Introduction to Headless Commerce

Headless commerce is a modern approach to eCommerce architecture that involves decoupling the front-end presentation layer from the back-end functionality. This means that the user interface and the backend system are developed and managed independently. Simply put, the frontend is separated from the backend, allowing businesses to provide a more personalized and seamless shopping experience across multiple channels.

With headless commerce, businesses can easily integrate with different touchpoints, such as mobile apps, social media platforms, and IoT devices.

This article will explore the use cases of headless setups where modern technology benefits businesses. If you are interested in the detailed difference between headless and headful architectures, you may refer to the MACH article.

Although headless architecture may bring many benefits to businesses, it’s crucial to understand that it’s not a silver bullet that covers all cases. 

So, the main question is, “Will a merchant’s store be better/faster on a headless architecture now and in the future?

An important factor in choosing an architecture is the cost of ownership. Compared with traditional monolith setups (everything packed into one application), with headless commerce, the merchant has more than one application. To be specific, at least two: one for the backend and another one for the front end. Increasing the system complexity results in the following “side effects”.

  • Different applications = different development teams for the backend, frontend, and other applications (if any).
  • More complex deployment system(s) to deploy every application separately.
  • More complex and expensive hosting infrastructure to handle all separate applications.
Difference between Monolith Architecture and Micro-services approach

If it sounds like you need to put more effort into creating the headless store in comparison with a traditional store, then you get it right. 

In most cases, merchants will need additional development power to spin up a brand-new headless store. However, the benefits are worth the spending if the merchant plans to grow the eCommerce business over time. Below are two examples for outlining how the evolution of an eCommerce business can use the benefits of headless commerce at different stages.

Example #1

We have a business where the only sales channel is an eCommerce store (or there are other channels that are not connected). Most of the store customers are first-time buyers who usually find the store using search engines.

Most likely, with a headless setup, the merchant will not have a win-win situation in both performance and cost of ownership at this stage. First of all, there are no benefits of the API-first system since no other application is connected to the backend except the storefront. A complex JavaScript storefront implementation (the more or less trivial case for most headless-oriented storefronts) will somewhat slow down your store than speed it up.

The main reason for that is the caching mechanism of headless systems. If a customer uses your system regularly, the SPA (Single Page Application) or PWA (Progressive Web Application) is the way to go for better performance. Once everything is cached for a specific customer, the system will perform fast. But, in controversy, if a sporadic customer visits your website occasionally, handling the complex storefront by the customer’s browser repeatedly may result in performance degradation.

Read also: Magento PWA Plugins

So if the merchant plans to keep the e-commerce business on that level for a while, maybe headless is not the best and most cost-effective approach.

Example #2

We have a business where there are multiple sales channels, and most customers are returning customers. In this case, the merchant may have many different systems (POS, ERP, CRM, etc.) connected with an eCommerce store to provide seamless integration for customers, transparent stock tracking, and other connections.

The API-first architecture allows connecting seamlessly different applications into one system. Also, changing the API application (backend) will not always result in changing all other applications). The merchant may deploy different applications separately without having downtime for the entire infrastructure. And if we are talking about returning customers, in most cases, they will have the storefront application pre-loaded after they have visited the website for the first time in a while. This will result in significant performance benefits.

The examples above are two polar edge cases. But feel free to use them to determine where your business is between these two edges and determine how valuable headless commerce is for your store now and over time.

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Talking more about the benefits of headless commerce, it’s worth mentioning that it gives you much more freedom. For example, if a merchant sees the storefront in his own way with a unique customer journey and non-trivial set of features – with headless, there are fewer limits a monolith system provides you out of the box. A merchant may build his own storefront application and switch to another one if necessary. If, over time, the merchant decides to develop a mobile application for the store, it’s much easier with a headless setup. Also, headless setups are more flexible in terms of scalability. It’s easier to extend the infrastructure if more hardware power is required to handle more happy customers.

So, in the long run, headless commerce provides you with much more flexibility in different scenarios. Before creating a brand-new store, it’s a good idea to create a plan for extending your store for the next couple of years.

There’s another “child” of headless commerce, which we may call PWA-commerce. PWA-commerce has headless architecture under the hood and provides additional benefits for business. But, once again, it’s important to understand the business cases where it’s the most efficient way to build your system. We are going to cover this part in consecutive articles.

If you are not sure how and when to choose the proper workflow for going headless, feel free to contact Atwix for consulting. We work with both monolith and headless architectures and will help you in choosing a proper solution.