What is Headless Commerce?
Headless Commerce is an architectural approach to building an e-commerce site that decouples the front-end customer experience from the backend applications that power it — and uses APIs to connect the two.
This is a change from the traditional e-commerce platforms where the front-end and the back-end are tightly coupled together.
For many retailers, it represents a move away from limiting their e-commerce functionality to one of the big SaaS platforms, towards having the benefit of an independent pick-n-mix approach to delivering their e-commerce sites.
What’s driving the move to Headless Commerce?
From the retailers that I have spoken to, the primary reason is the overwhelming need to remain competitive.
Even before the Covid crisis struck, online retailers were having to work hard to stay competitive. Covid has ramped up the pressure on this.
Headless Commerce is attractive to online retailers as it provides front-end flexibility — enabling them to remain competitive through increased speed to market with frequent new changes to their e-commerce site, without having to go through the development and testing cycle that you would expect with changes to back-end systems.
It also helps to de-risk changes — as you can afford to try something new and drop it if it doesn't work. This ability to fail quickly enables retailers to rapidly test different approaches/technologies.
Is Headless just another Technology fad?
No, I really don't think so. The benefits are clear and tangible.
But that’s not to say that there aren't many people jumping on the bandwagon right now. You’ve only got to search for Headless Commerce to see a plethora of online ads from e-commerce providers claiming to be Headless — some of whom may not be.
How do you know if something is truly Headless?
To be truly headless, the software needs to be relatively recent, not a re-working of older technology. It also needs to have been developed using an API-first architecture.
This is a key concept in Headless Commerce and means that the software platform has been designed to treat the API user as the primary user of the platform — in other words, the platform is expecting to speak to other platforms via APIs rather than directly to the end-user.
But you can’t just surface up an API to an older technology stack and claim to be headless. If the platform hasn't genuinely been developed with an API-first architecture, it's quite likely that the newly surfaced APIs won’t be fast enough and won't have high enough throughput to be useful in a Headless environment.
Another key concept in Headless Commerce is Microservices. This is an architectural style where a group of loosely coupled APIs make up an application.
In simple terms, these API blocks are like LEGO pieces representing a
specific function: pricing, checkout, and review services, etc. that you can stitch together to create your own e-commerce infrastructure. The loosely coupled nature gives you the flexibility to highly customize your e-commerce experience.
Companies currently doing a good job of Headless right now include Amplience¹ who have been blazing a trail with their Headless CMS platform and Big Commerce² who were early adopters of the Headless Commerce framework. Other software companies worthy of note are Commerce Tools,³ Moltin (now part of Elastic Path)⁴ and Mobify.⁵
Is it a paradigm shift?
Yes, and a big one — it may be as big as the move to SaaS in the 2000s. From a retailer’s perspective, it's nearly all good news.
Headless Commerce puts the retailer firmly back in control. They get to choose which components of their e-commerce environment they want to outsource and which pieces they want to develop themselves — this allows them to focus on where their real value-add is.
It has also removed a lot of the near-monopoly power some e-commerce platforms had enjoyed for a while, which probably made some retailers feel they were being held to ransom at the time.
However, going Headless is not without its challenges — in fact, it’s not that easy.
Building a Headless solution is a potentially complex challenge, which is why most of the take-up has been in the enterprise and higher mid-tier end of the market.
Despite this, Headless Commerce is set to eventually become as ubiquitous as SaaS is now — to the benefit of both retailers and their customers.
André Brown has a twenty-year background in e-commerce and is the CEO of Advanced Commerce which provides a Merchandising platform (GrapheneHC) designed for Headless Commerce. You can connect to him on LinkedIn or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org