Should your e-commerce site go headless?

Business | Technology
Mandy Trilck

Mandy Trilck

In the past few years, the trend towards headless commerce has been gaining momentum. Many established solutions like Shopify, BigCommerce and Magento are offering headless capabilities for their platforms. Newer, API-first platforms have emerged too, that have headless baked into their structure.

What is headless exactly? At its most basic, a headless setup separates the backend of a platform from the front end. Backend data is exposed via an API, allowing developers to create a custom frontend and decide how the data is used. This is versus a full-stack approach, where the frontend and backend are explicitly interconnected, with templates managing how data is retrieved and displayed.

Headless isn’t necessarily a fit for every business. It’s important to understand the specific advantages and disadvantages of a headless setup in order to determine if a commerce site merits this approach or not.

ecommerce shopping

The advantages of going headless

Extensibility

A headless commerce platform can be connected to almost any third-party service that has an API. Services can be upgraded and added/removed as necessary. Therefore, there’s no need to pay for unwanted services, or re-platform as the business grows.

Fully API-first platforms (e.g. Reaction Commerce, Elastic Path) have their core e-commerce functions divided into microservices. A business can pick and choose what they want to include in their sites, letting them try services with very little risk and only pay for what they need.

Unique design

Many brands are wary of looking like “just another Shopify site” to savvy consumers. A custom frontend can let a design and marketing team push the envelope and deliver a creative shopping experience. For brands whose image is central to their business, this is a big benefit.

Omnichannel

E-commerce businesses are increasingly expanding past the world of the web and mobile app to sell on whatever devices customers are using. A headless platform comes stock with the possibility of connecting to a wide range of devices, from Apple Watches to smart refrigerators.

Broader CMS and DXP options

A headless setup allows for creative applications of content management systems (CMS) and user experience platforms (DXP). For example, a developer could use a headless CMS to extend the product description capabilities (e.g. a detailed ingredients list) in a way that would otherwise not be possible in a traditional platform.

For brands using a DXP, an API-first headless platform allows a greater range of touchpoints from which to draw data and further customize the user experience.

Performance 

Headless commerce can take advantage of modern tech stacks such as JAMstack. Speed is critical in e-commerce, especially mobile performance. Technologies such as Next.js, Nuxt.js and Gatsby can deliver incredibly fast experiences.

Scalability

A small business might not have to worry about infrastructure concerns like excess server capability, but as a business grows these issues become an important part of the equation. In a true microservices structure, usage is elastic, scaling according to user activity. The business only pays for what is used and doesn’t have to stress about outages on peak days.

Agility

Since services can be connected and disconnected more easily, it’s possible for a business to experiment and innovate faster. If a new service doesn’t work out, removing it doesn’t require a major refactoring of the existing application.

Disadvantages of headless commerce

Initial investment

Headless commerce requires a developer to create a frontend and connect the backend services, which entails a greater initial investment. Though this could be seen as a worthwhile investment in the long run, not every business has the ability to do this when they are first starting out and their brand is unproven.

Developer reliance

A custom solution means that a business will be reliant on a developer or in-house IT team for ongoing maintenance and changes. These costs could be a significant burden for a growing business.

Technical complexity

While it may be easier to find developers who know the technologies commonly found in a headless setup, such as React or Vue, there will be more technologies and services in the stack to manage. A team will have to look after a wider range of techs and create an integrated QA system.

Different cost structure

Microservices typically charge based on usage, aka API requests. This structure isn’t necessarily more expensive than a traditional setup and licensing agreement, but it will vary according to implementation and use. This will be a negative in certain cases versus a full stack setup.

Conclusion

Headless commerce lets a business stay flexible and competitive. While enterprise commerce companies are moving increasingly in this direction, other businesses have to assess this option with more caution. A small e-commerce business might not require a highly creative and flexible solution. In many cases, the benefits will not outweigh the expense.

Fortunately, as the headless commerce ecosystem grows, there are more ways to implement a headless solution without incurring a huge cost. In an upcoming article we will take a look at headless commerce solutions for businesses of any scale.

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