Most eCommerce Brands Don’t Need to Go Headless (Should You?)

Back in 2019, I was a big advocate for headless architecture. But not anymore.

Here’s the thing: Moving to a headless architecture is not going to level-up your tech stack; it’s going to parallel it. In fact, most eCommerce stores would see little benefit from a headless solution.

When I gave a presentation called “Confessions of a Headless Advocate” in March of 2022, I dove deep into everything being swept under the rug with headless implementations. Then I took a look at my real-life experience over the last several years working with two unicorns in the eComm space: Athletic Greens and Rothy’s, two brands each valued at over $1B as of 2022.

At the time, my conclusion that most brands don’t need to go headless surprised me. But it’s true.

Before I explain why, I want to back up and look at the advantages of going headless — and why there’s been so much talk about headless platforms.

Are traditional eCommerce platforms better for brands than headless platforms?
Are traditional eCommerce platforms better for brands than headless platforms?

Advantages of Headless Commerce

The advantages of a headless commerce platform are well-cited. And up until Q2 of 2022, I would have still said that the benefits of a headless approach far outweighed its drawbacks. A headless commerce architecture allows brands more code and site design flexibility. Headless solutions can also improve the security of your site, as well as its speed.

Here are all the benefits of headless commerce platforms:

  • Better SEO: Websites with headless CMS rank better with search engines because they’re able to load content faster (this is especially true for mobile). A headless CMS allows you to control and customize your site’s URL structure and hierarchy to align with SEO best practices.

  • Seamless content management: Decoupling your eCommerce platform from a traditional CMS may make updating, organizing, and localizing content easier for your marketing team. In addition, in headless content management systems, instead of loading all of your site content through a single presentation layer, i.e., your website — content is loaded through an API. That means content can be configured based on a user’s device. In short, headless CMS can be fully customized to create a better user experience with your content across multiple channels.

  • Fast development times: In 2019, the time your development team would need to build features could be cut by at least 20-30% with headless technology. For some brands, you may still find that your roadmaps move faster on a headless platform.

  • Ability to customize your site design: You may have heard from your designers that Shopify limits what they can create. A headless platform allows more customization of your site and creates more opportunities for building custom code.
A headless platform allows for more site customization.
A headless platform allows for more site customization.

Why You Probably Shouldn’t Go Headless

In 2019, I was a big proponent of headless. At that time, going headless was the only way to get faster load times and leverage newer front-end technologies.

But this isn’t true anymore.

Shopify is changing, and it’s changing fast. As of April 21, 2022, Shopify’s market cap was $63.5B; a number that has secured Shopify’s place as a giant in eCommerce.

And, while Shopify’s tech used to be behind the curve, Shopify has upgraded significantly to become THE leader in eCommerce software:

  • Their TTL (time-to-live) is well under 0.3 seconds, and they support the latest front-end technologies.

  • Their APIs are solid and load fast.

  • Another big improvement is Hydrogen, their new React-based web development framework to build custom storefronts powered by Shopify.

So if traditional eCommerce platforms like Shopify can now deliver what brands need, there’s no reason to go headless and waste resources.

Will headless tech slow you down?
Will headless tech slow you down?

Headless architecture requires significantly more investment in the build, extensibility, and maintenance than you would experience with Shopify themes

  • Apps do not come ready out of the box, especially when there is a front-end component. With a headless eCommerce store, you have to build, maintain, and integrate apps, all on your developers’ time. If the app breaks, guess what? You have to fix it.

  • On a traditional eCommerce model, Shopify provides online stores with analytic data for marketing campaigns and visitors. You don’t have to build your tags yourself, and you also don’t need to cross-reference them for accuracy. That’s done for you. But on a headless commerce platform, all that work falls back onto you.

  • If your brand was once on Magento, you’re probably well-familiar with the balancing act of website uptime. Shopify eliminates the risks of self-hosted site servers, but headless commerce brings it back (unless you’re going headless with Shopify’s Hydrogen + Oxygen).

  • Lastly, the costs associated with a custom solution like headless are nothing to wave off. It costs a lot to build a headless platform (around the same amount of money as replatforming), and possibly millions to maintain it. While your stakeholders and investors might push your brand to headless commerce in order to “future-proof” your tech, you need to ask yourself: “what is the real cost?”

So, all this to say, I’m very concerned about how I see agencies and developers pushing all brands towards headless — saying you need a headless platform just to make your website load faster.

That’s bullshit. And irresponsible. 

And the solutions that only headless could once solve can now be solved with Shopify for far less time and resources.

Right now, Shopify is the most scalable, flexible, and reliable eCommerce solution. 

So if you’re not going headless, where could you invest time and money instead? Don’t waste resources on going parallel. Invest in going upward.

How about investing in:

  • Launching a growth team

  • Scaling to international markets

  • Focusing on retention efforts

  • Mobile experiences
Where should you invest your resources instead?
Where should you invest your resources instead?

Who Should Go Headless?

Believe it or not, I’m still an advocate for going headless when it’s right for your brand. My goal with this article is to help shift the perspective on headless, not write it off completely. Does your brand need to go headless? Most likely not — but if you have valid reasons for wanting to go headless, there are a few situations I can understand and recommend headless, still.

1. Your Brand is Moving on From Shopify After a Point of Growth

At a certain point of growth, moving away from a monolith model like Shopify to a more modular one makes sense.

Suppose you’ve scaled your development and design team considerably. In that case, you will be able to do much more with a headless framework than with just one Shopify store. Especially if pushing out a lot of new features and being at the forefront of new tech is an integral part of your brand’s success.

2. You’re a Subscription-First, eCommerce-Second Business

If your business model is built to prioritize subscription revenue first, and eCommerce second, then going headless may suit your goals better than Shopify. While Shopify has subscription integrations like Recharge, you might feel limited by what’s available if you’re primarily a subscription-based store.

3. A Headless Model Will Benefit Your IPO Evaluation

At Anatta, the only other reason we’ve seen brands choose to go headless is when headless features or tech could be important for an IPO evaluation. If your brand is moving towards selling or an IPO, you’ll likely have discussions about whether or not you should go headless.

When does headless make sense?
When does headless make sense?

What if Your Brand is Already Headless?

If you’ve already spent the time and resources to take your brand headless, that’s fine. Stick with headless if it’s working for you and not limiting your roadmap. But I wouldn’t recommend continuing to invest in headless architecture.

Instead, spend your money improving your customer experience or launching your online store into international markets. Or any of the other areas we mentioned earlier.

Now, if headless is limiting your roadmap, and you can’t get things done fast enough, consider reversing course. You’re likely experiencing a bottleneck that could be streamlined with Shopify.

In short, if your brand isn’t headless, don’t spend your resources going headless to parallel your tech stack. And if your brand is already headless, it’s time to invest in other growth opportunities.

Don't parallel your tech stack.
Will headless parallel your tech stack?

Thinking About Whether Headless is the Right Move for Your DTC Brand? Reach Out to Our Team at Anatta.

If you’re still debating if headless is really the right solution for you, get in touch with us at Anatta. We worked on headless front-ends with brands like Rothy’s and Athletic Greens before headless was even a term. We’d be happy to help you determine if headless is the best move for your brand.

  • avatar
    Nirav Sheth
  • Nirav is the CEO and founder of Anatta. Nirav received his engineering degree in 2006 from George Washington University. Prior to Anatta, he served as founder of Dharmaboost, a software company working with Cisco Systems, Hewlett Packard, and New Leaf Paper. He is also cofounder of Upscribe, a next-level subscription software for fast growing eCommerce brands.