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Headless e-Commerce Architecture: What Is It And When Do You Need One?

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12 min read

E-commerce businesses are always looking for opportunities to improve customer service through technology and innovation. Headless commerce provides them with such an opportunity by introducing a flexible architecture that can be adapted to different business needs.

According to Statista, 63% of retail businesses plan to implement headless e-commerce architecture in the coming years, and 22% are already enjoying its benefits.

If you are looking for opportunities to quickly launch new features in an app and scale existing operations, you should pay attention to headless ecommerce.

This article will reveal what headless commerce is and how you can benefit from using it.

What Is Headless Commerce?

Headless commerce is an architectural environment in which the front-end is separated from the back-end.

Front-end is the presentation layer through which the customer interacts with the ecommerce system. This is actually a user interface (UI) of a website, mobile application, digital kiosk, or IoT device. In a headless ecommerce development, the frontend is often called a headless storefront.

Back-end is the business logic that activates the core operations of an e-commerce platform. This includes product management, order management, pricing rules, inventory rules, tax calculation, etc.

In a headless architecture ecommerce, front-end and back-end of the system exchange information through APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). 

The term “headless” is used because online sales channels (online stores, marketplaces, mobile applications), i.e. “heads”, are separated from the back-end business logic, i.e. the body.

The principle underlying headless commerce approach has been used for many years to solve complex business problems. Whenever there is a complex task, there is a solution - to split the task into smaller, simpler parts and solve them separately. 

Separating the client and server parts significantly reduces the cost of developing new applications and allows companies to provide quality services at any point of interaction.

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How Headless Commerce Works

The example below will help you understand headless commerce meaning and how headless commerce solutions work.

Imagine that you have an online store through which you sell clothes. You use Shopify or any other e-commerce platform to manage products and orders, but you want to create a unique user interface on React, Vue.js, Angular, or any other frontend framework.

Here’s how your store will work based on the headless commerce architecture:

The React application displays products, adds them to the cart, manages user accounts, etc. The user interacts with your store through an intuitive and fast interface.

Shopify or another e-commerce platform manages all products, orders, payment, and delivery. When a user places an order, the React application sends requests via the API to Shopify.

Now imagine that a user selects a t-shirt in your React mobile apps. Here’s what’s happening behind the scenes:

  1. The app sends a request to the Shopify API to add the item to the cart
  2. When the order is placed, the user and payment details are sent via the API to the backend
  3. Shopify headless backend processes the order and sends the shipping information

In this way, headless commerce system allows you to create flexible and unique user interfaces using the powerful features of the backend platform.

Headless Architecture Ecommerce Explained

The beauty of headless architecture ecommerce is that you can create as many interfaces as you wish, and you don’t need to change the backend for that.

Headless architecture

The typical  headless commerce architecture consists of the following components:

  • Frontend: One or more interfaces through which the customers interact with your store. As I have already mentioned, this could include websites, mobile apps, or digital kiosks. Additionally, it could be a social media storefront, voice interface, or any other digital touchpoint.
  • API: A connector that links backend and frontend layers. Thanks to the API, you can set up a seamless communication between different parts of the system. You can also ensure that data is correctly synchronized across interfaces.
  • Backend: Business logic which is built on top of the ecommerce platform, CMS, or microservices. This layer handles inventory management, order processing, payment gateways, and other core ecommerce functions.
  • Data repositories: Centralized storage solutions where all your ecommerce data is collected and managed. This includes product information, customer data, transaction records, and other relevant data that supports the functioning of your ecommerce headless platform.
  • Data analytics: Tools that analyze data stored in your repositories. Data analytics helps you gain insights into customer behavior, sales trends, and operational efficiency. They allow you to make data-driven decisions and plan future business activities wisely.

Headless Architecture Ecommerce: Use Case Example

Imagine a modern library that uses a headless commerce architecture.

The library offers three interfaces for customers:

  • self-service kiosk located in the library building
  • website 
  • mobile app

Each of three interfaces allows readers to search for books, rent books, and return books.

When a user performs an action in an interface, the request is sent via an API to the management system (backend).

The library management system contains information about all the books. It automatically updates the status of the book to “in stock” or “reserved”, regardless of which interface the request comes from.

The book status is recorded in the data repository. Such a repository stores all the information about books, members, rental history, and other relevant data. 

The library also has data analytics tools. It uses them to analyze borrowing trends, popular genres, and peak usage times. Based on the insights, it updates its assortment and adapts customer services.

Headless Commerce Benefits and Drawbacks

According to Salesforce, 81% of businesses report that headless commerce provides them with great agility when it comes to making changes to their ecommerce website. Additionally, 83% of respondents say that headless e commerce platform offers ample opportunities for customizing digital experiences. 

The benefits of headless commerce systems are many. However, like any other technology, headless commerce solutions have their strengths and weaknesses. Below I provide the pros and cons of headless technology, based on industry reports and my own experience in ecommerce development.

Benefits of headless commerce

Ability to make changes swiftly. Headless e-commerce platforms allow businesses to be flexible in decision-making. This is because making changes to the client part of the software product does not entail large-scale changes in the backend part. Also, the various interfaces are not interconnected in any way. This means that having made changes to the mobile application, you are not obliged to make changes to the web interface. Thus, you can easily manage your headless storefronts and customize them to meet customer expectations.

Reduced time-to-market. You can reduce time-to-market through parallel development of headless commerce front end and back end. You can also create several frontends simultaneously. Your development teams can work independently on different parts of the system. This will accelerate the development process and speed up product launch. 

Fast business expansion. Headless e-commerce is perfect for ambitious and fast-growing businesses. It allows you to quickly add sales channels and scale your business horizontally to reach a wider audience. The ability to decouple the front-end presentation layer from the back-end commerce functionality allows you to quickly launch new storefronts, enter new markets, and target different audiences. This flexibility helps you respond swiftly to market trends and customer demands and stay competitive in the changing e-commerce landscape.

Improved integration between systems. Headless commerce architecture excels in integrating with various third-party systems and services. The decoupled nature of headless setups means that the backend can interact seamlessly with numerous APIs, facilitating smoother communication between different systems. For instance, inventory management, CRM systems, and marketing tools can all be integrated without disrupting the frontend. This results in a more cohesive and efficient operational environment where data flows freely across platforms, enhancing overall business functionality and responsiveness.

Excellent page loading speed. Headless commerce solutions improve page loading speed by separating the frontend from the backend. This enables each to be optimized independently. As a result, content delivery can be streamlined and dynamic elements can load asynchronously, leading to reduced overall load times. Faster page speeds not only enhance customer experience but also have a positive effect on search engine rankings.

Effortless scalability. Headless commerce platforms provide easy scalability thanks to their modular architecture. Businesses can scale particular parts of their systems without impacting the entire infrastructure. Whether you need to manage increased traffic, add new features, or expand to new markets, headless setups allow for smooth scaling. They ensure that performance and user experience stay optimal.

Control over the platform architecture. Headless commerce allows businesses to have complete ownership and control over their platform architecture. This independence enables customization and optimization of every aspect of the ecommerce solution to align with specific needs and goals. There are no limitations imposed by monolithic systems, providing the freedom to innovate and adapt quickly to market changes.

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Drawbacks of headless commerce

Complex management of development teams. When developing a web and mobile application for your store, you will need to collaborate with two separate teams using different technologies. This can complicate project management and increase costs. However, even though the interfaces are different, the store remains the same. So, it’s important to ensure that both teams have a clear understanding of your business and the goals you aim to achieve. With the right management approach and an expert product development team, you can easily overcome this challenge and establish a smooth development process.

Complex infrastructure and its support. Headless commerce architecture involves managing separate frontend and backend systems, headless commerce API, and potentially several databases. This requires a robust IT infrastructure and skilled tech experts. You should continuously monitor and troubleshoot your ecommerce solution to ensure all its parts work seamlessly. All this can increase your operational burden and associated costs.

Less built-in functionality. When using headless systems, various features that are typically included in an all-in-one platform need to be created separately. These features include  product search, headless checkout, and user authentication. As a result, you have to dedicate extra resources to your ecommerce store development. You may also need ongoing technical support to manage and update custom-built features.

Headless Commerce vs. Traditional Commerce

Headless e-commerce architecture appeared as a counterweight to headed or traditional e commerce architecture.

We already know that the main principle of headless commerce platforms is the separation of the presentation layer and the business logic layer. In traditional e commerce architecture, however, these two layers function as a single whole.

So, what is good and bad about traditional platfroms?

The good thing is that traditional e commerce platform is easy to deploy, manage, and troubleshoot. You have one place where errors can potentially occur, so you spend a minimum of time on investigation and can quickly fix the problem that arises.

The bad thing about traditional e commerce platforms is that your customization and omnichannel capabilities are limited. All the changes you make relate to a single touch point. If you want to sell on different channels, then you should create a separate backend for each of these channels.

Note that headed commerce should not be considered an inefficient option. In fact, this architecture is widely used by e-commerce businesses. For specific projects, it is more suitable than the headless ecommerce platform. 

For example, small businesses or those that prefer brick and mortar sales with a small online addition will find headed commerce more suitable than headless ecommerce solution.

Below, I provide a table that shows the differences between headed and headless ecommerce platforms.

ParameterHeadless CommerceHeaded (Traditional) Commerce
FlexibilityHigh - Separate frontend and backend are easilier to customizeLow - Monolithic structure has limited customization
Initial setupSlowerFaster
Updates and changesFasterSlower
PerformancePotentially higher with optimized frontendDepends on the overall platform performance
ScalabilityHigh - individual components can scaleLimited - entire system must scale together
User Experience (UX)Highly customizable, tailored across channelsConsistent but less customizable
IntegrationEasy to integrate with multiple services via APIsHarder to integrate, limited to platform capabilities

When is it necessary to change the business architecture to headless?

Whether you have an existing eCommerce solution or just plan to develop one, you should consider using headless ecommerce architecture in the following cases:

If you develop omnichannel sales strategy

If you want to provide high-quality customer experience regardless of the channel of communication with your brand, you should go headless. Let’s say your customers earn discount points in a mobile application, website, or social network. They should be able to use them across the channels. Additionally, they should be able to use them in offline stores. This flexibility allows them to easily engage with your brand and build loyalty through a pleasant shopping experience.

If your business operates in the international market

Globality and multichannel are the main reasons to change the business architecture to headless. Online stores usually focus on sales in several countries. Each country has its own market specifics. In one place it is better to sell through social networks, while in other it is better to sell through a website or mobile application. In the USA, for example, the common sales choice is Amazon. Complex logistics and tax calculations push towards a distributed business model, and this is where a headless app can help.

If you need to ensure stable business development

Headless architecture will protect e-commerce from failures. It allows you to make changes to the ecommerce platform without sacrificing user experience. Imagine, for example, that you need to migrate a site from Magento 1 to Magento 2 . Headless commerce solution will help you to do that without sharp transition since your frontend works independently of the backend. 

Headless Ecommerce Development: DashDevs Expertise

At DashDevs, we have extensive experience developing headless commerce solutions for both small and large merchants. In our recent projects, we’ve helped our clients create seamless e-commerce stores based on headless architecture. Below is a brief overview of our completed projects.

Headless Mobile App for Omoda

The DashDevs team implemented a store for selling shoes in the markets of the Netherlands and Belgium.

We created headless storefronts on iOS, Android, and web platforms. We utilized the headless Shopify backend to implement business logic.

As part of this headless commerce project, we implemented the following:

  • Developed a RestAPI app and integrated it with Shopify
  • Created a web app using Angular
  • Extended the API and created a separate web dashboard app
  • Developed iOS and Android mobile apps
  • Integrated social networks
  • Implemented viral features for the web app and built API v2

The outcome of the project included over 100k downloads on Android alone. The client reported increased sales, streamlined customer engagement, and 90% positive customer feedback.

The DashDevs team implemented the headless platform within 7 months. The development team was composed of two backend developers, two mobile developers, one frontend developer, one quality assurance engineer, and one project manager.

Headless E-commerce Store on Sylius

Our team implemented an online store using a headless approach on the Sylius framework. The main requirement of the client was the ability to handle large volumes of customer traffic and perform equally well under different load conditions.

As part of this headless commerce project, we implemented the following:

  • Developed e-commerce functionality and converted it into a RestAPI to communicate with the Angular frontend application
  • Implemented caching, load-balancing, and queues
  • Orchestrated the backend with Kubernetes
  • Integrated the payment system, messaging functionality, and other third-party services

Upon completion of the project, we released a stable and highly resilient application that handles any amount of traffic. The client reported rapid customer acquisition and easy management of large volumes of sales.

Our team implemented the headless frontend and backend within 1.5 years. The development team was composed of three backend developers, one frontend developer, two mobile app developers, one quality assurance engineer, and one project manager.

Outsourcing headless commerce project

The unique aspect of a headless solution project is that it requires the assembly of at least two teams of developers - one for the backend and one for the frontend. If multiple storefronts are being developed, the demand for human resources further increases. Finding suitable talent quickly can present a challenge. Therefore, businesses frequently opt for headless commerce outsourcing to swiftly and efficiently launch their e-commerce projects.

At DashDevs, we have a proven track record of delivering headless ecommerce solutions under different cooperation models. We provide outsourcing, outstaffing, and product development services. Our clients value us for our flexibility, expertise and individual approach.

If you are looking for a reliable technology partner to launch your headless commerce project, contact us, we will be happy to help.

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Table of contents
FAQ
Is headless CMS the same as headless commerce?
No, a headless CMS is not the same as headless commerce. A headless CMS focuses on managing and delivering content without being tied to a specific front-end. Headless commerce solutions involve decoupling the front-end and back-end of an e-commerce platform to provide more flexibility in creating and managing online stores.
What is the difference between headless BigCommerce and Shopify?
Headless BigCommerce is considered more flexible and customizable. It allows businesses to use any front-end framework or CMS. Shopify's headless commerce is more user-friendly. It has a robust API and extensive ecosystem, allowing businesses to integrate storefronts with ease.
How much does headless eCommerce cost?
The cost of a headless eCommerce app can range from $50,000 to $500,000 or more. The final price will depend on project complexity, features to add, number or storefronts, etc.
Is headless commerce the future of e-commerce?
Headless commerce can be considered the future of e-commerce because it offers broad technological opportunities for creating effective and user-friendly e-commerce stores. At the same time, headless commerce should not be considered the only correct solution. The final decision regarding the architecture of the application should be made depending on the business needs and goals.
Is Shopify headless commerce?
Shopify allows you to build headless commerce solutions based on its platform. You can manage products, orders, and payments through Shopify's back-end while using custom front-end technologies to create headless storefront.
What is an example of headless commerce?
An example of headless commerce is a company using a custom-built React.js front-end for its online store while utilizing Shopify's back-end for inventory management and transactions. This allows the company to deliver a unique user experience while leveraging Shopify's robust e-commerce capabilities.
What is headless architecture in eCommerce?
Headless architecture in eCommerce is an architecture where storefront (frontend) is separated from business logic (backend). Such separation allows easy creation of new interfaces and, thus, fast covering of new markets and target audiences.