Is the latest eCommerce trend right for your business?

The eCommerce blogs are buzzing with articles and posts touting the amazing benefits of “headless eCommerce ” and how it will revolutionize your store. That may be true, but it also might be smoke and mirrors, at least for now.

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If you’ve seen it in more searches and articles but are worried it’s just the newest form of “synergy”, we’ve put together this guide to explain the concept and how a business may, or may not, see a benefit from adopting headless eCommerce tools.

So, What Exactly Is Headless eCommerce?

Headless eCommerce is a term getting thrown around a lot, and the explanations for it can be pretty tough to understand. So, we’re trying to put it as plainly as possible for business owners who might have heard about its benefits but don’t yet “get” it.

First off, headless eCommerce is a description of a type of cloud solution or platform that essentially has no predefined interface. It’s like a shop that’s all warehouse and no storefront and is waiting for you to define what the shop looks like.

Headless eCommerce platforms are ones where the front-end (the user interface you use for eCommerce tools) have been separated from the back-end, where your data, business logic and tools, and the cloud-based rules and infrastructure live.

In plainer language, it’s when you’re paying for a platform to manage your data and your orders, but you create the user interface that sits on top and makes everything look pretty. You get data and actions through an API that you can then massage and adjust to meet your needs. Your team creates all the graphics, images, layout, and more to turn data into something your team and your customers can use.

How Is that Different from What You’ve Got Now?

The chief differentiator of headless eCommerce tools is that they give you a free flood of data without telling you what to do with it.

Common platforms like Shopify have a “head” so that they manage your data processes and business intelligence needs plus give you a specific user interface to interact with all of that. You get standard features and tools that use your data, plus those reports we all love in the eCommerce space.

Products with a head generally control what you can see and how you access your data, which is great for most businesses.

However, if you have developers on your team and you want to build something that your current platform doesn’t offer — or use data in a way that it doesn’t allow — you might want to consider headless eCommerce solutions.

Let’s review some of the core differences between traditional eCommerce software and the headless alternatives.

Difference #1: Developer Limitations and Requirements

The biggest benefit for headless systems is that your front-end developers are freed from limitations of the data platform. You can build the front-end design you want, use your data in a wider range of ways thanks to the API from the headless company, and continually adjust both the experience your team has as well as the experience your customers have.

Nearly every element of your system that you and your customers see can be changed and customized on a headless system.

If you have the team, headless eCommerce can be a compelling way to differentiate your offerings.

The downside to this is that you need highly skilled front-end developers. They’ll need to be great at designing for the user experience, testing across browsers, updating integrations with partner programs, and fixing issues.

If you don’t have the talent on staff, you’ll have to hire up or outsource development, and this could end up costing you more than a traditional eCommerce platform. All the other benefits we discuss will rely on this team, so quality is a must.

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Difference #2: Customization Opportunities

The lack of a defined interface for headless eCommerce platforms means you can have it look and act any way you want. It can benefit your warehouse and leadership with proper results, naturally move visitors through landing pages to checkout options, and be fully customized to your every whim.

You get to build the experience you want for your team to have and the ones your customers will see at every step of the way.

The balance to this is, again, you need a high caliber team to make this an enjoyable experience for customers and a usable solution for your administrators and sales teams. Your UI experts will be required to build it all, though they at least don’t have to worry about creating and managing your database.

Difference #3: Future Plans

The good news about a headless platform is that you’re always using the latest version because these platforms only need to update their API. In almost all cases, upgrades and updates will be automatic, and they won’t cause conflicts with the systems you build.

APIs traditionally have a barrier between their code and the code that uses them, so things rarely break compared to traditional software updates. Another benefit is that your back-end code doesn’t need to be addressed or redeployed, so you can keep using the same storage, infrastructure, and security tools with minimal disruption.

Now, this is balanced with some other concerns. In a headless system, you may need to upgrade your own hardware and do your own maintenance on some network elements that are taken care of by the software provider in a traditional eCommerce platform.

Where headless really shines is that you can decide what to update and what new modules to build whenever you’re ready. You have much greater control over what your next tool is. You must create it, but you also get control over it.

Difference #4: What You Own (And Can Sell)

A quick benefit to highlight is that you can actually sell applications you build out to your partners and customers. The API-focused back-end is separate from the code you create and not necessarily dependent on a specific data or service provider.

So, if you build it, you own it and can resell it. It isn’t a business case for everyone, but it is something that is separate from most traditional eCommerce platforms. Another benefit is that if you sell a module, you don’t have to worry about continually updating it to stay compatible — which can be a difficult case for traditional platform models that must work with whatever updates a platform makes.

Difference #5: ROI and Value

If you need to build out a solution for your business, headless eCommerce tools may help you get to value faster and deliver a better ROI — especially if you’re in a position to sell what you create.

Traditional eCommerce tools have a wide range of requirements and compatibility concerns when it comes to creating your own modules. Now, most do rely on industry standards, especially for EDIs, so these issues are shrinking as the years go by.

But, if you’re building from scratch, it can often be easier to use the APIs from a headless system than try to create a new, separate tool that pulls in data from an established eCommerce platform. This is because you’re with standard protocols and you don’t have to worry about the back-end functionality. The back-end is often the biggest time and expense for creating a new platform or tool, so headless will give you greater development savings and ultimately boost your ROI potential.

Today, headless eCommerce tools are mostly about buzz for anyone outside of larger brands. It requires a smart team and significant investment to secure that valuable ROI. However, as technology often does, we see these requirements decreasing in the future and expect to see many more companies adopt this approach to creating a custom model that controls exactly what they want their customers to see.

Jake Rheude

Jake Rheude is the Director of Marketing at Red Stag Fulfillment, an eCommerce fulfillment warehouse that was born out of eCommerce. He has years of experience in eCommerce and business development. In his free time, Jake enjoys reading about business and sharing his own experience with others.

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