A complete guide to headless ecommerce
In this post, you'll learn what headless ecommerce can do, why it matters, and the benefits it brings.
To stake their claim in this new digital economy, companies are investing in emerging technologies that allow them to meet customer expectations in a fast and nimble way — and that includes building a strong ecommerce foundation with headless architecture that supports a seamless, personalized shopper journey.
It’s a journey that no longer follows a linear path from cart to checkout, with the majority of traffic to ecommerce stores shuttled through a web browser. The path to purchase includes an array of internet-enabled buyer touchpoints like social media platforms, mobile apps, online marketplaces, and now emerging touchpoints like augmented reality (AR), Internet of Things (loT) devices, and even vehicle-mount computers. Shoppers can purchase products and services without ever visiting a webstore. Headless ecommerce is what makes it all possible.
It can be challenging for both B2C and B2B merchants to offer intelligent and meaningful experiences that are consistent across all devices, touchpoints, and channels. B2C customers are met with a wealth of digital choices, which makes for hypercompetitive commerce, and B2B businesses are only just beginning to create comparable shopping experiences by investing in customer-centric, digital commerce capabilities like personalized product recommendations and live predictive search. Meanwhile, many businesses are weighed down by legacy commerce platforms that weren’t built for the flexibility, speed, and scale that the digital economy demands.
That’s where headless ecommerce comes into play. Designed to support a multichannel approach to sales, headless ecommerce empowers B2B and B2C merchants to offer customers rich and relevant experiences wherever they wish to transact. This guide dives deep into headless ecommerce — what it is, what it can do, why it matters, the immense benefits it can bring, and what it looks like in the real world (with real examples).
In this headless ecommerce guide, you’ll learn about:
- What headless ecommerce is
- How it differs from traditional ecommerce platforms
- Headless ecommerce benefits
- How headless ecommerce works
- Real-world examples of headless ecommerce
- The top three headless ecommerce platforms
- How to know if headless ecommerce is right for your company
- How to get started with headless ecommerce
Let’s get into it.
What is headless ecommerce?
Headless ecommerce is a commerce architecture that decouples (or detaches) the front end of your online store from the operational back-end layer that manages sales, website security, data processes, and business logic. The back end is left without its “head” (the front end), which is where the term “headless” comes from.
A body with a detached head can’t do much at all, but when a commerce platform goes headless, it’s faster, more flexible, and more functional. The back end can perform all its crucial commerce duties and experiment with new, innovative functionality without being shackled to a front end. And businesses can create fully customized, branded digital storefronts and deliver memorable experiences across channels without disturbing the back-end infrastructure.
Headless architecture embeds commerce functionality into your entire touchpoint network. Think of different touchpoints as different “heads” to the commerce platform’s back end. Merchants can create and deliver app-like experiences quickly to any of these heads. Whether it’s with a smartwatch, mobile app, or voice interface like Amazon Alexa, shoppers get faster, more personalized, and consistent experiences wherever and however they engage.
It’s a commerce architecture many businesses are gravitating toward, particularly those under the weight of a traditional all-in-one monolith platform, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best approach for every business.
Headless ecommerce vs. traditional ecommerce
In the early days of digital commerce, traditional ecommerce platforms were the best and only option for businesses to launch a website if they didn’t have the resources or talent to code a webstore from scratch. They’d buy a full-stack software solution with integrated front- and back-end layers.
With full-stack platforms, it’s easy to get a digital storefront up and running, but the ability to customize commerce functions, quickly implement new features, adapt new technologies, and expand on available consumer touchpoints is stifled. Little changes require simultaneous adjustments to the front and back ends. And while third-party extensions can be added to increase functionality and application program interfaces (APIs) can extend reach to certain touchpoints like native mobile apps, traditional platforms often don’t have the personalization, content testing, and analytics capabilities that commerce leaders need to succeed with digital-first consumers.
As you can see from the table, there are distinct advantages to hosting your online store on a traditional ecommerce platform. Small and midsize businesses (SMBs) just starting out with ecommerce typically don’t require custom applications, and it wouldn’t benefit their budgets or resources to build and maintain a headless framework. Full-stack solutions have lower operating costs and are relatively easy to use, as they come complete with templated site design systems, simplified dashboards, and plug-and-play features. But as a business grows, the monolith must grow with it, and at that point it can become unwieldy, slow, and difficult to scale.
When using a traditional ecommerce platform to respond to consumer demands for personalization at scale, developers will have to alter database code and adjust the front-end platform, and updates over time can become more complicated, time-intensive, and expensive. If just one piece is incorrectly updated, the entire platform can crumble. At this point, a business might be served better by moving to headless architecture.
The benefits of headless ecommerce
Platform and service implementations can feel overwhelming, but you don’t have to go headless all at once. You can start with core capabilities, like the online catalog, shopping cart, and pricing options, and then separate those using a headless approach. In effect, you’ll be switching out the storefront experience without interfering with the back end or making changes to your commerce engine. You can continue to decouple other services as you go. In the meantime, you’ll be enjoying the benefits headless ecommerce can bring.
Stay competitive with customization
With headless, creativity on the front end is unfettered. You can spin up engaging user experiences swiftly and experiment with new features and functionality. Because integrations are no longer a packaged deal, headless also gives you the freedom to purchase only the necessary software solutions to optimize your commerce platform and impact your bottom line. You can give internal teams the tools they need to enhance your platform’s usability at varying stages of digital maturity.
Empower your teams
When a headless platform is at the helm, marketing and merchandising teams aren’t limited by IT restrictions but are empowered by pre-integrated, user-friendly tools that decrease reliance on developers. Because the customer-facing front end can be updated easily to reflect the latest marketing campaigns and promotions, there’s no hold on launching new customer experiences.
Deliver consistent experiences
Businesses can maintain a shared dataset across touchpoints with headless ecommerce. This way, customers get a consistent experience and can pick up their shopping journey where they left off.
Keep up with the ever-changing technological landscape
Headless ecommerce makes it possible for companies to keep pace with user preferences and technologies that move at warp speed. For example, a quick compliance update with the latest version of iOS doesn’t call for a reboot of the entire system. Headless grants the flexibility to introduce and experiment with new digital capabilities as customer, business, and market needs dictate.
Headless also brings unique advantages to IT leaders
The decoupled architecture of headless ecommerce combined with pre-built integrations make it easier and faster to update services, and that means a lower burden on IT teams. Headless also enables operational efficiency across a common user experience and user interface with a single login and support organization to resolve any issues that arise with service updates and releases. Perhaps the greatest advantage is the ability to seamlessly integrate with the commerce platform through APIs, which gives IT leaders the flexibility to make the most appropriate technology decisions for each distinct business need.
How does headless ecommerce work?
By now you have a good understanding of what headless ecommerce is: a clean separation of the public-facing front end of your webstore from the commerce functions and logistics on the back end. And you’re well-versed in the benefits, which range from faster deployment to better differentiated customer experiences and more seamless cross-channel encounters. Now let’s get you up to speed on exactly how headless ecommerce works.
The front end and back end of a headless ecommerce store may be working independently of each other, but they’re in constant communication with the help of application programming interfaces (APIs). Using APIs in this manner eliminates any dependencies that new front-end releases or customizations may have with the back end, meaning the two don’t need to be developed, deployed, and managed simultaneously. With this approach, your front-end development team can achieve complete creative control over the customer experience.
APIs don't just allow the two halves of an ecommerce system to function independently — they also power omnichannel scenarios and commerce-enable any system, application, or loT device. Developers use APIs to send information and experiences across customer touchpoints. APIs take signals from the front-end user interface, run it to the back end, and then return with new information that translates into an anticipated experience on the front end. Think of APIs as messengers that take your requests — your online purchases, dinner reservations, travel bookings, and more — tell the system what you’d like to do, and then come back with a response. We see a simplified version of the digital shopping experience on customer-facing touchpoints, but on the back end, the complexity and technology that make up the shopper experience are in full swing.
APIs make the world of interactivity quite literally go round. Applications, databases, and devices are all linked by APIs, creating the global web connectivity that drives our modern world. No matter the application technology or experience platform, developers can use APIs to transmit information and brand experiences across consumer touchpoints quickly and reliably.
The use of APIs with headless ecommerce is especially relevant to brands that are looking to expand their content websites to webstores. APIs integrate seamlessly with any content management solution (CMS), so it’s much easier to build out a commerce engine and then connect it to an existing CMS than it is to create a completely new website and migrate content.
5 great examples of headless ecommerce in action
Now let’s see what it looks like when companies operate their commerce engine with headless architecture.
The Sazerac House offers tours, exhibits, and tastings at its 50,000-square-foot distillery in New Orleans. Their website is a prime example of headless architecture’s influence on ecommerce. It not only drives visitors to their physical location, but it also provides an immersive brand experience through rich content with embedded commerce.
They’ve gone beyond traditional product pages to build a seamless, unified customer experience. Local customers can do curbside pickup, and customers from around the world can place orders with their online gift shop. Sazerac also has the freedom to experiment, like launching a virtual experience and adding opportunities for customers to buy various products throughout the event.
Direct ecommerce sales are only the most visible indicator of ecommerce’s value. Going headless ensures Sazerac House continues to build deep relationships with its omnichannel consumers, strengthen brand equity with content that is accessible to both consumers and retailers, and increase offline sales thanks to its growing digital influence.
Headless allows companies to adjust as quickly as possible to rapid changes in customer preferences, the market, and the world — and that’s just what Buffalo Trace Distillery did at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Known for their onsite distillery tours, Buffalo Trace, part of the Sazerac House family, had to adapt to lockdown restrictions. Headless architecture made it possible to add commerce functionally to a virtual tour, and over 50,000 visitors enjoyed distillery virtual tours in the first year. They shopped at the various online gift shops and purchased merchandise just as they would have had they been taking an onsite tour.
Pentair, a global water treatment company, has many different customers: B2B, B2C, and contractors. Before going headless, they operated 35 websites across North America alone. There was little differentiation between consumer personas, and customers had a hard time finding the right information for their needs. B2C customers often found themselves on a B2B purchase path (and vice versa).
With the help of headless architecture, Pentair integrated a variety of commerce experiences for B2B, B2C, and contractors into a single global website. Through comprehensive navigation and clear customer journeys, Pentair can change the journey by persona, combining deep content experiences to guide and educate customers and commerce to provide a seamless purchasing experience.
As a leading food and agri-business on a mission to supply food ingredients, fiber, and feed to thousands of customers worldwide, Olam Group operates in 60 countries and across multiple ecommerce sites. Their websites don’t just function as a purchasing portal — they also include rich content to nourish customer relationships and attract new buyers. They need the ability to scale, and that means launching new commerce websites as regions and product lines grow, with the flexibility to adjust to different currencies and languages. Headless gives them this capability.
Most recently, Olam expanded into the B2C arena with Re-Foods, their first direct-to-consumer brand. They can customize the experience for their customers while operating from a single platform on the backend. Creating a seamless, B2C-centric customer experience raised conversion rates significantly and reduced shopping cart abandonment from 60% to below 30%.
TiVo launched TiVo Stream 4K to satisfy consumers’ desire for an innovative and simplified content discovery experience. But in order to do so, they needed to rethink their backend commerce platform. Headless is the key to adding commerce functions rapidly into new touchpoints like TiVo’s streaming device.
With headless architecture, TiVo had the freedom to deliver a consistent commerce experience into their digital storefronts that were in sync with their web and mobile storefronts. Moving to headless improved their ability to upsell to targeted audiences with custom deals and offers. And customers can now purchase directly in the streaming device interface.
The top three headless ecommerce platforms
Now that you’ve seen why both B2B and B2C merchants are using headless architecture to drive their business forward, let’s look at the leaders in the space.
Adobe Commerce (powered by Magento)
Adobe Commerce, formerly Magento Commerce, provides a headless API-based commerce platform for B2B and B2C merchants. Always API-first, the foundation uses GraphQL to transfer the exact data needed (and nothing more) so businesses can continue to build personalized customer experiences. With this foundation, customers can take advantage of best-of-breed functionality, build their own extensions, or use third-party extensions to deliver unique shopping experiences.
Adobe has seen success in recent years offering Adobe Commerce as a headless digital commerce application that enables merchants to consume commerce functionality as APIs and use any front end, such as Adobe Experience Manager or PWA Studio, for webstore design. When using Adobe, storefront customers often benefit from a significant reduction in time to market for their commerce implementation.
Adobe has seen strong traction among customers in the headless ecommerce segment of the market, and customers (according to IDC) are investing heavily in headless ecommerce so that they can build unique storefronts on top of Adobe Commerce.
Adobe Commerce is a good fit for organizations with multiple routes to market, hybrid sales models (B2B and B2C), complex catalogs, many promotional campaigns, and multi-site or multi-catalog requirements. Adobe’s headless infrastructure also integrates with other Adobe tools, like Adobe Experience Manager (CMS), Adobe Analytics, and Adobe Marketo Engage, as well as a deep marketplace of third-party ecommerce services.
BigCommerce offers a headless ecommerce solution that includes core capabilities needed to build a B2B or B2C storefront. Their SaaS offering includes packaged plans for small and mid-market merchants, including headless use cases. BigCommerce also offers integrations in their marketplace to accelerate the deployment of commerce features.
Both Shopify for small to mid-sized businesses and Shopify Plus for enterprises offer headless architecture. Shopify provides many plans and add-ons and an apps marketplace authored by its technology partners and developers. This out-of-the-box functionality allows for quick standup and gives internal teams the ability to manage the store.
Get a side-by-side comparison of Adobe Commerce and Shopify.
Is headless ecommerce right for your company?
You’ve seen the benefits of headless ecommerce, but weighing them against the additional cost and complexity of building ecommerce components deserves a little more attention.
Most businesses need a platform that can support future growth and keep pace with digital expectations. This requires flexibility, with a fast time to market and low total cost of ownership. Some businesses have a robust, talented developer team that can handle large amounts of complexity and technical debt. Other businesses just don’t have access to the technical skills or budgets required for piecing together functionalities within a headless platform. For this reason, you’ll want to consider the trade-offs of each strategy based on available talent and resources. You may just find a monolithic platform more suitable for your current commerce needs, particularly if you’re part of an SMB that doesn’t need custom applications (at least not yet).
You can use the following five indicators to see if your company is ready to make the move to headless ecommerce.
1. You want to build custom front-end experiences using any technology, at any time. Traditional ecommerce platforms keep you married to that vendor’s interface, so you’re never truly able to build a differentiated and branded shopping experience. There will always be generic elements included that are reminiscent of other brands’ experiences. With headless, you can reimagine your entire front end without affecting your commerce back end. Likewise, you can react quickly to customer needs as they evolve. That may mean replacing the user interface of your back end rather than buying or building a whole new commerce system. And when you have a team of developers at your disposal, they can use the tools they know rather than having to learn new systems — all of which accelerates time to market.
2. You want improved scalability. Headless APIs are designed with efficiency in mind. They only transfer the data that’s needed, and in this way, performance is optimized with very few delays. Even as web traffic increases and purchases skyrocket, headless ecommerce can keep up. You don’t have to worry about your web store crashing on peak shopping days. And as business expands, you won't have to start all over with a new commerce platform. Headless gives you the capabilities to scale — and personalize experiences for your customers while you’re at it.
3. You want rapid innovation. New touchpoints are already on the horizon, like AR smart glasses, smart clothing, internet-enabled appliances, and intelligent implant devices. Headless architecture sets businesses up for commerce functionality in them all. Merchants are better prepared to respond rapidly to emerging technologies, add new revenue streams quickly, introduce new experiences before the competition, and adapt as buyer behaviors evolve.
4. You want consistency across all touchpoints. APIs and back-end commerce services aren’t exclusive. The same ones communicate with all touchpoints, no matter the technology. Utilizing a headless architecture ensures that the experience is consistent with the same shopping cart, payment methods, and checkout processes wherever customers shop.
5. You want to integrate content and commerce. Headless makes it possible for companies with an existing CMS to add commerce functionality to their corporate websites and start selling fast. It works like this: A headless CMS, just like a headless ecommerce back end, decouples content operations, such as assets and personalization, from the storefront user interface. When a headless CMS joins a headless ecommerce platform, customer experiences are better aligned with behaviors and expectations, and customers get a more tailored shopping experience, with the right product information and content delivered at the right moment. A coupling of your CMS and commerce store also offers more opportunities for selling outside of your product pages and optimizing customer product searches across sites.
Looking to integrate your CMS and commerce platform?
Our recent webinar The Good, The Better, The Best: Content + Commerce Strategies walks through when the time is right and how to build your strategy: https://business.adobe.com/resources/webinars/the-best-content-and-commerce-strategies.html
Get started with headless ecommerce
Technology is always innovating, and headless ecommerce gives you a way to keep up by adding commerce functions to any new channel or touchpoint. Headless architecture has built-in flexibility and agility — so you can customize customer experiences and interfaces with rapid speed.
Whether you’re a growing merchant or enterprise, it’s critical to understand your options — headless, commerce-led, experience-led, or hybrid — to find out what’s right for you.
Start by checking out our primers and then head over to our headless ecommerce overview to see what makes Adobe Commerce work and why our customers choose our headless solution over the rest.