What is headless commerce? (Ultimate Q&A guide)

Blog banner depicting headless architecture

Welcome to the ultimate Q&A guide to headless commerce. Each week we'll answer commonly asked questions as a resource for enterprise merchants considering this architecture for their business. Keep reading or jump to the question on your mind: 

1. What is Headless Commerce? 

The rapid adoption of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies is driving a new approach to ecommerce where retail platforms go headless. 

So what is headless commerce architecture? Headless commerce refers to the decoupling of the frontend content of a store from the backend functionality that powers the transactions. Separating the consumer-facing “head” from the commerce engine “body” gives businesses the freedom to use the technologies of their choice for each end and customize the features they want to enhance the shopping experience.        

With the backend functioning independently, businesses are no longer constrained by the architecture in the way they build branded content and commerce experiences. The same commerce engine can plug into multiple frontends, publishing content to digital marketplaces, social media apps, mobile devices, and connected home appliances (to name just a few!)

In this decoupled architecture, developers use Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to connect the two ends – calling on data from content management, payment processing, order management, and other systems to deliver customized content to any platform.

That enables content creators to update and scale the design and layout of frontend applications without developers having to modify the backend. And developers can upgrade the backend functionality without disrupting the customer experience.

2. What's the difference between headless commerce and traditional commerce? 

In considering a headless ecommerce definition, let’s take a closer look at how it differs from a traditional ecommerce model.

Traditional ecommerce platforms use a monolithic architecture where there is a single database and the coding tightly integrates the backend with the frontend. Designed primarily for websites, monolithic platforms give developers full control over the way they are coded and customized. 

This approach served businesses well when commerce was largely web-based. A traditional platform is straightforward to develop, allowing startups without large in-house development teams to get online with a server-side application and manage their products with tools like Shopify or WooCommerce. 

But with this type of "all in one" architecture, launching new customer experiences can force developers to overhaul both ends of the platform, rather than simply attaching new frontends. The fixed architecture limits businesses to using the tools that are built into the framework, which limits creativity as they expand their content and shopping channels. 

This brings us to one of the primary development benefits of a headless system. Headless increases a brand’s ability to apply innovation to new experiences or even channels much more rapidly, speeding up their time-to-market with new features, increasing their competitive advantage, and ultimately, revenue.

A secondary technical benefit of course, is that a cloud-based headless system avoids a single point of failure. Developers and content creators work from separate systems, reducing the risk of data breaches that access customer information.

3. What's the difference between content-led and commerce-led experience? 

A content-led, or experience-led architecture places the customer experience at the forefront of the way a business operates its commerce operations. 

In this approach, content is delivered through a digital experience platform (DXP) that manages the way customers interact with the brand across all channels – from brick-and-mortar stores, to web, to mobile, to IoT devices. By giving marketers a complete view of customer engagements, the DXP allows the store to deliver targeted content based on the customer’s previous interactions. This is particularly valuable for lifestyle brands, where the experience is at the center of the marketing strategy.

By contrast a commerce-led experience emphasizes the efficiency of the sales process in operating the store. 

Placing the commerce engine at the frontend of the platform, developers optimize the customer experience based on the product search, checkout flow, and order management efficiency. Marketers then need to adapt the content they create to fit the capabilities of the commerce system and are reliant on developers to make changes to the customer experience. With the consumer interaction coupled with the commerce engine, this approach is less flexible than a true headless system. 

4. Why is headless commerce becoming more popular? 

Decoupling headless commerce allows for the blending of content and commerce for a seamless digital experience that drives increased conversion.

The ecommerce landscape is shifting faster than ever before. The COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly changing consumer behavior and will likely alter the landscape permanently. Consumers have turned to online channels to deliver everything from groceries to entertainment, and traditional brands with limited online presence have found themselves sprinting to catch up while revenues soar at Amazon. This increased reliance on ecommerce, home delivery, and hybrid models like "buy online, pick up in store" have only accelerated the trend for big box retailers to launch direct-to-consumer storefronts.

Even before the pandemic, 60% of Internet users started shopping on one device but continued on a different one, according to Google, and 82% of mobile users were using their phones to research purchases they intended to make in a store. 

This kind of behavior demands that businesses take an omnichannel approach to providing an integrated shopping experience across all channels. 

Amazon is changing the game for customer interactions. The online retail giant is continually adding new touchpoints in its evolution from a web-based bookseller to a global marketplace that reaches buyers through its connected home and car devices. It has lifted customer expectations for the buying experience and raised the bar in the Internet retail space.   

The increasingly complex matrix of devices that require unique content is challenging the effectiveness of the full-stack platform that was designed when consumer traffic was largely desktop based. By decoupling the stack in a headless system, marketers have full control over the user experience and can quickly react to customer behavior, while developers can focus on the process management systems. 

5. How does headless commerce work? 

You can define headless commerce as everywhere commerce that works by giving brands a new level of agility. At the heart of a headless approach are the APIs that deliver content as data from the decoupled backend to the storefront – whichever that may be.   

If a retailer wants to launch checkout options through a connected car, wearable device, or home speaker system, it is simply a matter of adding a new API call. This avoids the risk of breaking the coding by attaching plugins or switching to a new platform to be able to incorporate the new features. In short, headless enables streamlined omnichannel delivery to the consumer.

When a customer makes a purchase, the headless commerce platform sends an API call to the commerce engine to process the transaction. The call brings together data from the order management system, payment processing infrastructure, product information manager and other systems to complete the transaction.

The ability to call on these data sources is also a powerful tool for content creation. A DXP uses the data delivered by the APIs as a basis for creating the personalized content that builds customer loyalty, bringing customers back for repeat purchases.

6. Is headless commerce modular? 

The decoupled backend of a headless architecture is made up of individual, interconnected modular components that serve as building blocks for the platform. Modules are the coding that delivers the transactional functionality to power the commerce process, including product catalogs, order management, payment processing, and so on. APIs deliver data between modules and connect them to the frontends, or storefronts, to create customized content.

The modular setup enables the cross-functionality that makes headless commerce flexible across a range of channels, unlike the linear approach of a traditional architecture. Ecommerce stores can pull information from several modules to create personalized content that is tailored to the user based on their browsing and purchasing habits.

As modules operate independently and send only the specific data as needed, the platform can run faster without large volumes of data transfer. Modules collectively form a “commerce stack” on the backend of the platform.

This approach is scalable, allowing developers to add new features and channels as the business expands by connecting new modules rather than having to migrate or upgrade the entire platform. They can select the best tools for each function, without having to compromise in favor of other parts of the platform.

The modular approach is also resilient, as it means that creating and testing new functionality in one module does not disrupt the user experience delivered by the other modules or the frontend. 

7. What are microservices for ecommerce?

Microservices are the deployment of software applications within the backend of an ecommerce platform, enabling a modular approach. Microservices can be hosted in a cloud-based system as an alternative to a server-side software package.

While a monolithic architecture can implement modular components, a distributed microservices architecture packages functions into decoupled services that make the use of multiple modules more efficient. Efficiency is key as it allows businesses to be more agile in responding to consumer trends quickly. 

The advantages of the microservices approach for developers include:

  • Developers can code services independent of programming language and database. 
  • Developers can use the technologies that are best suited to different services to create a best-of-breed platform. 
  • Each microservice can scale independently, in a way that suits different characteristics. 
  • Developers can shift from a monolithic architecture to a microservices approach incrementally, making sure that the platform buildout is robust and errors are detected earlier in manageable stages. 
  • Developers can start with the most critical parts of the system and extend to new channels such as mobile devices, social media apps, and connected home appliances. 

Microservices are well suited to large organizations that can handle complex systems and allow large teams to work on the platform simultaneously, which can be more difficult with a monolithic architecture.

8. What is composable commerce?

“Composable commerce” is a term that technology research and consulting firm Gartner has trademarked in reference to modular ecommerce. A modular infrastructure can be described as “composable” in that it is constructed, or composed, from an interconnected set of components to create a platform tailored to the needs of the business. 

Gartner predicts that by 2024, 30% of organizations will use modular architecture to compose ecommerce applications.

Developers can compose their commerce platform by switching out, upgrading, or adding modules and microservices individually without having to manage multiple dependencies across the system. By composing the backend of a headless commerce platform, businesses move away from using a full-stack packaged platform to a distributed commerce stack that uses microservices to create a fully customized platform.      

This approach provides a way for businesses to future-proof their digital platforms by using APIs to connect and scale features in the form of microservices. Retailers can respond to the changing ecommerce environment by adding functionality and customer services as needed.  

9. Is headless right for your business? 

While headless ecommerce uses a flexible, fully customized platform or commerce stack that can handle complex operations, this can be too much for smaller retailers and start-ups. Some considerations when evaluating a move to headless:

  • Set up and development costs of curating a tech stack vs using an all-in-one platform
  • A lack of front-end templates for content marketers requires developers build visual interfaces
  • Ongoing costs to maintain an advanced, distributed system
  • Development teams are required to write APIs to connect modules and microservices
  • Complexity in the structure of a headless architecture with multiple interconnected parts that need debugging independently
  • Stability risks of a modular commerce stack in the event of a poorly developed architecture
  • Microservices keep data decentralized, requiring multiple databases
  • Each microservice requires individual testing to make sure all possible integrations function correctly
  • Monitoring and operating microservices requires the use of advanced automation tools

Businesses can address some of these challenges by adopting a hybrid ecommerce architecture. A hybrid approach brings together some of the simplicity of a traditional monolithic platform with the ability to add multiple modules and storefronts, although this is less flexible than a fully headless setup. 

10. What are the benefits of headless commerce? 

Retailers are facing greater demands than ever before to provide a tailored user experience, respond quickly to customer trends and new technologies, and support more devices. A headless ecommerce architecture has multiple benefits over a traditional platform in helping retailers meet those demands.

  • Personalization. Headless platforms give developers the freedom to create tailored experiences for shoppers that increase conversions and deepen customer loyalty. 
  • Omnichannel presence. The use of APIs allows retailers to build branded content that is consistent across channels, adding frontend experiences to any customer touchpoint or channel in response to market trends. 
  • Customized platform development. Developers can select the right tools and programming languages for each functionality the business needs, integrating them to build a seamless architecture. This creates a best-in-class platform and makes it easier to swap out modules.
  • Speed to market. A decoupled architecture allows developers to add new frontend experiences and touchpoints quickly and efficiently without requiring changes to be coded in the backend. 
  • Flexibility.  Developers can add new modules or microservices to keep pace with demand and technological changes, rather than having to upgrade or replace the entire platform. 
  • Experimentation. A/B testing allows developers to run multiple tests to determine the most effective content design without disrupting the user experience, while marketers can experiment with new content without disrupting backend processes.
  • Enhanced security. Separating functionalities makes it easier to monitor the system and reduces the risk of data breaches. Functionalities are hidden under modular coding and APIs are set to read-only mode, increasing protection from malicious attacks.
  • Error reduction. Individual microservices incorporate limited functionality, reducing the likelihood of version conflict or errors caused by other processes. 
  • Lower total ownership costs. Headless systems reduce the need for costly platform redeployment. They can be scaled up and down in response to demand, for example during and after seasonal promotions, avoiding performance instability and lost sales, while mitigating over investment in capacity. 
  • Improved website performance. A decoupled, modular architecture is faster and more responsive than a traditional architecture, as APIs call only the data needed to run a specific process. 
  • Employee adoption. Separating the backend from the storefront allows employees to specialize in their strengths unlike the constraints of a prepackaged platform. Developers can use their preferred programming language and tools and marketers can develop content without requiring knowledge or reliance on backend. 

11. What are some of the myths surrounding headless commerce? 

Some businesses might be hesitant to deploy a headless architecture because they hold certain assumptions about the implementation. Common objections include:

  • Moving from a monolithic to headless architecture will require ripping out the existing platform. 

Headless systems can be layered onto a full-stack commerce engine gradually, integrating modules over time for a seamless migration that will not disrupt storefront operations.

  • A decoupled structure with multiple modules slows down the platform. 

The modular structure is faster and more efficient, delivering only the data needed to run each function.

  • Switching to a headless platform is expensive.

Although a headless architecture requires more initial development, it saves on the cost of future platform development and creates more profitable opportunities in speeding up rollouts of new features that increase conversion rates.

  • The complex integration of microservices and APIs makes headless inflexible.

Headless systems allow businesses to become more agile as they can add and switch out microservices and write or adjust APIs depending on their needs, making them more flexible.

12. Where can you create headless experiences? 

One of the key benefits of a headless e-commerce architecture is the ability to create user experiences on virtually any channel or device. 

The decoupled design allows retailers to create content that can be delivered seamlessly across operating systems and formats, tailored to the viewing experience. In the past, a storefront optimized for a desktop browser might not translate well to a mobile browser. But with a separate customized frontend, content designers can customize layouts so that they scale correctly on different devices. 

The same backend systems can feed data into a range of storefronts including:

  • Websites
  • Mobile apps
  • Social media apps
  • Wearable devices
  • Virtual reality headsets
  • Connected home appliances
  • Connected cars
  • Kiosks
  • Smart billboards

Customer experience is key to business growth. With a seamless omni-channel experience, consumers can browse to cart on one device and checkout on another, while brands can meet customers where they are by enabling more shopping channels.the convenience increasing conversions with so many consumers constantly on the move.  

13. What is a headless commerce use case? 

Fitness clothing and equipment manufacturer Under Armour demonstrates the integration of personalized content with the transactional shopping experience in its direct-to-consumer operations. Its e-commerce platform brings together data from its order management system, product catalog, traffic history, payment processing, and content management system. 

The Under Armour mobile shopping app is integrated with data from its fitness apps to create a personalized experience for customers based on their workout history, physical environment, purchase history, and visits to store locations. Customers have a single account profile that works across all Under Armour's apps. 

The app also offers exclusive video content featuring sponsored athletes, providing users with inspiration for a variety of athletic activities and workouts. 

In-app recommendations present shoppers with personalized product options that they are more likely to purchase. For example, a user in a cooler climate that has logged outdoor workouts on one of Under Armour’s fitness apps will receive recommendations for its ColdGear range of base layer clothing for cold weather. The app features one-touch payment with Apple Pay and clothing tag scanners for use in-store.

14. Where does headless fit into omni-channel retail? 

A multi-channel strategy can deliver different content to different devices, while an omni-channel strategy creates a seamless branded user experience across channels.

Research from consulting firm McKinsey shows that more than 50% of customers engage with 3-5 channels each time they make a purchase or resolve a request.

Consumers expect a consistent experience across shopping platforms, but many retailers are yet to catch up to those expectations, research firm Forrester noted in a recent study, adding that retailers must enhance their backend systems to drive the operational improvements that foster omnichannel capabilities.

Headless architecture enables retailers to adopt an omnichannel approach with speed and flexibility as developers can add new microservices to deliver content to the new channel and power transactions.

Retailers can create a seamless experience between physical and online channels, allowing shoppers to scan products in a store (or in their kitchen) to create shopping lists they then purchase with their mobile devices. The retailer in turn sends customers personalized recommendations based on their shopping behavior, that increases convenience, boosts repeat purchase, and deepens customer loyalty.

Are you ready to reimagine commerce?

Bold Commerce builds  headless commerce solutions that let your business scale dynamically, get to market faster, and create high-converting, consumer-centric experiences across any touchpoint. Find out if API-powered commerce is the right fit for your business.

Blog banner with CTA to Bold's headless website page

Leave a comment below with any questions you have about headless commerce! 

Want to know what's new?

Get the knowledge and inspiration you need to build a profitable business — straight to your inbox.

Nicole Willing

Written by Nicole Willing

Nicole is a technology and finance writer and digital nomad who can currently be found on the beach brushing sand out of her keyboard.

Related Articles