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How Headless Checkout Can Tackle Ecommerce’s Biggest Challenges (2024)

How Headless Checkout Can Tackle Ecommerce’s Biggest Challenges (2024)

The growth of ecommerce shows no signs of stopping. According to the US Census Bureau, total ecommerce sales for 2023 increased by nearly 8% over the previous year. And online shoppers want more than a static website with a complicated, multistep checkout. The Harvard Business Review found that 73% of online shoppers use multiple channels in their shopping journey—and those that do spend 10% more online.

To better reach, engage, and convert today’s omnichannel buyer, many retailers are going “headless” by decoupling the front and back end of their website. With headless ecommerce, you can create storefront experiences that engage customers directly in the channels they are using. Beyond just your online store, you can reach buyers in a digital publication, a video game, via a QR code, through interactive chat, and much more.

But even for retailers with a robust omnichannel experience, cart abandonment remains a massive challenge. According to the Baymard Institute, the average abandoned cart rate in 2024 is over 70%. And the numbers get worse as devices get smaller. According to a study by Barilliance, mobile phone users abandoned their carts a whopping 85% of the time.

One of the best ways to tackle cart abandonment is to reduce friction and optimize the checkout experience. Adopting headless checkout gives you a flexible toolkit for reducing cart abandonment. It can also fuel a simpler, more intuitive buying experience across all the channels your customers use to engage with your brand.

In this article, we’ll explore the nuts and bolts of a headless checkout. We’ll also help you figure out if headless checkout is a good solution for your business.

What is a headless checkout experience?

With headless checkout, the checkout and payments processes are separated from the back-end of an online store. This allows for “on the spot” purchasing across multiple touchpoints, such as a promotional email, sponsored article, social post, a QR code at an event, and much more. Using headless checkout, online shoppers can fully complete a retail transaction without having to go to your ecommerce website at all.

For example, let’s say Melissa is checking her email. She gets a message that your brand is having a flash sale on her favorite product. She is ready to buy. Without headless checkout, it might go like this:

  • She clicks on the “Buy now” link in the email.

  • The link opens her default browser, landing on your ecommerce website.

  • Melissa has to find the product that is on sale and add it to her cart.

  • Then she has to type in her name, credit card, and billing address, and possibly even reenter shipping information and details.

  • If she is on a mobile device, she has to do this all on a tiny screen, making it an even worse experience—possibly so bad she abandons her cart and forgets about the sale.

Headless checkout allows you to provide a far better experience for your loyal customer Melissa. It could go something like this:

  • Melissa gets an email that her favorite product is on sale.

  • The email itself has a buy option with one-click checkout.

  • Melissa completes the purchase in seconds.

  • Your product is on the way to Melissa.

In the image below, you can see what this might look like:


If you repeat this scenario again, and again, it’s easy to see how headless checkout can boost revenue and customer loyalty in meaningful ways.

What are the benefits of headless checkout?

As we’ve discussed earlier, headless checkout allows you to offer a robust buying experience across channels. This simpler, one-click buying experience can help improve engagement, drive sales, and reduce cart abandonment. Headless checkout also gives technical teams a way to innovate faster, and it provides businesses with important data that allows them to invest more strategically. Let’s look at a few of these benefits in more detail.

Extensive customization

Headless checkout gives you much more freedom to customize the checkout experience. You can try out and iterate different front-end checkout layouts, allowing you to test different designs over time to see which leads to more conversions and sales. You can also provide different checkout experiences on different channels, providing a fully optimized path to purchase.

Increased number of checkout touchpoints

With headless checkout, customers aren’t limited to buying just from your ecommerce website. They buy your products or services wherever and whenever they’re ready. You can place a checkout button on several touchpoints with just a short block of code. Headless checkout also allows you to integrate with different payment gateways more easily, if one works better than another for specific audiences, channels, or campaigns.

Unique data and insights

Headless checkout gives you access to specific data you don’t get from other checkout solutions. When you offer “buy now” options inside of multiple touchpoints, you can compare sales and other data across those touchpoints. You may find that certain age ranges or other demographics buy more from a specific social media channel, and you can invest more heavily in that channel to drive revenue. Or if hardly anyone purchased anything from an email campaign, you can rethink your strategy and try something new.

You can also more deeply integrate headless checkout with customer relationship management (CRM) systems to gain insights from sales reports. You can use that data to personalize promotions, pricing, and even upselling campaigns.

What are the risks of headless checkout?

For all the benefits headless checkout offers, it also has its challenges. It can require a significant technical investment to restructure your ecommerce website. Headless checkout can also make your overall ecommerce strategy more complex as you offer more ways to buy. Here are several key considerations to be aware of when adopting headless checkout.

A need to build customer trust

The technology behind headless checkout is still pretty new, and buyers can be a bit wary about changing their buying behavior. They may wonder if their information is being processed securely without all the normal checkout steps, or if they are getting all the best possible discounts available. If there is a sales event, they may not know if they are getting a fair shot at a highly desired item because of all the different ways they can buy. Understanding customer wariness and anticipating these types of questions can help you take steps to reassure your customers when adopting and implementing headless checkout.

Meeting privacy and compliance requirements

If you are a large ecommerce retailer, you probably have customers in global markets around the world. If you implement headless checkout to your global customer base, you may end up facilitating transactions in countries with stricter regulations around data and privacy like GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). Headless checkout also decouples the front and back end, which can distribute customer data across multiple locations and applications.

All of this means that you’ll need to carefully look at how customer data is transferred and stored for each buying process. If you integrate with third-party applications and tools, you need to make sure your vendors can handle customer data compliantly. If not, you may have to choose specific vendors for global transactions that can meet data privacy, security, and other compliance requirements.

Increased performance overhead

Headless commerce, particularly headless checkout, relies on APIs (application programming interfaces) to communicate between front-end and back-end systems. Every time a front-end application needs information from a back-end system, it makes an API “call” to get or send data. These API calls enable communication between different checkout functions for inventory management, pricing calculations, payment processing, and more.

It’s easy to see how the more checkout features and options you offer, the more API calls you end up making. Because each API call must travel over a network (or the internet), you run the risk of slowing down the overall performance of your checkout system with numerous API calls.

That’s why it’s critical to make sure the connectivity between systems is fast and reliable. Your technical team should look for ways to build efficiencies in your headless architecture to avoid unnecessary calls. You can also adopt other techniques like caching and asynchronous processing to keep performance high.

Build a checkout experience that scales with Checkout Extensibility on Shopify

Enterprise online retailers can meet multiple business goals by engaging their different customer bases where they are and providing a buying experience that fits their preferences. But this can also mean building multiple, unique front-end customizations to increase conversions within each customer segment and each touchpoint. This approach can ramp complexity very quickly if you are building your headless checkout from scratch.

Platforms like Shopify understand that businesses need to adopt innovative checkout strategies to stay competitive—but they may not have (or want to invest in) the technical resources to make it happen. That’s why we built Shopify Checkout Extensibility, a suite of powerful platform features that makes it easier to customize your checkout. Checkout Extensibility gives online retailers the benefits of headless checkout in a way that's app-based, easily upgraded, and optimized for high performance. It also seamlessly integrates with Shop Pay, an accelerated checkout option that offers customers a faster way to buy your products and services.

You can use Checkout Extensibility to make no-code checkout customizations using apps and branding tools. Or if you have access to technical resources, you can use Shopify’s collection of components and APIs to build bespoke checkout experiences.

To add purchasing options to multiple channels outside of your ecommerce website, Shopify offers a “Buy Now” button that you can drop in quickly to a blog post, email, or other channel. With a quick snippet of embed code, you can give your customers a faster, simpler way to purchase.

Shopify provides a reliable, ready-to-scale platform for even the largest enterprise retailers in need of a customizable checkout solution. Scalability can be an issue with some platforms, especially around Black Friday and Cyber Monday (BFCM). If your checkout slows down or times out on the biggest purchasing days of the year, that’s revenue you’ll never get back.

Powering over 10% of all US ecommerce, and nearly 25% in Australia, Shopify equips businesses with an enterprise-grade platform. In 2023 alone, Shopify processed 5.5 billion orders from more than 675 million unique shoppers, at an average rate of 40,000 checkouts per minute. For 2023’s BFCM, Shopify supported $9.3 billion in revenue, handling 60 million requests per minute at peak times. A full 74% of those transactions were through mobile checkout, with 150 million buyers using Shop Pay.

Shopify is also optimized for high performance, even if your customers are globally distributed. With 99.9% uptime guaranteed, and 300 points of presence in over 30 countries, you can easily provide your global customers with a fast, reliable checkout experience every time.

Headless checkout FAQ

What is a headless checkout?

Headless checkout is when the front-end and back-end of checkout systems are decoupled. It uses API calls to communicate between all the functions and components of the overall checkout process. Headless checkout allows businesses to offer customized and personalized buying experiences, including one-click purchasing across different channels.

What is an example of a headless checkout?

One example of a headless checkout is the Canadian minimalist luggage retailer Monos. When they struggled to maintain multiple checkouts on different integrated online stores, they chose to move to a headless approach, using Shopify Checkout Extensibility. This allowed them to streamline their checkout across the different online stores, and also offer new features like the one-page checkout, discount combinations, and pre-orders. Headless checkout also allowed the lean tech team at Monos to build and integrate their own shipping insurance add-on to their checkout, using an easy-to-customize app.

What is the best platform for headless checkout?

While some ecommerce platforms can support headless checkout, Shopify Checkout Extensibility allows online retailers to adopt a headless approach without relying on time-consuming, extensive technical resources. With Shopify’s enterprise security, flexibility, and scalability, retailers of all sizes can adopt a headless approach on a platform that allows them to innovate, not spend time keeping the lights on.

Is headless checkout right for my business?

It’s important to review your specific business requirements before deciding if headless checkout is right for your business. If your ecommerce business strategy can be improved by implementing instant purchase options across multiple touchpoints, headless checkout can be a good choice. Cart abandonment is another challenge that can be tackled by headless checkout. As your online retail business grows, headless checkout can help you drive growth and revenue and offer optimized checkout experiences across multiple storefronts and channels.

This article originally appeared on Shopify Plus and is available here for further discovery.
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