10 min read

Headless eCommerce Guide, Everything you Need to Know

Everything about Headless eCommerce - concepts, benefits, existing platforms and more.

Photo of Radi Danchev

by Radi Danchev

December 9, 2019

It’s no secret that eCommerce has exploded into one of the fastest-growing industries on the planet. 

In 2019, global eCommerce sales reached a whopping $3.5 trillion, with that figure expected to rise to nearly 5 trillion in 2021. 

Customers are getting increasingly accustomed to reading content and buying products through a wide variety of online methods such as in-store interfaces, social media, Amazon Dash buttons — the list goes on. 

Plus, with a wealth of tech products aimed specifically at enabling non-technical founders to “get selling in minutes” and courses to educate you along the way, it’s never been easier to set up an online store. 

Thousands of entrepreneurs are launching their own online stores and others have begun building tech that supports the booming eCommerce industry. 

While it’s far easier to sell online, the increased competition means it’s much, much harder to succeed and make money online. 

Legacy eCommerce stores and newer entrepreneurs need to constantly innovate if they are going to stay ahead of their competition and keep up with the tech-savvy expectations of a modern customer. 

How can online businesses compete in an increasingly crowded market? 

By using a headless system online stores can move away from traditional eCommerce solutions and benefit from quicker development times, better SEO, faster website performance and more. 

Read on to find out why the headless approach is the future of eCommerce.

Google Lighthouse Scores

Google Lightouse scores for a headless eCommerce shop we built.

What is Headless eCommerce?

Headless eCommerce means the frontend of your store and your backend are  “decoupled”. 

In other words, the presentation layer and the commerce/business layer (think order and inventory management, shipping and taxes, payment processing) are entirely independent of each other. 

This decoupled environment allows for much more flexibility to design the architecture you want and focus more heavily on delivering excellent user experience, without the worry of negatively impacting the backend business systems.

Headless eCommerce API

In headless eCommerce, requests are sent between the presentation and business layer via API calls. 

Here’s an example of how it can work practice:

  1. A user clicks the “Add To Cart” button on the frontend of the website
  2. The presentation layer sends an API call to the business layer to add the product to the cart. 
  3. The business layer responds to this API call with confirmation, that the product has been added to the cart, and the presentation layers notify the user.

The beauty of using API integrations is the fact it allows you to connect your eCommerce backend to multiple frontends, as well as your own website. 

In other words, the business logic behind your store is delivered via the eCommerce API, you can attach to an unlimited number of “heads” i.e. customer-facing layers where transactions take place.

For example, in addition to listing products on your own store, you can automatically list them on third-party channels like Amazon, Alexa Skills, Facebook, and many more. 

And all of these sales channels can be managed and fulfilled within one consolidated dashboard.

Not only is this beneficial to your business, but it also allows you to keep up with modern customers demand to have full control over when and how they make purchases.

Headless eCommerce vs traditional eCommerce

Traditional eCommerce

When you build a website with a traditional eCommerce platform, you are constrained by the existing design and database. 

This is because the presentation layer is connected to the business logic and infrastructure.

To make changes to the website’s design, you not only need to edit the frontend design, but you also need to update the database and its code. 

A small customisation could entail editing several layers of code in between the design and the database. While it is possible, it’s much more time-consuming. 

You also need to carefully consider whether any customisations will affect your warranty with your eCommerce platform. And you likely won’t know the effect of any platform upgrades on your changes until they happen. 

Headless eCommerce

With a decoupled solution, data is pulled to the presentation layer with an API call. That means you can design the frontend without modifying the database. 

The design is entirely separate so you won’t need to dig into complex database code or architecture. This means to make changes to your user experience, you only need a frontend developer. 

Not only does this save time, but it also allows frontend developers to build pages that meet the needs of the business without the need to conform to existing designs and pre-made templates. 

Of course, this comes with the caveat that designing an eCommerce page isn’t for the faint-hearted. Designing an eCommerce store is a complex undertaking. 

A poorly designed page, cart or checkout flow will more than likely decrease your conversion rates, whereas eCommerce platforms come with tons of high converting templates as standard. 

But while you’ll put more time and effort in upfront, the increased flexibility and customisation options will benefit you in the long run.

What are the benefits of headless eCommerce?

Headless eCommerce allows you to offer a flexible and familiar experience across multiple channels.  

It allows you to improve your speed to market while offering customization and personalization options, all without impacting backend business processes.  

Here are our seven core benefits of using a headless eCommerce system:

#1 It has omnichannel capabilities

As we’ve already mentioned, headless eCommerce means you can push your content in multiple online locations. 

You can display your products, content, and other brand assets on a wide variety of channels from Facebook to Amazon and Alexa, the options are endless. 

What’s more, all channels can be managed via one dashboard, keeping all your sales data in one easy-to-manage location. 

If you’re unsure whether you need omnichannel sales, take a moment to consider these statistics by Invespcro

  • Companies with omnichannel customer engagement retain nearly 90% of their customers
  • This is compared to a 33% customer retention rates for companies with weak omnichannel strategies. 

But, with only 45% of retailers citing omnichannel efforts as a top priority for their business, this is a massive opportunity to get ahead of the online crowd. 

#2 APIs for seamless integration

Headless eCommerce systems are built on APIs. This means they integrate effortlessly with other systems such as marketing tools, CRMs, CMS platforms and so on. 

Granted, you can do the same with a plugin, they are more prone to updates, security fixes, and integration issues. While APIs calls are much less likely to need to be updated once they are correctly set up. 

APIs allow platforms to integrate with each other much easier, with seamless connections and easier transfer of data. And integrations take hours, not weeks, meaning your development speed is far quicker. 

All this means you can attach to new devices and platforms, reach more customers and opportunities. 

#3 Conversion Rate Optimisation

One of the biggest benefits of headless eCommerce is its agility. As you’re no longer shackled to the backend, it is far easier to test, optimise and iterate a headless system. 

You are free to test different integrations, website templates, designs, etc, and you can quickly adapt and customise the frontend experience to increase the customer experience. 

All these changes can be quickly and easily applied to the frontend presentation, without any impact on the more complex backend database. This increases your optimisation time and improves your business agility. 

#4 Stay ahead of your competitors

The increased speed of headless eCommerce development allows you to deploy rapid updates. You can quickly make changes to your frontend, without the worry of affecting your backend system.

With deployments on traditional eCommerce platforms and stores often in cycles of weeks or even months, you can stay ahead by pushing smaller changes to specific sections of the site, more regularly. 

#5 SEO benefits

With a headless eCommerce system, you won’t get SEO features out-of-the-box, like with an eCommerce platform such as Shopify. While some might argue this is negative for your SEO, however, we’d wholeheartedly disagree. 

With a headless system, your website will be a blazing fast progressive web app (PWA). Simply put, this allows for faster and cleaner browser-based experiences by creating an app-like experience. 

By using APIs, offline caching and offline storage, this creates a cleaner and faster experience for users and faster website performance. 

Improved front-end performance, better mobile experiences and compatibility, and faster website speeds are huge benefits of PWAs. Oh, and they are all ranking factors for SEO. 

What’s more, if you’re using a hybrid system with Shopify plus, the headless approach can eliminate some of the URL issues inherent with Shopify, while allowing you to benefit from the backend functionality of the platform. 

The downsides of headless eCommerce

We love headless eCommerce. We truly believe that the increased performance, agility, flexibility and SEO benefits outweigh the negatives. 

However, as with any eCommerce system, there are downsides, including: 

#1 Decreased platform functionality

By decoupling the frontend from the backend, you may lose some functionality that comes out-of-the-box with a traditional eCommerce platform. 

It will depend on the platform, but you may be able to overcome this will APIs and integrations, but you do need to bear in mind some features (previewing changes, page builders, etc) mat be lost. 

#2 Design from scratch

By its nature, a headless system comes without a frontend design. Depending on your skill level and desire to get your hands dirty, this may be a pro or con. 

This means you don’t benefit from a ready-made template to quickly get you started without any prior technical experience. Indeed, with a headless system, you most likely won’t be able to “set up your store minutes”. 

Of course, on the other hand, this leaves you free to design a template to your own specification, but be warned, in an eCommerce setting, building a high converting template, isn’t an easy task. 

More and more starters being designed for headless systems (Gatsby starters, for example), but most are relatively basic and require some customisation. 

#3 Ongoing costs

A headless system will involve ongoing development costs.

Unlike a pre-made eCommerce platform and template, you’re likely to incur ongoing dev time to integrate new APIs, add features, tweak your design, and so on. 

That said, with the technology being open-sourced, you are free from monthly subscriptions to plugins and, depending on what you use for your backend, you may reduce or eliminate the monthly eCommerce subscription for the use of a platform.

CMS and eCommerce platforms that support a headless system

Before you dive headfirst into headless eCommerce (pun intended), it’s important to understand the available resources and systems. To get you started here’s a detailed list of CMS solutions, eCommerce platforms and carts which support a headless system:

Headless eCommerce platforms 

Headless eCommerce CMS

Summing Up

There isn’t a perfect eCommerce platform or system. But at JAMchefs, we believe a headless system gets pretty close. 

Whatever eCommerce option you choose, you’re making a calculated trade-off between ease of use, out-of-the-box eCommerce functionality, design, user experience and SEO features.  

A headless system offers a wealth of benefits, from SEO and website performance to speed of development, customisation and agility. 

Sure, you do require development knowledge or development costs, but the ongoing flexibility is far higher than any other traditional eCommerce platform.