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What Is Headless Commerce: A Complete Guide For 2023

What Is Headless Commerce: A Complete Guide For 2023

Headless commerce is one of the fastest rising trends in ecommerce. Its biggest advocates cite several reasons for implementing a headless architecture, such as dramatic improvements in site performance and unparalleled agility to make changes on the fly. On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer to go headless, right?

Headless commerce can give brands full creative freedom while also allowing developers to build bespoke ecommerce experiences with the technologies they prefer. But implementing a headless architecture isn’t nearly as easy as it’s often advertised—and there are plenty of reasons why going headless isn’t right for every merchant.

Before you leap head-first into headless, let’s make sure that you have a deep understanding of what it means to go headless. We’ll also walk you through how to unlock the potential of a headless architecture, and how Shopify has helped thousands of brands do so.

Table of Contents

  1. What is headless commerce?
  2. 4 headless commerce benefits
  3. Is headless commerce a fit for your business?
  4. Going headless with Shopify
  5. Ready to go headless?

What is headless commerce?

Headless commerce is an ecommerce architecture that decouples the front-end experience from the back-end operations. Headless commerce is typically referred to as “API-first” because the front and back-end communicate to each other through an API layer.

Brands love this architecture because it unlocks the creative freedom to build unique storefront experiences that are typically not possible on monolithic platforms. Developers are eager to go headless because it offers a unique level of development control and gives them the freedom to leverage composable tech stacks with their choice of best-of-breed commerce tools.

Going headless enables you to create multiple front-end experiences for different customer touch points. Your web, mobile, voice, and point of sale (POS) front-ends can talk to a single backend system via the API layer, which allows emerging brands to be truly omnichannel and rapidly expand internationally.

On the back end, you can use loosely coupled, fine-grained services to meet your brand’s complex operational needs. Since your tech stack is composable, you can implement your preferred CMS, CRM, or DXP on a plug-and-play level. There’s also no vendor lock-in, which allows you to swap out these best-of-breed services whenever your business needs change.

4 headless commerce benefits

The biggest benefit to headless commerce is that it’s flexible and assumes commerce will rapidly evolve and positions you to be wherever commerce and new technologies lead. But there are several other reasons why emerging businesses look to go headless.

Here are five key headless commerce benefits:

  1. Full creative control
  2. Improved site performance
  3. A plug-and-play experience with third-party apps
  4. Increased developer freedom and flexibility

1. Full creative control

Going headless allows creating the exact look and feel your brand envisions, without limitations. But it's typically not where most brands start their ecommerce journey.

A monolithic system where the presentation layer (so-called themes or templates) is strictly defined and connected to the back-office, which makes it an ideal place to quickly build an online store and get your products to market. As your brand grows its digital identity, your storefront increasingly requires customizations to achieve more dynamic and personalized experiences. Advanced theme or template solutions can achieve certain levels of customization. For example, Shopify's Online Store 2.0 offers a set of developer tools that open up massive opportunities to break the template mold and create a tailored, unique experience.

Headless commerce trumps when a tightly coupled architecture starts presenting trade-offs in choosing best-of-breed tools to accomplish bespoke experiences of any complexity level. Using headless commerce means there are no more design sacrifices—brands get to customize everything and anything they can imagine, with their tools of choice.

Headless also allows you to instantly split test what you build so you can optimize customer experience and your conversion rate.

Since the front-end experience is separate from the back end, it’s simpler and less risky to make changes to the front end knowing you won’t impact the site’s underlying back-end architecture.

For example, Shopify merchant Offlimits Cereal used a headless solution to create a vending machine-like buying experience that led shoppers to a gamified checkout to make buying cereal fun.

2. Improved site performance

When a customer lands on your site, you have just a couple of seconds to ensure your page loads to keep their attention.

WebsiteBuilderExpert found that load speeds can make or break a website.

  • 64% of smartphone users expect pages to load in under four seconds
  • 40% of consumers will wait no more than three seconds before abandoning a site
  • 82% of consumers say slow page speeds impact their purchasing decisions

Using a headless architecture makes it easier to create fast-loading pages across desktop and mobile devices. When your front end is built separately, the heavy back end is separate from the pages customers interact with.

By switching to a headless architecture, shoppers will be able to switch between your homepage, blog, product pages, and checkout at lightning speeds.

Improving your site speed can also impact your bottom line. The two-to-three second mark is the turning point where bounce rates skyrocket.

That means if a site makes $100,000 per day, a one-second improvement generates another $7,000 daily. And the opposite is true too.

Customers won’t learn to be patient with slow-loading pages, they’ll just bounce and check out a competitor instead. By using a headless architecture, brands improve the customer experience and reduce the likelihood of customers losing interest as a result of slow page loading times.

3. A plug-and-play experience with third-party apps

Existing systems coded in different languages can prevent critical integrations, even ones that negatively impact the customer experience. Headless plays nice with everyone.

With powerful APIs, headless lets you integrate all of your existing systems (ERP, PIM, IMS, etc.) to build a shopping experience using the programming language of your choice. Not only can it protect you from shifts in technology, headless also gives you the power to move at your own pace and adapt as quickly as commerce itself.

4. Increased developer freedom and flexibility

Headless commerce allows developers to use composable tech stacks, which provides an unmatched level of flexibility. You can replace or drop components whenever you determine they no longer meet your needs. Modular integrations and best-of-breed applications allow developers to add or switch functionalities without impacting the entire platform.

Is headless commerce a fit for your business?

If your business is prospering with a traditional architecture, it may not be worth the financial and time resources to invest in headless. It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve.

But if you want a more personalized and unique customer experience coupled with more flexible development, and you have the development resources to support a headless transformation, then headless may be right for you. Specifically, implementing a headless CMS for Next.js could significantly enhance your web projects by providing developers with the freedom to use their favorite tools while still offering marketers the ability to update content easily. This approach marries flexibility with control, making it a compelling option for businesses aiming to leverage the latest web technologies.

Brands starting to explore a headless architecture often see themselves in some of these scenarios:

  • I already have an established infrastructure, and it’s not always easy to integrate another tool into our existing technology
  • I feel we’re moving slower than competitors because I can’t simultaneously make front- and back-end adjustments
  • I want my shopping experience to be fast for all shoppers, and to have more control over the elements that affect performance and site speed
  • I want to reimagine a unique experience with a creative vision that goes beyond customizations my current theme or template allows.
  • I don’t have a native mobile app for iOS or Android, or my mobile shopping app isn’t as user-friendly as I’d like it to be
  • I want to build a unique storefront ecommerce experience that isn’t possible with my current platform (e.g., smart mirrors, wearable tech, vending machines, etc.)

Consider your costs

As you decide how to go headless, consider costs and time. The pricing for an enterprise headless project could cost anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions upfront, plus annual maintenance costs, depending on the functionality, supporting tools, and level of customization.

Other channels built on a headless platform (like a mobile app, audio stream, or video game integration) may cost as low as $99 a month if you use an app to build your custom storefront.

At the end of the day, the cost of headless varies depending on the complexity of your build. Building and implementation are just one set of costs. Don’t forget to scope out fees paid to external agencies, or monthly costs such as subscriptions to a headless CMS platform or hosting fees to a cloud provider.

Going headless with Shopify

Shopify has supported thousands of businesses that sought to replatform to a headless architecture. Developers and merchants leverage Shopify’s full suite of headless development tools to build best-in-class custom experiences in less time with lower costs. Shopify’s headless solutions offer merchants and developers the freedom to choose the right tools for the job and extend store capabilities with a composable stack of technologies.

Shopify’s headless solutions consist of the following:

  • Storefront API, Shopify’s headless API layer
  • Hydrogen and Oxygen, Shopify’s official development stack for headless commerce

Let’s take a closer look at how each enables emerging businesses of all sizes to move towards a headless architecture.

Storefront API

Storefront API is the foundation of our headless platform. It provides access to the full breadth of Shopify’s commerce capabilities that are critical to any buyer-facing experiences, including:

  • Optimized cart
  • Product and collection pages
  • Search and recommendations
  • Contextual pricing (e.g. optimized cart)
  • Subscriptions and other B2B functionalities

Storefront API is agnostic to any frameworks, devices, and service platforms. This gives developers the freedom to use the tools they already use and love, while simultaneously experimenting with new technologies. Developers can build with any development framework such as Next.js, Gatsby, and Astro, deploy to their favorite hosting service, and hook into any third-party systems that have an API.

Online clothing retailer Kotn used Shopify’s Storefront API and Next.js to consolidate two stores into one, with a new CMS, custom product pages, and checkout.

Shopify covers 80% of our needs, and I think that’s common across all merchants. It’s that next 20% where headless comes in and where we really spend our time. What we’re trying to do is let Shopify handle the stuff they do so well, and we can focus on what makes us unique. That’s where we’ve really gone with our thinking around being headless.

— Benjamin Sehl, Co-founder of Kotn

Read the Kotn case study here.

Storefront API delivers lightning-fast buyer experiences across devices, channels, locations, and empowers the biggest sales events with zero throttles. It’s also entirely deployed to the edge and serves all legitimate requests from both private and public clients without rate limit.

In many instances, developers want a more opinionated tech stack to fast-track development and get to market faster—and that’s where Hydrogen and Oxygen comes into the picture.

Hydrogen and Oxygen

Shopify’s official development stack consists of Hydrogen and Oxygen, a combination of tools that provides a clear path for building dynamic and performant headless commerce sites on Shopify that can scale infinitely.

Hydrogen is built on top of the React-based Remix framework and harnesses its ease of use, high-quality web development standards, and performance advancements like Optimistic UI, Nested Routes, and Progressive Enhancement. Although Hydrogen’s development stack is opinionated, it’s also modular and provides commerce-optimized components, hooks, and utilities pre-configured for Shopify’s APIs. Each piece of the stack is optimized to work best together so you can build fast without compromises on performance and maintainability, while providing the freedom to integrate with the tools and services you already use.

While Hydrogen stores can be hosted by any cloud hosting providers, the easiest and fastest way to deploy Hydrogen stores is Oxygen, Shopify’s globally-distributed hosting solution. Oxygen is rendered at the edge with 285+ points of presence around the world, offering development teams full deployment control. It’s also included in any Shopify plans at no extra cost and guarantees peak performance and uptime across the globe, while keeping costs down for businesses.

Recently, Patta and Tommy Hilfiger leveraged Hydrogen and Oxygen to build an immersive storefront that promoted their newest collaboration. It featured a memorable 90s hip-hop culture infused ecommerce experience, all of which was launched in just 14 days.

This is just one example of how iconic brands around the world are going headless with Hydrogen and Oxygen. See more examples here.

Ready to go headless?

Whether you’re a seasoned business with established infrastructure or still building out your enterprise architecture, if you’re checking several of the boxes above, a headless commerce approach might be right for you.

Likewise, if your business operations are becoming more complex and you want to differentiate by competing on experience rather than price, you may indeed have a headless future.

Headless ecommerce FAQ

What is a headless approach?

A headless approach involves separating the front end and back end of your ecommerce website to allow for rapid development and customization on each end. It is different from a full-stack approach, which calls for the front end and back end to be developed in tandem, leaving less room for expedited changes.

Is Shopify a headless CMS?

Shopify is a headless ecommerce platform. Merchants can use third-party applications to build the front-end presentation layer and pull data from Shopify via the GraphQL Storefront API. The API also lets you design and implement your own checkout flow, as well as build a cart that unlocks features like estimated totals with taxes, duties, and discounts.

How do I get started with headless commerce?

  1. Decide whether you want to keep or switch your commerce platform.
  2. Choose a headless CMS.
  3. Sync your CMS and APIs.
  4. Consider costs and time.

How does headless commerce work?

Headless commerce is an ecommerce architecture that decouples the front-end experience from the back-end operations. Headless commerce is typically referred to as “API-first” because the front and back-end communicate to each other through an API layer.

Read More


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