Over the last two years or so, the hype around “headless e-commerce” has grown significantly. An increasing number of online retailers are making the move to headless as it provides decoupling between the front end user experience and the back-end e-commerce functionality. This gives store owners more freedom and flexibility with how they can present their products and product information on the front end while simultaneously improving the overall customer experience.

Traditionally, off-the-shelf e-commerce solutions come with predetermined front-end templates and back-end admin functionality. With these platforms, the user experience and the back-end infrastructure are tightly coupled. However, with the growth of headless e-commerce implementations, e-commerce platform vendors have evolved their technical architectures by decoupling the front-end of the website from the e-commerce services. On the front-end, CMS’s like Contentful, Prismic, Drupal Acquia and WordPress are showing support for headless implementations. Major e-commerce platforms such as Magneto, Elastic Path, BigCommerce, and Moltin support headless backends, giving access to their APIs to make headless implementations more straightforward and accessible.

What Exactly Is Headless E-Commerce?

Essentially, headless is a new approach to e-commerce, where the front-end of an e-commerce website is de-coupled from the backend code and infrastructure, which is generally contained within the eCommerce platform you are using.

Creating separation between the front and back-end of your site, allows you to improve the overall user experience and have more flexibility in providing a unique brand experience that features rich content. In traditional e-commerce setups, the backend will include data regarding product inventory, catalogs, promotions and other information about your products. Front-end customizations would be done in the platform’s UX layer, using pre-defined integrations into the back-end. Changing the pre-defined template approach could take a significant amount of work. Ultimately, this can have a negative impact on providing a consistent experience for your customer as changes and customizations take too long and cost too much.

However, with the headless approach, developers have more flexibility to customize e-commerce websites and keep up with the ever-evolving purchasing experience. Decoupling the front-end of your site from the back-end allows for more flexibility and this solution has become known simply as ‘headless e-commerce’.

Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of headless e-commerce so you can decide if this solution will work for your business.

Pros Of Headless

Flexible Integration

With the headless approach, you can focus on using specific functional services or elements. This means you can have a standard set of tools (ie. e-commerce services) that can be integrated from multiple channels (e.g. web-app, POS, mobile app, kiosk) with more flexibility if you want to make changes at any stage in the near or distant future.

Totally Customizable

Designers have the freedom to design a unique front-end experience without having to worry about the back-end. The headless approach is a lot less rigid than the UX from more traditional e-commerce platforms that have a pre-packaged theme or set of inflexible checkout steps (looking at you Shopify).

More Reach And Engagement

With headless e-commerce, a store can be accessed from different touchpoints, improving accessibility and the overall customer experience. The concept of the “e-commerce store” can even go away with a solution like Moltin. Utilizing their self-checkout technology empowers the customer and allows customers to purchase products without having to navigate the e-commerce site via purchasable product links. Technologies like this mean no more waiting in line at the store, improving the overall customer experience and closing the divide between the digital and physical retail experience.

Cons Of Headless

Initial Setup Costs

As with implementing any new technology/approach, there will be an initial setup cost that needs to be considered. You may need to invest in the front-end development without using a theme as the foundation, The implication is that you need to develop the front-end and integrate into the e-commerce services so that the data will need to be rendered by the front-end using API calls to the e-commerce layer. This interaction is usually already developed within themes from Magento or Shopify, making the process much easier for smaller businesses that may only have a small team and a more restricted budget.

Potentially Less Control

Because the product content, account info, and checkout flows are built within the presentation layer there is less functionality in terms of content presentation with headless, you will need additional technologies to serve as the ‘head’. For example, if you want to have a page of orders in MyAccount, it needs to be built in the presentation layer and data needs to be pulled from the e-commerce system and rendered with pagination. Generally speaking, functionality will be limited to what your CMS allows in regards to third-party tool integration. If you are considering headless implementation, it is advisable to check what your CMS does and does not support before moving forward.

Managing Multiple Tech Stacks

With headless e-commerce, the e-commerce platform must be carefully managed. You also have the user interface/glass that must be managed. If you have WordPress or Craft CMS as the glass and Magento or Moltin as the e-commerce services layer, you have 2 platforms to manage which can add to your overall operating expenses. For smaller businesses and ones, without a dedicated engineering team, headless is typically not seen as a viable solution. It’s important to take some time to assess both the needs of your business and the capabilities of your team prior to implementation.

Good For:

  • Companies that have unique e-commerce use cases
  • Companies that have in-house technical capabilities
  • Companies that have multiple e-commerce channels

Not A Good Fit For:

  • Companies that want a “standard” e-commerce site
  • Companies that want a low maintenance solution
  • Companies that do not have the in-house technical expertise

The Bottom Line

Headless e-commerce can be a very powerful option for many companies but is not the right choice for all. It’s important that you keep the needs of your business in mind when you are considering a change to your current e-commerce operations. Remember, that, ultimately, you need a platform that will meet your needs now, that will also service your needs in the future. If you need help mapping out your e-commerce strategy and technical underpinnings, get in touch with our team of e-commerce experts at Accorin and we will help you find the right e-commerce solution for your needs.