Headless e-commerce for every business

Business | Technology
Mandy Trilck

Mandy Trilck

The benefits of headless e-commerce are not just for companies like Amazon anymore. Here’s a look at some of the most popular headless e-commerce platforms, for all levels of businesses.

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Find the right headless e-commerce platform for your business

As leading retailers like Amazon and eBay have adopted modular, microservices architecture to innovate faster and connect to their customers in new ways, it seems clear that this approach is the future of online retail.

Companies looking to future proof their e-commerce business are assessing whether moving away from monolithic platforms makes sense for them, too. But without the budget of Amazon, however, is it possible to do so?

Fortunately as headless commerce has grown, so has the amount of solutions. Popular platforms that have been traditionally full-stack, like Shopify and Magento, have made it possible to separate the backend. Open-source projects like Reaction Commerce offer a microservices entry point with enterprise capabilities. For larger companies that can make the full leap into microservices, cloud-native platforms like Commercetools and Elastic Path offer a range of innovative solutions.

While not all of these options are as robust as the types of microservices employed by tech giants like Amazon, they still offer many important benefits, including flexibility, better performance and the ability to connect to any device where people are shopping. 

In a previous article, we discussed the advantages of headless commerce in more detail. Here, we will look at different types of popular headless platforms.

Newly headless versus headless by design

Before we discuss specific platforms, it’s important to understand the difference between a platform that is microservices based versus a platform that has been converted into a headless one.

Some full-stack e-commerce platforms now offer APIs that allow the platforms to be utilized without their frontend presentation layers. For example, with Shopify’s Storefront API it’s possible to source data from the platform and use it in a custom-built frontend.

An API-first platform goes a step further. This is a platform built with a modular backend composed of independent services, connected via APIs. In this case, developers not only have the freedom to do what they want with the frontend, but they also can add/remove modules of e-commerce functionality in the backend. 

This API-first architecture, or microservices, offers maximum flexibility but involves more technical complexity than a standard e-commerce platform.

Full-stack e-commerce platforms that now offer headless

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

Both Shopify and BigCommerce offer an API that makes a headless setup possible. These platforms can reduce development complexity, since they handle aspects such as hosting, scaling up to meet site traffic spikes, software updates and PCI compliance. They do come with drawbacks like monthly fees, platform lock-in and a lack of flexibility.

Shopify has been hugely successful as a full-stack e-commerce solution. With the introduction of the Storefront API, it has also become a popular choice for headless commerce. The Storefront API ships with the $9/mo Lite plan. A popular implementation is to pair Shopify with a static site generator like Gatsby for a super fast and unique shopping experience.

Some important things to note about using 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 in the context of theme.
  • In order to achieve complex product variations and descriptions beyond what the core platform offers, it’s necessary to incorporate a headless content management system (CMS). Developers can pull Shopify data into a CMS to extend product descriptions, as well as add other content capabilities for the marketing team.
  • Regardless of the frontend technology chosen, 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 your team wants 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 could prove to be an interesting opportunity in the future.

BigCommerce has positioned itself as the SaaS platform for businesses with more complex needs than Shopify. The core platform includes more functionality than Shopify, such as allowing for more product variants. The pricing structure is different–instead relying on transaction fees, they use a tiered monthly plan based on sales. Depending on the business, the total cost could end up being less than Shopify.

BigCommerce has stronger focus on headless than Shopify, offering integrations with various CMS, DXP and PWA solutions: 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 technically free, these platforms require development and hosting, causing the price to vary widely depending on the implementation. A business will take this path if they want full control over their code, data and hosting.

Magento 2 is an open-source platform known as a solution for businesses with complex requirements. It’s also notoriously expensive to implement due to the difficulty and specialized development knowledge required to create a secure store. 

Adobe acquired Magento in 2018 and is aiming the platform towards the higher end of the enterprise market. As such, they are making headless a priority. They released PWA studio, a set of tools that helps developers build progressive web app storefronts for Magento. Vue Storefront, a popular open-source PWA framework, also has an integration for Magento.

While still powerful in its capabilities, there are many complaints that Magento 2 has many bugs, breaks on updates and demands big hosting and development costs. As it moves further upmarket, leaving behind mid-market stores and development agencies, costs are likely to increase.

WooCommerce is an e-commerce plugin for WordPress aimed at small to mid-sized businesses. It can also be used in a headless setup via the WordPress REST API. At the moment, there’s not as much development activity around using WooCommerce in a headless setup compared to Shopify, but this could change as more sites in this market move towards headless. Also in the pipeline is the WPGraphQL API which offers a developer-friendly alternative to the REST API and could boost interest in this as a solution.

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. 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 and is directed at that market, it still provides an entry point for businesses just getting started with headless. 

Of course there’s still a custom software price tag associated with a platform like Reaction Commerce, as it requires developers to build it out and make the necessary integrations. Fortunately the tech stack is modern, using React, Next.js, Node and Docker, so it’s easier to find developers with those skills. One of the negatives for Magento, by comparison, is the necessity (and cost) of finding developers who have specific experience with the platform.

The Reaction Commerce model feels like it will have an important place in headless e-commerce in the near future. Yet as Reaction 2 (their first fully headless platform) was released in 2019, it’s still adding features, and there is not as much documentation and examples to work from as some of the 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 are cloud native and squarely aimed at enterprise level e-commerce companies. Many of their characteristics are similar: the ability to connect to any device where users are shopping, on-demand extensibility, an orchestration layer to connect services and integrations with other enterprise-level tools like Adobe Experience Manager. 

Commercetools has more than 300 API endpoints that can be consumed as needed to extend platform services. They also offer various out-of-the box solutions, as a part of their “accelerator” program to help businesses launch faster, by Vue Storefront, Contentful, BloomReach and more.

Elastic Path has been API first since 2012 and solidified their market position by acquiring Moltin. The platform costs are more transparent than Commercetools, stating a ~30k fee annually, plus development costs. They offer a library of extensions for backend functionalities, and applications (like a chatbot, voice commerce) to create more connection points on the frontend.

One example of an interesting use of this technology is the self-checkout solution Elastic Path created for Carnival cruises. The commerce platform was connected to wearables (wristbands in this case) that passengers could use as a frictionless payment method for services on their cruises.

Conclusion

Headless commerce is growing and the options are becoming more interesting. One platform is not necessarily better than the other, and a choice depends on evaluating factors such as business complexity, budget and IT maturity. The most important thing is to determine is whether the total cost of ownership of a new platform is in balance with the benefits gained.

Some demos and projects worth checking out:

Reaction’s open source library of e-commerce React UI components

Woocomerce Gatsby demo 

Elastic Path’s Gatsby demo store 

Gatsby starter for BigCommerce

 

Know your types of headless CMS

The business risks of overlooking software documentation

WordPress vs the JAMstack

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