What is Headless E-commerce? Should You Care?

Sam Ruedinger

November 11, 2021

Headless e-commerce is having a bit of a moment. It allows stores to separate the front end of their website from the back end, grant new capabilities and flexibilities in the process. But it isn't the best option for everyone, and some companies may best served by ignoring this trend.

What is Headless E-commerce? Should You Care?

Typical e-commerce websites are made up of two components: the visible site, which is rendered in the browser and visitors see; and the business management, which includes important business functions such as order management, but which customers never see. The visible layer is often referred to as the front end or the "head" while the hidden systems are referred to as the back end.

Traditionally, the front end and the back end are powered by the same system. These "full stack" systems include platforms such as Shopify, BigCommerce, SquareSpace, WooCommerce, and many others. These types of platforms are the traditional standard because they make managing a business much easier, since all functions relating to the site and to the business itself can be handled with one system.

On the other hand, the more things that a single tool does, the fewer things it is likely to be superior at. Hence...headless.

Headless e-commerce refers to separating the front-end services of a website with the back-end services of a business into two discrete systems or platforms that are connected with an API or data stream.

In this way, platforms that are really good at front end work can do that, while different platforms that excel at managing the business on the back end can do that, and these two systems can interact seamlessly.

Why your company may want to go headless

Headless websites offer limitless flexibility in terms of design and functionality. With a headless setup, your company can choose the platform that makes it quickest, easiest, or most beautiful to build the web experience you're looking for. As a concrete example, Shopify is a popular e-commerce platform but it can be challenging and time-consuming to develop animations in Shopify. Conversely, Webflow offers robust animation capabilities that can bring a website to life, but it lacks powerful e-commerce management functionality. A headless strategy could combine these two platforms, giving a company the best of both worlds.

Headless setups don't need to be limited to two systems though. They could include platforms that allow for native apps that interconnect with the same user data. Or they could connect to cross-border solutions like Flow.io to offer localized checkout and seamless integrated order management.

Besides capability and expansion, another reason to consider headless is to enable a robust content-first website maintenance strategy. Platforms like Shopify are limited in what they allow content authors to do, and third-party apps can be hacky, unreliable, and slow. Instead, an external content management system that connects to Shopify can allow greater flexibility to content authors, while enforcing website consistency and brand standards. Platforms like Contentful offer powerful content authoring and permission models and greater flexibility around information architecture. This can allow small business owners to drive powerful SEO strategies by optimizing their URL structure in the way that works best for their store.

Front-end-specific tools such as Contentful or Prismic offer superior load speeds as well. It's possible to load highly interactive sites with intense videos in less than a second, even on mobile. Metrics like page speed, perceived load time, and time to interactive are among the highest factors affecting bounce rate and pulling down conversion rate. Google understands this correlation and can reduce site rankings to punish slower loading sites. Non-headless sites on popular platforms like WooCommerce are frequently some of the slowest sites on the internet.

Why your company may want to skip headless

With all of these reasons in favor of headless, what are the arguments against the technology? As you may imagine, there are plenty of reasons to keep a single platform:

Initial development costs and ongoing technical maintenance costs will be higher with headless. This is because there are two or more platforms being built and maintained as well as APIs to connect the platforms, which can sometimes require specialized knowledge to update and maintain. On the other hand, costs are typically reduced for marketing and other business functions that can have greater flexibility in designing landing pages and updating site components without needing to rely on a developer.

Another reason to avoid headless is because you prefer to use native platform features such as apps (Shoipfy), plug-ins (WooCommerce), or native content editing. These front-end tools will no longer work in a headless configuration since they aren't connected to the front end layer of the website at all.

Should you go headless?

There's no single correct answer for every business, since both options have pros and cons. However, for many small businesses, headless may be overkill, driving up expenses for an initial project as well as ongoing maintenance. On the other hand, headless offers a powerful method to grow a business with new connections to the same underlying data and new capabilities, making it faster and easier to spin up new experiences on the best possible platforms, without affecting the source of truth of the data.

If you'd like to talk about whether headless is a good option for your business, get in touch with our team, and we can provide advice tailored to your specific company and situation.