Ecommerce businesses have probably heard the term “headless commerce” floating around, but what is headless commerce? Who should consider going headless?
Headless commerce separates the front-end of your website from the back-end.
The front-end is the design, the experience — what your website visitors see. The back-end is everything that makes your website work including functions like processing orders and accepting payments.
With traditional ecommerce platforms, like Shopify for example, the front-end and back-end are very much connected. Because of this, there tend to be some limitations to what you can and cannot do with the structure and design of your website.
Some ecommerce businesses stay fully on the platform because Shopify's theme framework, app ecosystem, and subsequent constraints work with their business with very little modification. For others looking to optimize for performance in speed, delivery, and experience, Shopify might only be a small part of the full ecosystem.
For example, you can use additional platforms like Webflow, Shogun, or Builder.io to enhance the creative freedom of your website design, but the functionality and set up of your site is still constrained by how your ecommerce platform — in this instance Shopify — is designed to actually work.
Headless commerce completely separates what your website visitors see from the back-end interactions that enable your site and ecommerce actions to work. For businesses that are familiar with Shopify, this presents itself most visibly as limitations like not being able to fully customize things like your URL structure, robots.txt search engine files, what tracking scripts load and when, how content is populated, and control over serving and caching files.
With headless, you could use Shopify in the back-end to manage your products, inventory, customers, and orders, without having to work around the URL path and page template constraints, as well as avoiding the loading impact of Shopify platform scripts and ones from third party apps and trackers.
The biggest benefits of going headless are:
The possibilities for site structure and design with a headless site are infinite. You can customize your URL and site structure, leverage your own CMS, control how pages connect with content, and pull data from other services via APIs, all without touching the back-end functionality.
The opportunity to customize also means you can greatly experiment with the customer journey and user experience without making a big impact on how your site actually functions. You can run tests and tailor the site experience to match your customer needs exactly.
With a traditional (re: non-headless) ecommerce platform, the more you continue to customize it with custom html, apps, and integrations, the larger and slower it can get, especially if you are not aware of the impact of all the incremental additions. And that’s because all that additional content from apps, custom fields, templates, and pages is being processed and delivered through one platform.
As you continue to fight against or outgrow your ecommerce platform’s limitations, the more and more headless becomes an appealing option. With a headless site, you can add custom functionality and make smart decisions about how and when things load without the user experience being impacted by adding new capabilities to your site.
It’s true — headless sites are not all sunshine and daisies.
Some of the downsides of going headless are that it takes a bit of effort to set up, and if you ever want to change or experiment with some of the front-end functionality of your site that isn’t built into the system, you need access to back-end and front-end developers. In some cases this is also true of an ecommerce platform already.
Compared to a platform like Shopify where it's easy going once you're set up and you can have a store up and running in minutes, when you go headless there are many decisions that need to be made about how things integrate and talk to each other.
Getting all those platforms and databases to talk to each other requires some extra work involving APIs.
When adding supported apps and other functionalities to straightforward Shopify stores, most of the time all you have to do is enable the integration within the back-end of your store. With headless commerce, you have to set up custom integrations and leverage third-party APIs in order for your website—the front-end—to work together with your ecommerce product information management (PIM), customer relationship management (CRM), and other content management system (CMS) tools.
The options for flexibility and customization are the biggest benefits of a headless ecommerce site. With this in mind, it doesn’t really make sense to go headless if you’re not scaling and ready to dive deep into customization.
Same goes for site speed. If you don’t have a huge site architecture, or aren’t using a bunch of apps to alter your site’s functionality, then there’s little need for a headless site.
We typically recommend fitting the criteria below before thinking about transitioning to a headless ecommerce site:
Plenty of the best ecommerce brands use platforms like Shopify or WooCommerce. But headless truly opens the door for unique website experiences.
If you’re looking to scale while improving site performance and the user experience, we encourage you to reach out to talk a little bit more about headless commerce.
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