Guide to headless commerce in 2023
Online retailers are adopting innovative new technologies at a blistering pace to ensure that they can thrive in the rapidly evolving digital economy.
As part of their efforts to build a strong ecommerce foundation and optimize organizational agility in this fast-paced industry, many businesses are shifting away from traditional IT infrastructure in favor of so-called “headless” commerce architecture.
Headless commerce technologies are flexible and nimble enough to support the modern customer journey, which is a far cry from the linear purchasing path of just a decade ago.
Today, customers will connect with brands and products along a range of digital touchpoints, including online marketplaces, social media channels, branded mobile apps, and even augmented reality (AR) devices.
Whereas traditional digital architecture makes it difficult for B2B and B2C merchants to adapt to shifting consumer trends, headless commerce platforms can support multichannel sales models and yield truly personalized experiences for customers.
In this guide, we’ll be taking a deep dive into headless commerce architecture, including what it is, its many capabilities, the benefits it yields, and what it looks like in real-world applications.
Along the way, we’ll touch on such topics as:
- What headless commerce is
- How headless commerce works
- Headless commerce platforms
- Headless commerce benefits
- Headless commerce vs. traditional ecommerce
- Headless commerce use cases
What is headless commerce?
Headless commerce is essentially the decoupling of the back end and front end of an ecommerce platform. Separating the customer-facing front end of your digital store from the operational back-end technology gives you the freedom to adopt whatever combination of applications suits your organizational goals and objectives.
This architecture is referred to as “headless” commerce because the “head,” or front-end app, is separated from the back-end technology. The two applications are connected using application programming interfaces (APIs). An API is a set of protocols and definitions for integrating two pieces of software.
Detaching the head from the “body” of your store’s IT architecture may sound counterintuitive. However, transitioning to headless commerce architecture actually makes your entire platform more functional, more flexible, and significantly faster.
The front end can be completely customized and branded in order to optimize consumer engagement, and the back end is free to fulfill critical business functions without being tied to or restricted by the front end.
Headless commerce architecture enables you to integrate robust commerce functionalities into every digital touchpoint, from voice interfaces to mobile apps and, of course, native web applications. The result is a personalized, consistent, and frictionless experience that keeps customers engaged throughout every step of their journey, from brand awareness to purchase.
How does headless commerce work?
APIs are critical to the function of a headless commerce architecture. Each API contains a set of definitions and protocols that instruct the two pieces of software on how to interact, what information to share, and what tasks to perform.
Since you can use an API to connect the front and back ends of your store, you can have multiple back-end systems to support your needs.
For instance, you can use one API to connect your storefront to your web application’s back-end software. You can implement another API to link your mobile app and your storefront. In this way, it’s possible to accommodate a virtually unlimited number of back-end systems, thereby supporting a multitude of sales touchpoints.
Let’s say a customer has interacted with your brand on their favorite social media platform. Following their most recent interaction, they develop strong purchasing intent and decide to head to your website via their mobile device. What they see is the front end, or “head,” of your commerce architecture.
The new customer browses through your product lineup and finds the item they saw on one of your latest social media ads. They add it to the cart, provide the requested payment information, and complete their purchase.
An API will connect the mobile site’s front end to the appropriate back-end commerce software during this exchange. In the background, the underlying software processes the order, routes information to your fulfillment center, and documents the transaction, all while the customer enjoys a speedy and engaging shopping experience.
Headless commerce platforms
Now that you know how headless commerce architecture works, let’s shift our attention to the three leaders in the headless ecommerce space.
Formerly Magento Commerce, Adobe Commerce is a headless, API-based platform designed for B2C and B2B merchants.
As an API-first commerce platform, Adobe Commerce uses GraphQL to transfer data so businesses can create personalized, engaging customer experiences. The platform allows users to use third-party extensions, build their own extensions, or rely on the robust out-of-the-box functionality of Adobe Commerce.
Adobe Commerce excels as a headless digital commerce solution and pairs well with Adobe Experience Manager. Users can also integrate it with PWA Studio for webstore design.
Clients enjoy a condensed time to market during the implementation process. The solution is a great match for any organization that relies on a multifaceted sales model and a variety of customer touchpoints.
While Adobe Commerce excels as a headless commerce solution, it wasn’t designed to provide extensive analytics, marketing automation, or content management functions. That’s because Adobe already offers a suite of complementary products meant to fill these niches, including Experience Manager, Adobe Analytics, and Adobe Marketo Engage.
Together, these solutions can elevate your business operations to unprecedented heights.
Shopify Plus is Shopify’s premium platform designed specifically for enterprises. Like the standard Shopify commerce solution, Plus features headless architecture. Shopify offers a variety of apps, add-ons, and plans that enable users to tailor the solution to suit their needs.
Shopify Plus is competitively priced, extremely reliable, and highly scalable. It includes a wealth of built-in tools that allow users to quickly set up or modify their storefronts. The brand is also known for providing exceptional support.
While there’s a lot to like about Shopify Plus, it’s ultimately a scaled-up version of its small business commerce solution. As such, it has some serious limitations in terms of back-end customization and content management. Additionally, mastering some of its more advanced tools and creating an enterprise-grade storefront requires a high level of expertise.
The biggest shortcoming, however, is that Shopify doesn’t offer a complimentary set of solutions to support analytics, marketing automation, and other critical functions.
BigCommerce allows brands to design custom online stores using a headless commerce architecture.
The SaaS provider primarily serves midsize businesses but offers the scalability necessary to support larger entities. They also provide a wide range of APIs and integrations to help clients quickly adopt important commerce features.
BigCommerce is laden with robust features, including a single-page checkout, multicurrency compatibility, and easy-to-use sales tools. As such, it’s a great multichannel selling solution that allows brands to be more active on social media or other popular touchpoints.
All that said, the relative newcomer to the headless commerce space falls short in a few big ways.
For one thing, its tiered subscription model is restrictive. If you exceed your annual sales volume limit, the platform will automatically upgrade your subscription to the next tier. Furthermore, putting some of its more advanced features to use will involve a steep learning curve, as many of the BigCommerce tools aren’t all that intuitive.
Headless commerce benefits
Headless commerce architecture gives your business the pliability and nimbleness it needs to stay ahead of the latest trends.
With a headless commerce solution, you can apply the continuous improvement methodology to your digital storefront, adapt to shifting consumer habits at the speed of business, and capitalize on rapidly emerging (and potentially fleeting) growth opportunities.
Let’s take a look at a few other noteworthy benefits of headless commerce.
Time to market
When you rely on a traditional, coupled front-end and back-end platform, implementing new storefront experiences is time-consuming, tedious, and incredibly costly.
Conversely, a headless commerce solution allows you to launch new front-end experiences without waiting on your back end to sync or catch up. You’ll incur minimum back-end development costs and can react to the latest market trends before consumers move on to the next fad.
Instead of building new functions from scratch to scale, you can add on as your growth dictates.
You can alter your storefront, add new features, and continuously improve the customer experience by publishing content through your CMS. You’ll no longer have to implement changes to the back end, as it’s a separate entity from the front-end storefront that users interact with.
Increasing the scalability of your store gives you the freedom to pursue growth opportunities without taking on substantial IT expenses. Maximizing scalability with headless architecture can also promote operational agility.
Flexibility and customizability
Under the traditional commerce architecture model, you have virtually zero flexibility. When you go headless, you can choose the combination of front-end and back-end systems that are right for your business. Since these platforms are designed to be customized, you can tailor the front-end solution to align with your customers’ preferences.
Additionally, the structures of mainstream headless commerce solutions use common coding languages that most developers are familiar with. That being the case, your team can easily create custom solutions for your business.
Time savings across IT
Since you can easily make changes to the front end, you’ll spend less time troubleshooting with your IT personnel. Headless commerce architecture also has fewer limitations for changes, meaning your team can quickly find resolutions to any problems you encounter with your platform.
Going headless will yield significant IT time and cost savings, enabling your technology professionals to focus on higher priority tasks that engage their particular skillset.
Improved conversion optimization
If you identify a bottleneck in the customer journey that’s negatively impacting your conversion rates, your team can easily make changes to the front end to remove this point of friction.
As a result, you’ll be able to create a more personalized, dynamic, and engaging store experience that improves conversion rates and strengthens revenue.
Complete ownership over site architecture
When using traditional architecture, you never achieve true ownership over your site. Your team will be hesitant to address issues on one side of your system due to fear of losing functionality on the other end.
With headless commerce architecture, you can keep what’s working on one side and update or replace shortcomings on the other end without negatively impacting performance or functionality. As you can imagine, this kind of flexibility can save you considerable time, money, and energy.
Use the right tools for the job
Headless commerce empowers your business to build custom experiences that customers crave.
You can use APIs to choose and implement whatever tools you need to support the customer journey. You’ll no longer be limited by resource, time, or compatibility concerns when selecting new tools or software for your business.
Headless commerce vs. traditional ecommerce
Prior to the rise of headless commerce architecture, online retailers only had two options when it came to launching their websites.
The first was to build a digital store from the ground up, which required some serious coding talent or a huge commitment of resources. Alternatively, they could launch their store using a full-stack software solution that featured inseparable front- and back-end layers.
Naturally, most businesses chose the latter approach, as doing so allowed them to get their store up and running fast with minimal overhead.
At the time, traditional commerce architecture was the only viable option for most businesses. However, it has some significant shortcomings.
When the front and back ends are fully integrated, the entire system lacks agility and adaptability. Making changes to the front end requires altering the back end too. Even if someone is willing to put in the work, developing captivating websites using traditional architecture is incredibly challenging and often frustrating.
While headless commerce solutions feature separate front- and back-end software, the two platforms can still communicate using APIs. However, since the two systems aren’t inextricably linked to one another, businesses can alter the front end while making little to no changes to the back end.
Another major difference between headless commerce and traditional commerce platforms is scalability. With the right set of APIs, one back-end system can support multiple front ends, such as a web-based storefront, mobile storefront, and mobile app. When using traditional architecture, businesses need a separate system for each digital store.
Headless commerce use cases
The best way to make a case for headless commerce architecture is to examine a few real-world examples. To illustrate the points outlined in this guide more clearly, here are snapshot profiles of a few companies that leverage headless architecture to operate their commerce engines.
The Sazerac House
The Sazerac House is a 50,000-square-foot distillery and estate in New Orleans that offers tastings, exhibits, and tours.
The Sazerac House engages users with its immersive web experience and rich content to generate consistent traffic to its physical location. This dynamic experience also includes embedded commerce, which generates a significant amount of online sales for the flourishing business.
While exploring the Sazerac House website, you won’t encounter traditional product pages. Instead, you’ll be captivated by a unified customer experience that seamlessly flows from one page or product to the next. Visitors can purchase goods through the brand’s online gift shop, and local customers can opt for curbside pickup of merchandise and spirits.
Sazerac House enjoys consistently high sales volume thanks to its headless commerce architecture. However, the company also leverages headless commerce to nurture long-standing relationships with its expansive customer base, strengthen bonds with retailers, and encourage offline transactions.
As the oldest continuously operating distillery in America, Buffalo Trace is the epitome of consistency and resilience.
For more than 200 years, the brand has been producing its signature bourbon, as well as an extensive selection of other bourbons and whiskeys. Today, Buffalo Trace protects its legacy by demonstrating a willingness to adopt the latest technologies, including headless commerce architecture.
At the height of the pandemic, Buffalo Trace used its headless commerce technology to create a more immersive and dynamic web experience for its customers. At the same time, the brand replaced its famous onsite distillery tours with digital alternatives until travel restrictions were lifted.
Consumers embraced this digital shift with open arms — more than 50,000 visitors participated in virtual tours in the first year alone.
Since the return to normalcy, Buffalo Trace has continued to use its headless architecture to strengthen bonds with existing customers. It’s also worked to expand its reach, increase merchandise and spirit sales, and build an international presence by delivering personalized digital commerce experiences.
Olam Group, a leading agri-business and food supplier, is dedicated to providing the ingredients necessary to feed its thousands of global customers.
Olam Group operates in 60 nations and uses multiple ecommerce sites. Each site doubles as both a purchasing portal and a content library carefully curated to nurture customer relationships and develop leads.
As Olam Group launches additional product lines or breaks into new markets, it has to scale its digital presence to support the needs of each unique target audience. The headless commerce architecture makes this possible.
By going headless, Olam Group can use a single back-end platform to support its dozens of websites. Since transitioning away from the traditional coupled architecture, Olam Group has significantly improved the user experience and decreased cart abandonment rates from 60% to less than 30%.
As a global water treatment company, Pentair serves a diversity of customers, including contractors, consumers, and businesses. Prior to adopting a headless commerce architecture, the brand operated nearly three-dozen North American websites, along with numerous international sites.
Due to the complexities associated with managing so many websites, the lines between B2C, B2B, and contractor personas became blurred. This, in turn, made it difficult for each group of customers to find the website and resources that aligned with their needs.
Since transitioning to a headless commerce architecture, Pentair consolidated contractor, B2C, and B2B touchpoints into a single unified website. The global site now features clear customer touchpoints for each persona and an intuitive navigation system.
Headless commerce technology helped Pentair rediscover its brand voice and remove friction from the customer journey. Today, customers from each segment of Pentair’s vast audience enjoy a fluid and enjoyable purchasing journey.
TiVo Stream 4K offers consumers a simple yet dynamic content discovery experience.
During the ramp-up to TiVo Stream 4K’s launch, the entertainment services provider had to sunset its traditional commerce solution and adopt a headless platform. By doing so, it was able to integrate commerce functions and purchasing capabilities into its new streaming service.
Going headless has allowed TiVo to deliver consistent purchasing journeys across its mobile, web, and streaming device storefronts — and unifying these three touchpoints has led to a more seamless and enjoyable customer experience.
From a sales perspective, going headless enabled TiVo to upsell and cross-sell audiences by targeting them with personalized offers. What’s more, customers can now make purchases directly from their streaming device interface.
Choose a powerful platform to support your headless commerce business
A headless commerce architecture gives your business more control over its online store, allows you to maximize user engagement, and provides the freedom necessary to thrive in the ever-changing digital commerce space.
However, if you want to embrace this architecture, you must first ensure that your current platform can accommodate a headless commerce approach. If it can’t, it’s time to replace it with a modern, cloud-based alternative like Adobe Commerce.
Whether you’re an enterprise-level retailer or a growing merchant looking to the future, having the tools in place to support your business objectives is crucial. With Adobe Commerce and the rest of the Adobe technology ecosystem at your fingertips, you can create powerful, end-to-end customer experiences and thrive within the competitive digital retail space.