What is Headless Commerce?
What Is Headless Commerce and Why Might You Want to Use It?
Just like other kinds of modern Internet applications, eCommerce platforms are evolving to meet the explosive demand of today’s users. Headless Commerce is a way of structuring commerce applications so that the backend application is uncoupled from the frontend, often built on two separate platforms, opening new opportunities and saving significant developer resources.
How Do Traditional Commerce Solutions Work?
For most of the history of eCommerce, the web has been the primary mode of customer interaction. Customers would visit a commerce site, shop, and place their order from a desktop or laptop computer. To minimize complexity, most traditional commerce systems would have a strong integration between the customer-facing frontend and the backend. On each page load, the backend would generate a new page with the relevant content.
There are a variety of different kinds of traditional commerce solutions. Hosted commerce applications like Shopify are easy to configure, but can be inflexible and expensive. For companies with very few development resources, this type of integrated solution can be effective. Other popular choices include WooCommerce, which runs on WordPress, and Magento. Both WooCommerce and Magento have now added the option to also function exclusively as a backend for headless applications, making it possible to switch to headless commerce without switching backends.
While this technique works well when the majority of customers are on computers, it makes less sense when a mobile app is added to the mix. Because the frontend and the backend are so tightly coupled in this traditional model can start to break down when it comes to mobile user interfaces and experiences. Things can get complicated quickly when efforts to support other devices, like a smart speaker or other smart home device, are implemented. These days, even small businesses will likely outgrow a traditional eCommerce solution.
Aside from mobile apps and broader device support, modern eCommerce applications should also be able to offer personalized customer experiences and good A/B testing support. Today’s brands need to be able to tailor their customer experience to their particular needs. Instead of guessing, brands can now measure the effectiveness of changes made to their frontend without a more costly modification to the backend. Both customization and testing can be greatly expanded when the frontend and backend are uncoupled from one another.
Headless Commerce Creates New Opportunities
Although much of what is now standard functionality with headless commerce was possible with traditional commerce, the headless architecture makes it a lot easier to implement efficiently. Traditional commerce solutions focused on generating marketplace-like web pages with a list of products, a cart, and a check-out page. With headless commerce, it’s possible to intersperse interactive commerce functionality directly into content like a blog post or right next to a video. Since the backend provides functionality that can be accessed by any frontend, brands can evolve to support shopping and purchases on new platforms without recreating backend infrastructure. Entirely new ecommerce experiences are possible with the headless architecture.
On the backend, developers can perform data analytics on sales information or modify databases without having to coordinate with the frontend team. Both teams can iterate on ideas and build new functionality without breaking the other team’s functionality. This allows developers to work faster and produce business results at a lower cost.
What Headless Commerce Solutions are There?
Since most businesses already use a content management system like WordPress for their website, sticking with a CMS as the backend is a wise choice. Although WordPress functions as a traditional (not headless) CMS by default, it also has REST API support, meaning that it can be used with a separate frontend. WooCommerce, the leading eCommerce platform on WordPress, includes REST API support as well. At the same time, it’s possible to implement a WordPress frontend for user engagement while relying on other platforms, to manage your store inventory and other backend systems. There are eCommerce platform providers who offer plugins specifically for this endeavor, although software quality and support for some of those integrations can be challenging.
With a WooCommerce backend in place, developers can write a frontend using any technology—React for the web, Swift for iOS, Kotlin for Android, the Alexa Skills SDK for Amazon devices, etc. Since the backend and frontend communicate using simple API calls, multiple frontends built with different technologies can communicate with one backend. Even Internet of Things devices like internet-connected buttons and smart speakers can be supported with minimal additional effort.
While WooCommerce is one of the most popular backend technology stacks, other options like Magento cloud solutions can also work in this situation. In fact, a company could swap out its backend without modifying the frontend, so long as both backends implemented the same APIs. The tradeoff for Magneto and others however is often the extremely high adoption costs, legacy technology stacks, and expensive and increasingly rare developer and platform support.
How can Retailers and Brands Take Advantage of Headless Commerce?
There’s a reason that huge brands like Amazon and Nike choose to go headless. It’s the most cost-effective, flexible, and performant way to build ecommerce experiences. By decoupling their frontend and backend, Amazon allows customers to shop using their Alexa devices or Dash Button. While most small businesses have very different requirements from Amazon, the headless commerce technology is still a major benefit. Nearly every ecommerce business now has to support both mobile and web, so the headless architecture is immediately beneficial. As smart home devices continue to increase in popularity, ecommerce companies are even more likely to have to support additional platforms in the future.
Business leaders looking to improve their customers’ eCommerce experiences should consider headless commerce solution. The headless architecture makes many parts of the lifecycle of an eCommerce business simpler, from creating new digital commerce experiences to adding support for additional devices. Companies both large and small are choosing to go headless in order to save development resources, enable new opportunities, and grow their businesses.