouples the front-end presentation layer of a website from the business logic back-end system, leveraging API calls to enable communication between the two decoupled parts. In modular commerce, back-end systems are also decoupled from one another, and APIs enable dialogue between different services. In short, modular commerce is an even more flexible architecture that allows an eCommerce business to build a tech stack to their exact needs.
Microservices Architecture vs. Headless Commerce vs. Composable Commerce
Microservices, headless, and composable commerce all have parts of their website architecture decoupled from other parts and use APIs to create a dialogue between these decoupled parts. The biggest difference between these three builds is their level of customization and complexity. Headless commerce separates the front-end and back-end elements of your website. Composable commerce allows for the interchangeability of various modules, known as Packaged Business Capabilities (PBCs), which contribute specific functions to your site. Microservices architecture enables the swapping out of individual parts within a PBC.
Thinking About Going Headless? Get in Touch with Anatta first.
Before you make the move to headless, you’ll want to know with complete certainty that doing so makes sense for your business. All too often at Anatta, we see DTC brands make the leap into headless commerce and wind up unable to maintain their storefront, let alone scale their business.
Over Anatta’s 15 years in DTC, our team has helped brands like AG1, Rothy’s, and Four Sigmatic migrate to headless solutions. We’ve also supported brands like Thesis migrate from a headless platform to a stable and scalable solution on Shopify Plus. Our team can help you determine if headless really is the right move for you.