What Is Headless Commerce? From Beginner to Expert
Customers expect the best from your brand. They want a shopping experience that’s personal, frictionless, and fun.
To thrive in this environment, you must be able to reach customers across any channel, in any context, with relevant and personalized messaging. That requires a degree of flexibility and agility that isn’t possible using legacy commerce platforms. So what’s the alternative?
Enter headless commerce.
In this article, learn what headless commerce is, why leading brands are going headless, and how to start implementing a headless architecture today.
Headless commerce separates the front end of an ecommerce app from the back end. In other words, it separates presentation from business logic.
Headless commerce platforms are split into two parts:
- The back end consists of all the apps, tools, and systems that the business uses to handle functionality such as transactions and order management, as well as update and manage the presentation layer.
- The front end of an e-commerce platform, also known as the presentation layer.
Before the rise of omnichannel experiences, the presentation layer was usually nothing more than a website. Users would encounter a customer-facing digital storefront but other channels, such as apps or third-party marketplaces, were either disconnected or even non-existent.
For most brands, the potential presentation layers now consist of a variety of social media channels, mobile apps, internet of things (IoT) devices like wearables, smart-home devices like Alexa, and much more.
With a headless commerce architecture, you're able to break up your business logic from your presentation layer(s). This means you unlock a more flexible experience for authors, developers and customers - putting your business logic, content and data right where you and your customers need it.
Traditional ecommerce platforms are monolithic. That means the content is coupled to a particular output like a web page. The place where the content is stored, the “body,” is tightly linked to the place where it’s presented, the “head.”
Monolithic commerce worked fine when brands were only expected to have a simple transactional website. Now, e-commerce experiences span everything from online stores to mobile apps to wearables to social media.
If a team is using a monolithic platform, they have to spend a lot of time and developer resources manually updating their content every time they want to make a change. In a rapidly-evolving market, that can pose a huge headache for teams and result in a slower time to market.
A monolithic architecture severely curtails the organization's flexibility. If a team wants to expand into a new region or market, update a site or an app, translate content into a different language, or experiment with the placement of content on their site, they have to change each item manually.
Headless commerce, by contrast, isn't coupled to a particular presentation or format. That means brands have the freedom to build and modify shopping experience with higher velocity, more control and a greater degree of flexibility.
Why are companies going headless? There are a number of reasons brands are choosing headless commerce over traditional.
A monolithic architecture doesn’t provide many opportunities to customize user experience. Traditional commerce platforms come with out-of-the-box templates, processes and functionality that are difficult to customize. To make adjustments, teams have to change the code, database, and front-end. On some Software-as-a-Service (Saas) platforms, these elements may even be locked down, meaning changes are impossible or very “hacky”.
Headless commerce, by contrast, enables teams to fine-tune the experience they want their users to have. Since the front end is decoupled from the back end, front-end developers have the freedom to experiment and iterate without touching the back end.
Decoupling puts development and content teams in the driver’s seat, giving them additional insight into how systems work together and talk to each other.
For e-commerce companies, that means mission-critical systems that perform functions like product information management, enterprise resource planning, warehouse management, and order management. Teams can design their own workflows, and developers are free to work in the language they feel most comfortable with.
In a traditional commerce platform, all parts of the architecture are interconnected. As a result, teams that change one part of the presentation layer also have to change the back end, which pulls developers away from more impactful tasks. Updates are time-consuming and labor-intensive, with substantial risk of downtime.
With a headless platform, content teams can simply update content in the front end themselves without making any changes to the back end. That allows them to switch up content on the fly without relying on development teams—and meeting customers’ needs as fast as possible.
While there are many advantages to a headless commerce platform, however, traditional platforms do have a few things to offer, particularly for smaller companies and teams.
- They’re easy to set up. Most traditional commerce platforms come with a back end already in place, including the tools needed to build a basic storefront and process payments.
- There are templates available. Traditional platforms offer templates that enable developers to quickly set up a bare-bones site with attractive design elements. Although these templates don’t allow a lot of customization, they can enable teams to get a professional-looking site up and running fairly quickly.
- There’s a robust playbook. Monolithic commerce platforms have been around for a long time. The developer community has had years to learn the ropes, and many have posted best practices online for others to benefit.
You’re probably wondering if headless is right for you. While just about any organization can benefit from a headless commerce platform, here are a few notable use cases.
- B2B businesses looking for customization. For B2B brands, customer experience is everything. Headless commerce enables B2B companies to streamline and iterate on customer experience without breaking the bank.
- D2C companies offering an omnichannel experience. Direct-to-consumer brands can leverage headless commerce to meet customers wherever they get their content.
- Companies looking to reduce technical debt. Teams that have previously worked with a traditional commerce platform often accumulate technical debt; maintaining and updating a web ecosystem requires them to cobble together various tools, systems, and vendors that are later rendered out-of-date or obsolete. Going headless can help teams clean up their tech stack, eliminate the need for replatforms, and improve governance and security.
- Businesses that want to scale. Since headless commerce is innately flexible, it lends itself to growth. Companies that are planning to expand, grow, and scale should strongly consider going headless. This eliminates the need to switch to a more flexible platform when the business grows.
- Businesses that own a content-heavy site. Traditional commerce platforms struggle to handle content-rich sites, particularly when they get a lot of traffic. But a headless platform can load a variety of content—such as video, images, and text—without compromising performance.
Clothing company AETHER Apparel started in 2009. They have since become a go-to retailer across the U.S, with showrooms in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Aspen, as well as a roaming retail store.
When AETHER decided to overhaul their online store, they wanted a digital storefront that paralleled the in-store shopping experience. That meant next-level visual storytelling and an extensible platform to enable customers to get close to touching, feeling, and experiencing their products.
AETHER partnered with digital consultancy Commerce-UI, the tech wizards behind the composable commerce systems for iconic brands like Liftfoils and Oura Ring. Commerce-UI recommended Sanity because of its extensibility and flexible approach to storytelling.
Sanity integrated directly with headless Shopify so the commerce platform automatically stayed in sync with the presentation layer. This gave Commerce-UI all the benefits of a headless CMS, with the ability to build compelling visual content and distribute it on any channel, and the power of Shopify’s seamless purchasing experience for customers.
“The out-of-the-box integration between Sanity and Shopify was one of the most important layers of the project, and it worked flawlessly,” said Michal Wolczecki-Klim, CTO of Commerce-UI.
- Puma - Built with Next.js and Sanity.
- Qeebo - Built with Shopify, Next.js, and Sanity.
- Baboon to the Moon - Built with Shopify, Hydrogen, and Sanity.
- Kotn - Built with Shopify, Next.js, and Sanity.
Headless commerce isn’t just the future—it’s the present. Today’s shoppers want brands to deliver great experiences and authentic stories. Shopify and Sanity enable you to create an experience that merges shopping with storytelling. But how do you get started?
While small businesses can often simply add an API to their existing commerce platform, mid-market and enterprise companies would be better off switching to a SaaS solution. One of the key advantages of a SaaS solution like Shopify is that it offers APIs that enable companies to seamlessly go headless.
Any business that offers an omnichannel experience would benefit from a headless content management system (CMS). Sanity can be used as a headless CMS built for modern frameworks and practices. It integrates directly with Shopify, seamlessly linking the commerce platform with the presentation layer.
In this step, the front end and back end are integrated. Teams that are switching from a traditional commerce platform to a headless platform, rather than starting from scratch, should break this step into smaller sub-steps. First, build out and sync APIs to individual elements of the presentation layer, like a landing page. Then iterate as necessary.