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    What is Headless Commerce: a Guide for Digital Teams

    Last updated: February 6, 2024

    Many think migrating to a headless e-commerce site will take longer to launch and impact business needs. But this is often misunderstood. In actuality, the storefront is separated from the frontend, letting developers build faster without waiting on the backend. So, a headless site can actually speed up launches because it is less dependent on developers and can improve user experiences, helping content creators ship faster. 

    With this guide, you'll gain a clear understanding of what headless commerce is all about while exploring the following:

    • Difference between traditional commerce (monolith/all-in-one), headless commerce, and composable commerce
    • Benefits, headless commerce platforms, and use cases 
    • Why and how to go headless 

    Let’s dive deep into the headless commerce approach.

    Headless Commerce how it works diagram

    What is headless commerce?

    Headless commerce separates the storefront presentation layer (what renders on the website) from the backend systems. The storefront design and UI (user interface) make up the "head." The backend handles features such as the product catalog, payment processor, and checkout cart,  also known as the “body.”

    By decoupling the head from the body, the storefront can be changed and optimized independently without affecting backend processes. Think of APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) as the “neck” that connects the frontend and backend as needed.

    Stripe is a perfect example of connecting the storefront to the backend. Many e-commerce sites use Stripe’s payment API to process payments customers make from the storefront. All this happens behind the scenes through their API. This way, the developer can make requests to their codebase and don’t have to build the API from scratch.  

    Going headless allows for greater flexibility and faster improvements for the customer experience on the frontend. The backend tools focus on key business logic.

    Headless commerce vs. traditional e-commerce

    Monolithic e-commerce platforms like Shopify before Shopify Hydrogen and Magento (now Adobe Commerce) locked users into their technology stack for both the frontend and backend. This prevented users from choosing the optimal technologies for each part of their e-commerce architecture. It also led to bloated page loads and a subpar mobile performance. 

    With headless commerce decoupling the frontend from the backend, you can choose the best technologies for both, leading to greater flexibility and optimized performance.

    Traditional e-commerce websiteHeadless commerce website

    Monolithic e-commerce platforms have slower performance than headless sites that decouple the two layers due to their code dependencies.

    Headless commerce enables faster and more agile frontends using best-of-breed solutions independent of the backend stack. They use a single-page application or progressive web app that provides instant browsing speeds.

    E-commerce sites are forced to use frontend tools of a monolithic platform that have limited control over design and functionality.

    Full customization of design and functionality, though it requires developer expertise.

    Proprietary frontends are locked to their platform, restricting flexibility even if they offer API-first frontends.

    Frontend that is portable across backends, providing flexibility to replatform in the future.

    Support for new endpoints or devices requires custom development, unlike headless systems.

    Easily supports new channels and endpoints like mobile devices.

    Overall, the development team has limited control over the site compared to the flexibility of headless systems.

    Full control over all aspects of the website.

    Headless commerce vs. composable commerce

    Headless architecture, where the frontend commerce experience is broken apart from the backend data and services, is the first step towards composability. It enables composable commerce where the backend can further be broken into independent modular microservices that can be easily added, changed, and optimized. This flexibility impacts both simple applications and complex e-commerce platforms, making enhancements and replatforming less daunting. With headless commerce, the portable frontend will work on any backend.

    What is composable commerce?

    Composable commerce takes headless commerce a step further by fully breaking down the backend into modular microservices and exposing discrete capabilities via APIs for reusability. For example, a headless commerce architecture could simply mean taking a Shopify site, breaking apart the frontend so you can use modern frameworks like React, Hydrogen, and Next.js but keeping everything about the Shopify backend (the inventory management, checkout, product content, product image hosting). 

    Alternatively, a composable commerce architecture would break apart the backend further into separate parts, such as using a top-notch content management system, checkout, and search. These independent LEGO®-like building blocks can be assembled in any combination to create customized commerce experiences. Both approaches aim to provide flexibility and omnichannel experiences, with composable commerce offering the most fine-grained modularity.

    Think of composable commerce as a versatile and top-performing solution for various needs and specialties. It’s not using one API but rather multiple APIs to connect multiple vendors’ various services — like using Algolia for product search and Bold Commerce for checkout. While both embrace a modular architecture, composable commerce takes decoupling one step further. 

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    Benefits of headless commerce

    Some key benefits and advantages of headless commerce:

    • Making your site speed faster: building on modern JavaScript frameworks can significantly improve performance and speed.  
    • Becoming more agile: the microservices architecture helps teams work faster and is more adaptable. Teams can have faster time-to-value to experiment, creating pages tailored to their audience. 
    • A site that is easier to manage: separating the backend allows dedicated teams to focus on things like content, messaging, and testing to gain better returns.  
    • More control for developers and content creators: have the freedom to build and control the entire site experience. 
    • Lower cost: when someone else hosts and manages your backend, it can reduce costs. Adopting a SaaS model for your e-commerce platform's infrastructure needs can decrease your information technology expenses overall.
    • Higher conversion rates: the name of the game is to spend less on ads and more on converting. Having a great customer experience will only improve this and enhance the purchasing decision.

    Headless commerce platforms

    When selecting a headless commerce platform, start by examining the strengths and limitations of leading options to assess fit. The platform can significantly influence headless implementation, so evaluate vendors based on your specific needs and priorities.

    Shopify: known as the most popular monolithic, all-in-one SaaS commerce platform. However, Shopify also lets teams use its commerce platform in a headless manner. Where data such as product details, images, inventory, and pricing can be delivered by APIs. Teams that start with a Shopify storefront often use Shopify “headlessly” before they decide to either go fully composable or with a dedicated headless-only commerce platform. With Shopify Hydrogen, they bridge the gap between the React ecosystem and Shopify to build blazing-fast storefronts optimized for e-commerce.

    BigCommerce: an API-first solution that can be seamlessly integrated into wider tech stacks and partnerships. Robust headless options for platform flexibility and extensibility. It can handle certain complexities or use cases that Shopify cannot and is a best-in-class B2B solution.

    Salesforce Commerce Cloud: a leading enterprise e-commerce solution with a robust feature set to support complex, enterprise-grade scenarios such as multi-storefront, advanced discounting, and onsite merchandising. It requires technical depth, either by staffing, partnerships with tech companies, or a capable agency partner.

    commercetools: focuses on enterprise-scale, customized commerce needs where flexibility and API-based integrations are a priority. It’s API-first, cloud-native, and built using microservices architecture, allowing high scalability and flexibility. For more information visit our commercetools hub.

    Kibo: focuses on creating the most intuitive composable digital commerce platform supporting experiences that span order management, e-commerce, and subscriptions. For more information, visit our Kibo integration page.

    Commerce Layer: provides a robust transactional API that enables multi-market e-commerce, global scalability, and front-end flexibility. The API handles all transaction processing during order lifecycles and payment status changes.

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    See Integrations for additional headless platforms: VTEX, Elastic Path, and more.

    Why go headless?

    Headless commerce enables full control over the front-end experiences, helping businesses to build faster, optimized sites. Faster sites directly translate to more conversions and revenue. Research shows site speed significantly impacts conversions and revenue:

    • Faster sites mean more conversions. Even minimal delays of a few hundred milliseconds lead to higher abandonment rates and less revenue.
    • On mobile, slower sites have much higher bounce rates. Mobile load time has a major impact on engagement.

    For $50M plus e-commerce businesses, a headless commerce solution is highly recommended to optimize the site performance. At significant sales volumes, poor-performing sites have substantial negative impacts on revenue and conversions, likely exceeding the costs of modernizing to a faster, headless storefront.

    Where to start with headless commerce?

    There are two primary strategies for transitioning to headless commerce: full replatforming or gradual migration. Here are some tips for a phased approach.

    Take an incremental approach to headless migration

    Don't do a full rewrite. Follow an incremental migration approach, focusing on high-value pages first. This lowers barriers to entry and gets results faster.

    Validate ROI through testing

    Test and prove ROI. Make pages headless one at a time and compare performance. Use data to justify further migration.

    Reuse content across headless and legacy sites

    Create and iterate reusable content. Content management should output both headless data and code for legacy pages during the transition.

    Select a platform to support incremental adoption from hosted to headless

    Choose a platform that supports incremental adoption. Search for the flexibility to use headless and legacy together, like A/B testing features.

    Future-proof your site

    Selecting a platform that is language and framework-agnostic ensures new technologies like Svelte, Next.js, and Remix, to name a few, are supported. Explore provider options that can scale devices such as mobile and other IoT devices. The way we consume content is constantly changing, so making sure your site is ready for those changes should be a priority.

    Headless commerce use cases

    Below are examples of amazing brands that moved faster with Builder.io, adopting a headless content management system to improve e-commerce functionality.

    Fabletics e-commerce website

    By migrating to a modular, component-based, multi-brand e-commerce storefront, TechStyle Fashion Group improved marketing workflow efficiency by 75% across its brand sites like Fabletics.

    Everlane e-commerce website

    With Builder.io, Everlane accelerated workflows to ship new products 4x faster and reduced site update times by 90%, enabling faster delivery of modern e-commerce experiences.

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    Read more customer stories.

    Frequently asked questions

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    At Builder.io, we offer a powerful combination of user-friendly visual tools, collaboration-friendly features, and efficient publishing capabilities. We have a Google Chrome extension to quickly help you edit content within the web browser and Visual Copilot that converts Figma designs into clean code. You can incrementally adopt our Visual Headless CMS or rebuild your frontend from scratch using any tech stack.

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