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Headless eCommerce Solutions

Mariel Lettier

The benefits of headless eCommerce are not just for big companies anymore. Here’s a look at some of the most popular headless platforms for all levels of businesses.

Finding the Right Headless eCommerce Platform

Some retail leaders, like Amazon and eBay, are adopting microservices architecture. This allows them to innovate faster, and to connect with their customers in new ways. Considering this, it’s clear that the future of online retail follows this trail. As time goes by, ventures looking to future-proof their eCommerce game, often think about moving from monolithic platforms. Yet, is that possible without a budget like Amazon’s?

Fortunately, as headless eCommerce is growing, so is the amount of solutions. As a result, popular platforms make possible to separate backend from frontend. This is the case of traditionally full-stack platforms, like Shopify and Magento. In this context, some open-source projects, like Reaction Commerce, offer a microservices entry point with enterprise capabilities. Furthermore, cloud-native platforms, like Commercetools and Elastic Path, offer innovative solutions for companies willing to fully leap into microservices. While these options may not be as robust as the tech giants’ ones, they still offer important benefits. These includes flexibility, better performance, and connection to any device for shopping.

We have an article about the advantages of headless eCommerce. Now, we will look at different types of popular headless platforms.

Newly Headless vs. Headless by Design

It’s important to know the differences between platforms with microservices basis, and platforms that develop towards a headless version. Some full-stack eCommerce platforms, now offer APIs that allow to use them without their frontend layers. For example, Shopify’s Storefront API makes it possible to source data and use it in a custom frontend.

On the other hand, an API-first platform goes a step further. This platforms emerge with a modular backend, composed of independent services connected through APIs. With this, developers have freedom on the frontend, while also can add/remove modules of eCommerce from the backend. That’s why an API-first architecture, or microservices, offer maximum flexibility. Yet, they involve more technical complexity than standard eCommerce platforms.

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Full-stack Platforms with Headless Solutions

SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) giants: Shopify and BigCommerce

Shopify and BigCommerce offer APIs that make possible a headless setup. These reduce development complexity, by handling aspects like hosting, traffic spikes, software updates and PCI compliance. Nevertheless, they come with drawbacks like monthly fees, platform lock-in and lack of flexibility.

As a full-stack eCommerce solution, Shopify has a huge success. With their Storefront API, they also become a popular choice for headless commerce. Keep in mind that the Storefront API ships with the $9/mo Lite Plan. It’s common to pair up Shopify with a static site generator like Gatsby, for unique shopping experiences.

Important things to note about Headless Shopify:
  • Most Shopify apps won’t work in a headless setup. Some apps are starting to offer an API, but the majority only work within its theme.
  • If you want complex product variations and descriptions, beyond core platform offer, you need a headless Content Management System (CMS).
  • Developers can pull Shopify data into a CMS to extend descriptions, as well as add content capabilities for marketing teams.
  • Regardless of the frontend tech, a headless site with Shopify will typically need to redirect to a Shopify checkout.
  • This is great for security and lowering development costs, but not ideal if you want a custom checkout experience.
  • Shopify is developing its own fulfillment network, which allows merchants to offer two-day shipping. This is an obvious play to compete with Amazon, and can be an interesting opportunity in the future.

On the other hand, BigCommerce positions itself as the SaaS platform, for businesses with more complex needs. For instance, their core platform includes more functionality than Shopify, like allowing more product variants. Also, their pricing structure is different: instead relying on transaction fees, they use a tiered monthly plan based on sales.

The total cost can end up being less than Shopify’s, but that depends on the type of business. Also, BigCommerce has a stronger focus on headless than Shopify, with various CMS, DXP, and PWA solutions. These include WordPress, Bloomreach, Sitecore, Drupal, Acquia ACF, Deity Falcon and Adobe Experience Manager.

Open Source Self-Hosted Platforms: Magento and WordPress

Open-source is software that is free to use and modify. While they’re technically free, they require development and hosting. This causes varieties on pricing, depending on its implementation. For instance, a business will do this if they want full control over their code, data, and hosting.

An example of this is Magento, an open-source platform for business with complex requirements. In comparison, it’s notoriously expensive to implement. This is due to the difficulty and specialized development knowledge you need to create a secure store. Adobe owns Magento since 2018, and it’s aiming the platform towards enterprise market. Keeping that in mind, they’re making a priority out of headless. Their PWA Studio offers tools that helps developers build progressive web app storefronts for Magento. Also, Vue Storefront, a popular open-source PWA framework, has an integration for Magento, too. While still powerful in capabilities, there are complaints about bugs, breaks on updates, and demanding big hosting and development costs. As it moves further upmarket, costs are likely to increase.

Another case is WooCommerce, an eCommerce plugin for WordPress, aiming to small and mid-size businesses. It has also a headless setup via the WordPress REST API. At the moment, there’s not much development on using WooCommerce in a headless setup. Yet, this can change as more site in the market move towards headless. Furthermore, the WPGraphQL API is in the pipeline. This offers a developer-friendly alternative to the REST API, and can boost interest for those looking solutions.

Microservices platforms that are headless by design

Open source microservices solution: Reaction Commerce

With 10k+ stars on GitHub, Reaction Commerce is one of the most popular open-source commerce solutions. This is related with the fact that it fills an interesting gap in the market. While enterprise-level API-first platforms start at around 2k/month, Reaction Commerce’s core platform is free to use. So, even though Reaction offers enterprise services, it provides an entry point for businesses starting with headless.

Of course, there’s still a custom software price tag, associated with a platform like Reaction Commerce. That’s because it requires developers to build it out and make the necessary integrations. Fortunately, it uses modern tech stack, like React and Docker, so it’s easier to find developers with those skills. It seems that the Reaction Commerce model will have an important place in headless eCommerce in the near future. They release Reaction2 (their first fully headless platform) in 2019, and it’s still adding features. Nevertheless, is doesn’t have as much documentation as in some of more established platforms.

Proprietary microservices platforms: Commercetools and Elastic Path

These platforms were placed in the visionaries and leaders categories in Gartner’s 2019 Magic Quadrant for Digital Commerce. They're cloud native and aims squarely at enterprise level eCommerce companies. They share many characteristics, like ability to connect to any device where users are shopping, and on-demand extensibility. Both oh them have integrations with other enterprise-level tools, like Adobe Experience Manager.

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On one hand, Commercetools has over 300 API endpoints to extend platforms’ services. It also offers various out-of-the-box solutions, as part of their acceletaror program. This helps business to launch faster, by Vue Storefront, Contentful, BloomReach and more.

On the other, Elastic Path is API-first since 2012, and keeps improving their market position by acquiring Moltin. It has more transparent platform costs than Commercetools, stating a ~30k fee annually, plus dev costs. Also, it offers a library of extensions for backend applications, to create more connection points at frontend.

An example of an interesting use of this tech is the solution Elastic Path created for Carnival cruises. The eCommerce platform was connected to wristbands, and passengers could use a contactless payment method for different services.

Conclusion

Headless commerce is growing, and options are becoming more interesting. Yet, that doesn’t mean one platform is not necessarily better than the other. Choosing depends on evaluating factors, such as business complexity, budget, and IT maturity. The most important thing is to determine is whether the total costs are in balance with its benefits.

Here are some demos worth checking out for businesses:

  • Reaction’s open source library of e-commerce React UI components.
  • WooComerce Gatsby demo.
  • Elastic Path’s Gatsby demo store.
  • Gatsby starter for BigCommerce.

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