Illustration by Diego Blanco
Ecommerce was booming even before the COVID-19 pandemic lit the fuse for more explosive growth.
In the past two years, customer behavior has changed more rapidly than ever before. People aren’t just shopping online in greater numbers. They’re shopping on mobile, through voice commerce, on social media, and even occasionally in person (especially when they can scoop it up curbside).
It would be a golden age for online retailers but for two things: 1) competition is fierce, and 2) customer expectations are also at an all-time high.
To catch the wandering eye of customers who have no shortage of options, brands need to create a frictionless customer experience. But beyond that, they need to surprise and delight.
As businesses have played around with different content types and digital experiences, some have also run into walls with what an out-of-the-box ecommerce solution is capable of.
Enter: headless commerce. In this article, we’re doing a deep dive into the features to look out for when it's time to choose, as well as the best platforms that can support those headless needs.
Table of Contents
- What is headless commerce?
- What are the benefits of headless commerce?
- What are the most important features of a headless commerce platform?
- Headless commerce use cases
- What are the best headless commerce platforms on the market?
- Headless commerce platform FAQ
What is headless commerce?
Headless commerce involves separating the front end and back end of an ecommerce application. The back end manages the ecommerce functionality, while the front end contains the customer-facing touchpoints.
What are the benefits of headless commerce?
Employing a headless commerce solution can be more expensive and more complicated to set up, and it can take longer to launch than a traditional tech stack with an all-in-one ecommerce solution.
So why are businesses doing it? Headless isn’t necessary, and it’s not the right fit for every business, but for some it can have big benefits.
Headless commerce provides limitless possibilities on the front end. A business can choose the front end software or applications that make the most sense for its products, content, customers, and brand. This ability to customize can make it easier for a brand to create powerful digital experiences and stay on top in an increasingly competitive retail landscape.
Choose the right tool for the job
Another advantage for a business is the ability to work with the tech stack that best suits their needs. With an ERP, you’re choosing the technologies that work best for your tech stack without sacrificing performance when building with API-first commerce.
For example, an ecommerce seller may want to bring in a specific microservice or 3rd party integration to achieve a particular operations workflow or desired buyer experience. For example, custom donation amounts and custom shipping requirements for special goods like, say, a mattress.
Development teams can work on front and backend systems in parallel in any programming language unlocking more customization and personalization of the customer journey. Choosing a CMS that is specialized for delivering whatever content a brand needs, or a progressive web app (PWA) specialized in creating a winning mobile experience (if that’s where a business’s customers primarily shop) can be a key differentiator.
Adapt to changing times
Technologies change quickly. So does the way people shop. With headless, a business isn’t tied down to a single application. It can make changes to the front end system without having to do a full replatform.
As people change the way they shop online, websites need to quickly adapt to meet the customers' needs.
Facilitate omnichannel selling
Today’s customers aren’t just visiting a store or its website to make a purchase. The customer journey is more circuitous and involves more channels than ever before. Headless can provide a way to make omnichannel shopping seamless by connecting all of the customer touchpoints to a single back end.
What are the most important features in a headless commerce platform?
There is no one platform that has the “perfect” features set. Why? Because no two businesses are alike. Each business will have its own reasons for seeking out headless and should pay attention to which features will provide the solutions they are seeking.
That said, as a business begins comparing platforms, here are some important factors to consider:
The platform’s application programming interfaces (APIs) are what makes headless possible. The APIs provide the mechanism for integrations and inform how the different “heads” will be able to communicate data with the back end.
Beyond how other front end applications will integrate, the back end capabilities need to provide a clean user experience and frictionless checkout. In addition to improving the customer experience, an easy-to-use control panel is also a plus on the business side.
Depending on a business’s growth plan, the ideal platform not only will support its current state but grow with it in the future. Your business needs and resources may change over time, so you want a solution that can scale with you from low code to custom code.
Launching a headless website can be complex. A platform that comes with specialized solution engineers, launch support, or has a strong network of partner agencies that can lend a hand will help you launch sooner and get a faster return on value.
Headless commerce use cases
As mentioned above, each business will have its own reasons for seeking out a headless commerce solution. Here are a few common use cases and how headless may be able to solve them.
Your business needs a better user experience
A digital experience that stands out can give brands a competitive edge. Headless can solve this need by allowing a business to choose front end technologies specialized in creating an impactful digital experience.
For example, apparel brand Kotn took advantage of the flexibility of using an API to connect its Shopify store to an outside CMS. This led to improved site speed and a digital experience that could be easily and continually adapted.
The headless approach gives more control to both the development and marketing teams because they can make updates independently without affecting the whole site. A better user experience is obviously a win for customers too. Whether it’s augmented reality letting them see what furniture would look like in their home or the ability to make a purchase on an internet of things (IoT) device, improving their path to purchase not only paves the way for conversions but also future brand evangelists.
Business wants to continue to use an existing tool
With the front end and back ends decoupled, a business has more control over its site. If a business is happy using an existing CMS but realizes it has scaled beyond the commerce capabilities, headless can be a good opportunity to add instead of replace.
Headless allows a business to keep the technology that works for them while addressing any gaps needed with additional technology solutions. This is an advantage for development teams that don’t have to deal with the risk and issues of a full replatform. It can also be an advantage for customers because the site they’re already familiar with won’t be completely overhauled. Instead, it can be adjusted to serve them better.
Business needs to reach customers on new channels or touchpoints
A business has to go where its customers are. And sometimes that changes over time. An early adopter of headless, Lancôme decided to update its site when it discovered the majority of traffic was coming from mobile shoppers. The site redesign leveraged a PWA on the front end to create a native-app-like experience for mobile shoppers and led to immediate gains for the fragrance brand.
For Lancôme, solving this specific challenge with a headless solution was a much easier lift for the development team who otherwise would have had to build and maintain a separate app. It was also a better result for customers who would have had to download an app to their phones in order to shop, something only the most devoted of fans likely would have done. The other nice thing about a headless approach for adapting the business to new channels—it can always be changed again. When the shoppers are no longer coming from mobile, but from some other touchpoint entirely, a new front end can be added.
Business requires something truly unique
Another common use case for headless: what is needed simply can’t be done any other way. This applies to businesses that need a very specific experience. Complex Networks, which runs the multi-sensory trends conference ComplexCon, had to adapt its business model when COVID-19 caused the cancellation of the live event. The business built a 3D ecommerce-enabled video game, ComplexLand, that was only possible by combining a commerce back end website with front end technology designed for immersive digital experiences.
When a business wants to achieve something that isn’t possible with its existing technology, it’s worth looking into alternatives. In fact, creating a custom solution from scratch can be a benefit for development teams in saving time and effort if the functionality already exists and is easily integrated.
Customers may also appreciate a site that offers them an innovative experience.
Business wants to experiment
Innovation can be the key to success, especially for new and rising DTC brands up against the Amazons of the world. Headless can help level that playing field by making it easier for businesses to experiment. By trying out different front end solutions without having to completely reconfigure the website, headless helps bring customization and flexibility to the masses.
Headless can make innovation easier for development teams to achieve by allowing them to set up new integrations more easily. This is also a win for customers who can see new and exciting commerce experiences happening sooner.
What are the best headless commerce platforms on the market?
What you look for in a headless commerce platform depends on what you need it to do. Each approach will have its strengths and weaknesses. In no particular order, here are 10 of the top platforms on the market for headless.
One of the biggest names in ecommerce, Shopify Plus also has powerful headless commerce capabilities. Shopify Plus can integrate with a variety of top CMS and other front end solutions that can turn any screen into a virtual storefront.
Using the Shopify Plus Storefront API, brands can design fast, engaging storefronts for web, mobile, video games, and more. It also cleanly integrates with business systems like an ERP, PIM, CRM, and CMS. Shopify Plus has a large network of partners who can make setting up a headless storefront faster and easier.
This platform is the best of both worlds in that it is easy to operate with pre-built solutions and little developer knowledge, but with a skilled developer you can also continuously extend the level of customization. Overall, it’s a good fit for both mid-market and enterprise businesses.
Brands operating headless stores with Shopify Plus:
Magento (Adobe Commerce)
One of the advantages of headless commerce is customization. Magento Commerce (now known as Adobe Commerce) can make extreme customization possible—if you have the extreme budget to match. So why would a business use Magento for headless?
Headless with Magento allows businesses to experiment with new functionality and integrations faster. As the store has separate front end and back end parts, it boosts performance and speed. One feature of Magento to support headless is its PWA Studio which, as the name suggests, makes it easy to build progressive web app experiences for mobile shopping.
Commercetools is an API-first ecommerce platform geared specifically for businesses interested in headless builds. With Commercetools, a business can use ready-made commerce building blocks to create or add to its own tech stack.
Commerce tools also offers a full microservices approach that diversifies the tech stack.
Commercetools also offers a full microservices approach that goes beyond headless in the degree to which the tech stack can be diversified. It offers key commerce features like order and product management that can be extended to suit a business’s exact needs. Another one of Commercetools’ key features is its customizability. The platform has more than 300 pre-built API endpoints to choose from and supports custom-built services.
Brands operating headless stores with Commercetools:
Sharper Image, LEGO, Audi
Like Commercetools, Elastic Path is an API-led platform primarily serving large enterprises. Essentially, if you have the budget you can create what you want.
Elastic Path differentiates itself from other "headless retrofitted solutions" where commerce features are offered on the backend. Instead, with Elastic Path the back end is composed of a web of independent componentized services connected by APIs. The platform offers Composable Commerce XA™, a tool to help manage the complexity of operating a tech service by multiple vendors. The tool helps eliminate risk and provide operational assurance by searching for and dealing with issues across the tech stack.
Brands operating headless stores with Elastic Path:
Johnstone Supply, Logomark
BigCommerce is similar to Shopify Plus, although they have a much smaller customer base. Both are SaaS platforms that support customers who want to build headless solutions, as well as those who don’t.
In addition to the expected commerce features, BigCommerce supports some integrations through pre-built connections to some well-known CMS, DXP, and front end frameworks. These include the leading React framework, Next.js; the fastest static site generator, Gatsby.js; and Nuxt.js for Vue developers. Simple, pre-built plug-ins exist for WordPress, Contentful, Prismic, and Contentstack.
Brands operating headless stores with BigCommerce:
Burrow, Four Pillars, Yeti
Marketed on the strength of its flexibility, Foxy promises to help businesses sell any product anywhere. Foxy offers a seamless checkout, and also integrates with payment and shipping solutions, and CMSs like WordPress.
Foxy has no limitations on what type of product businesses can offer, from physical and digital products to subscriptions and donations. The shopping cart is completely customizable. Foxy markets the strength of its API as being able to create extremely tight integrations.
Brands operating headless stores with FoxyCart:
Bayer, Tanger Outlets, Crosely
Focused primarily on enterprise B2B businesses, Oro offers flexibility with a reliable and secure backend experience.
OroCommerce has a number of features that make it well-suited to wholesale customers, including support for an unlimited number of SKUs. The platform helps B2B brands provide both buyers and sellers digitized self-service portals to streamline their operations. The platform also offers personalized B2B catalog management that can be personalized for specific companies, business units, or even individual buyers. All of the organizational and product management features on the back end can be paired with a powerful experience on the front end through a headless build.
Brands operating headless stores with Oro:
Animal Supply Co., Walton’s
Spree is a headless open-source ecommerce platform that caters to subscription services, marketplaces, and B2B brands.
Spree has a modern and lightweight API designed for building storefronts, mobile apps, and points of sale. The platform has pre-built integrations with Next.js Commerce (an all-in-one React starter kit) and Vue Storefront 2 (an end-to-end PWA user experience). The platform is available without a licensing charge with one of these integrations. In addition to these options, you can connect the Spree platform with any third-party system, such as an ERP, PIM, etc.
Brands operating headless stores with Spree:
Blue Apron, Bevv, 3form
Sprkyer is another ecommerce platform that focuses on both B2B, B2C, and marketplace customers. The business claims competitive speed and stability.
In terms of headless capabilities, Spryker has designed its GLUE API to support integrations with various customer touch points including mobiles apps, voice assistants, smart watches, and other IoT devices. Spryker’s core is a pair of applications: a back end known as Zed, and a front end scalable PWA called Yves. Spyker can be easily operated off the shelf with these primary components, but it’s also flexible enough to build custom solutions.
Brands operating headless stores with Spryker:
Toyota (Deutchland), Numinos
Like several others on this list, Fabric is a headless-first platform. It’s fairly open for businesses to make it their own. For example, a business can use the Fabric commerce platform or individual components of it(like the Fabric PIM). A brand also has the option of connecting Fabric with third-party integrations or building its own custom solutions.
Fabric offers more than 300 API endpoints, extensible APIs that let a business add its own logic, and an architecture that allows for easy integrations. The platform promises users can connect its headless APIs with any back end system, user interface, or customer experience.
Brands operating headless stores with Fabric
OfficeChairs.com, ABC Carpet & Home
When it comes to headless commerce, there’s no shortage of platforms to choose from. Your choice must ultimately come down to business requirements and what you hope to achieve by decoupling your tech stack.
Learn more about how to get started with headless commerce here.
Headless Commerce FAQs
What is the best ecommerce platform for headless?
There is no one best platform. The best platform for your business depends on your business model, your budget, and the reason you’re choosing headless in the first place.
What are the advantages of headless commerce?
Headless can make it easier for a brand to facilitate the unfractured omnichannel shopping experiences that customers are coming to expect. It can also make it easier to display multiple types of content if that’s an important part of a business’s brand. A business can choose tools that specialize in what they need and change, and adapt those tools as their needs change, without having to undergo a full replatform.
What are the drawbacks to headless commerce?
The main drawbacks of headless commerce are cost and time to market. These factors will vary broadly, based on the complexity of the build.
What industries or use cases can most benefit from headless commerce?
All industries and business models can opt for headless if it makes sense for their brands. B2B, B2C, and DTC brands have all been known to use headless commerce.
What should businesses consider when choosing a headless platform?
The choice of platform should start with your business’s must-haves. What are the challenges you want this solution to solve? If you are moving to headless, what capabilities do you need? Are there any tools you will require it to integrate with?