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What is headless commerce? Benefits of a headless approach

headless commerce architecture

Ecommerce trends develop quickly, giving online store owners seemingly endless opportunities to build customer loyalty. And with eCommerce sales expected to rise by 16.1 percent in 2022, there’s no better time to claim your share of the action.

One of the more intriguing and buzzworthy innovations over the past few years is headless commerce. It brings the promise of faster website performance, deeper levels of technical integration, and greater omnichannel personalization for your online store.

But many eCommerce retailers still wonder what headless commerce entails, and if it’s something that can help their store now or in the future?

This technical guide to headless commerce can help you answer some of those questions. We’ll give you a headless commerce definition and help you explore these topics:

What is headless commerce?

Ecommerce platforms typically comprise two parts: a frontend and a backend (see best eCommerce platform).

The frontend, also called the “head,” includes things users see when they shop on your site, such as product descriptions and images, shopping carts, and navigation elements. The backend includes all those invisible items that run your site, such as pricing, checkout, and security features.

So, what is headless commerce? It simply means that the frontend, or the head, is separated (some say “decoupled”) from the backend.

Headless commerce architecture backend front end

Headless architecture allows developers to use their favorite tools to create the frontend of a website. And no matter which frontend (or frontends) they use, they can connect it to their backend using application programming interfaces (APIs), protocols that allow systems to interact and talk with one another.

In a headless architecture, APIs also push content to whatever platform a retailer chooses. That makes it easier for store owners selling online to sell their products on smartwatches, smart speakers like Amazon Alexa, social networks, in-store kiosks, and even smart refrigerators.

Monolithic commerce vs. headless commerce

To understand why headless commerce is a big deal, let’s first look at why it’s different from the traditional eCommerce model, known as monolithic commerce. Monolithic means rigid, and in monolithic commerce, the frontend and the backend of a technology solution are selected by the manufacturer and then essentially fused together. Quite simply, you can’t use one without the other.

Monolithic systems have some inherent drawbacks. For example, any new experience update you make on your site will require your developers or IT team to write or edit multiple layers of code, which can slow down a new product launch or other mission-critical upgrades (see eCommerce website development to learn more).

Monolithic commerce also tends to be inflexible. It may allow you to create and push product-related content to your website and native mobile app, but it may not allow integrations with social media channels or Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

Benefits of headless commerce

Adopting a headless architecture may give eCommerce retailers multiple advantages, including:

More flexibility

Headless architecture gives online store owners and their IT and dev teams the freedom to use as many frontends as they’d like, including a content management system (CMS) or a digital experience management platform (DXP). When your store needs updating, developers need only to make those updates once on the backend. APIs will then automatically push those updates to all of your frontends. This also potentially reduces QA issues, as fewer changes mean fewer opportunities for website or app errors.

Quicker load times

Headless commerce promises snap-of-the-finger load times. It also helps developers make frontend changes faster without disrupting anything on the backend. The faster your load times, the better the customer experience, and the quicker you can get your shoppers to convert. This can be a key factor in driving repeat purchases and brand loyalty, which can account for more than 40 percent of a retailers’ revenue.

Better omnichannel experiences

As the number of potential shopping channels explodes, the race to capture consumers’ attention on each and every channel grows more competitive. Studies show that consumers who shop across channels drive 30 percent higher lifetime value (LTV) than those who shop using just one channel. Headless commerce allows IT teams to customize their designs and layouts, creating unique frontend experiences designed for each specific channel they target.

Want to know more about increasing your customer’s LTV? This blog post shows you how to calculate customer lifetime value and optimize it.

Faster time to market

Looking to launch a new micro-brand or roll out a fresh product line? Headless commerce allows businesses (across many types of businesses) to spin up content for new products and services quickly. It also reduces the IT costs of new feature development.

Better experimentation

With the backend and the frontend separate, brands using headless commerce can test continuously without tying up backend resources. A/B tests can help you determine which layouts and formats will best resonate with your customers.

Improved security

In a monolithic architecture, a hacker can access frontend and backend data simultaneously. In a headless architecture, a hack on the frontend may not expose backend pricing or checkout data, potentially giving you higher levels of protection from fraud caused by malicious actors.

Headless commerce use cases

Retailers are using headless commerce today to achieve multiple goals:

Personalize content for different regions

Snow gear that’s a hot seller in the Plains and Northeast regions of the U.S. won’t have the same sizzle in the Southeast or Southwest. The reverse may be true for warm-weather seasonal items like patio furniture or swimwear. Headless commerce is allowing retailers to deliver higher levels of personalized content, allowing them to match the right products to the right audience at the right time of year.

But you don't necessarily need a headless commerce solution to up your personalization game. You can do so right now with your Wix eCommerce storefront. Get inspired by these 9 game-changing eCommerce personalization examples.

Break down the language barrier

If you’re selling products to customers across the globe, communicating with them in their language of choice takes top priority. Trying to translate your product information using readily available tools like Google Translate doesn’t always create a seamless experience. Retailers are using headless commerce to overcome this barrier, creating customized customer journeys that use the proper language and dialect.

Experience the power of Progressive Web Apps (PWAs)

APIs sit at the heart of headless architecture. So, too, do PWAs. They’re applications that give consumers a more immersive and intuitive app-like experience. Many retailers using headless commerce leverage PWAs to improve the speed and experience of their frontend. If your store is using the Wix eCommerce platform, you can already build, manage, customize, and deploy PWAs using Velo by Wix. Learn how Velo can help you add functionality like a bulk add to cart tool to your existing website.

Create stronger integrations with other solutions

Because headless commerce uses APIs to connect your frontend with your backend, it allows you to easily integrate new features into your existing eCommerce platform. Some retailers use headless architecture to connect their backend systems to CMS and CXP platforms as well as systems like product information management (PIM), enterprise resource planning (ERP), order management system (OMS), and other online tools.

Myths about headless commerce

Going headless is needlessly complex

This depends on the level of technical knowledge that resides within your store’s staff. If you have a sophisticated IT team with deep expertise in technologies like APIs and WPAs, going headless may be easier than you think. If you have a smaller IT team and more limited resources, it may not be for you.

You need to replatform everything to do it successfully

You can move to a new frontend and backend platform if you wish. However, because headless architecture decouples the frontend from the backend, you may be able to retain your existing backend platform while using APIs to integrate with new frontend platforms.

Headless is way too expensive

This too depends on your current tech stack, your IT team’s expertise, and your goals. But if you are building everything from scratch and have sparse IT and development resources, headless may indeed get too complicated and/or costly.

Who benefits most from headless eCommerce?

Right now, larger retailers are the ones making the biggest investments in headless commerce. You’re more likely to experience benefits from a headless architecture if brand image and website or app speed are mission-critical to your business. Or if you handle high volumes of online traffic.

You’re also more likely to benefit if you are looking to expand into international markets.

Small and midsize retailers, store owners who sell in specific geographies, or those with fewer IT resources may not derive the same level of benefits from headless and might be better served staying with their existing eCommerce platforms.

One key piece of advice: Don’t go headless without consulting everyone on your team. You may find that your marketing team, for example, enjoys making product updates on your current platform, but a move to headless could mean they have to ask your IT team to make those changes instead. Knowing the answer to this question will help save you potential headaches down the road, and also give you the knowledge you’ll need to select a headless architecture that optimizes the abilities of everyone on your team.

Need an eCommerce marketing jump-start? Try one of these 12 proven eCommerce marketing strategies.

How to get started with headless commerce

If you choose to go headless, you have lots of options. Some headless vendors offer full eCommerce platforms. Others offer specific headless CMS and DXM systems designed to integrate with a headless backend. Wix Headless, as an example, gives you full access to Wix's business solutions (including eCommerce-related, event-related and other capabilities) from any platform or app.

Learn how to get started with Wix Headless today.

Geraldine Feehily

Bogar Alonso

Head of Outbound Marketing, Wix eCommerce

Bogar leads thought leadership and outbound marketing for Wix eCommerce. He has an extremely soft spot for all things eCommerce, retail, tech, content, and marketing.

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