Exploring Headless Ecommerce

Exploring Headless Ecommerce

We explore the pros and cons of headless ecommerce which has been helping some entrepreneurs sharpen focus on different parts of their online stores. Is it the right move for you?

Written by Jason Stokes

7 min read

Ecommerce is gaining more traction in the marketplace, and existing content management systems are working hard to keep up with the demands placed on them by their tech-savvy users. No matter what CMS you’re using for your online store, it can be challenging to keep up with the rapidly changing applications and touchpoints that your potential market can make use of. This is where headless ecommerce can step in. Let us explain how.

What is headless ecommerce?

An ecommerce platform has a front-end that the users can see, and a back-end where the platform itself is managed. The priorities of the front-end lie in providing users with an engaging, relevant, and exciting experience throughout different user journeys and purchasing actions. You can also read more on how your product page design influences buyer decisions, which touches on many of the important user interface design aspects that impact good UX.

While the back-end can remain relatively static, UX places requirements on the front end that demand flexibility. Sometimes, the back-end can hold the front-end back because they are usually built using the same architecture.

Headless ecommerce is one way of avoiding this problem. By building your stable back-end without a front-end or ‘head’, you can develop a different system for your front-end to run on. This decoupling provides independence for both ends, and can be optimised without having to worry about shared code struggling to handle it.

The term ‘headless’ is a bit of a misnomer. You will still have a head, but it will be free to evolve and adapt while the back-end can remain reliable and suited to your management style. The difference is that the head now has to be developed separately, and you will now have two systems instead of one.

Simply put: headless ecommerce decouples the front- and back-ends of an ecommerce platform. This allows both to be run efficiently and optimally for their specific purposes.

How does headless ecommerce work?

Like Nearly-Headless-Nick here, headless ecommerce has its head happily co-existing with its back-end body. To ensure that the independence which is headless ecommerce’s strength doesn’t lead to a fatal disconnect, we have Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).

APIs allow different systems to communicate with each other. When a user makes a purchase using your beautiful, streamlined front-end, the API processes the data which makes up the transaction, and converts it into data your trusty back-end can recognise and use. They act as the intermediaries between whichever touch-point your user engages with, and your store’s underlying architecture.

So headless ecommerce involves setting up two separate systems: one for your front-end, and one for your back-end, and linking them with APIs. Simple, right?

Balancing the Head: The Challenges of Headless Ecommerce

The old saying ‘if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is’ definitely applies here. At least for now.

Unified architecture systems like Shopify provides you with a one-size-fits-all solution, with templates to tailor and customise the site to your liking. Because the site isn’t custom built from the ground up, there are some minor restrictions you could face, but you’re still using a system that is ready to use and build on – with 24/7 tech support at your fingertips!

Headless systems, on the other hand, require you to develop specialised systems of your own. Whether you are starting out, or you’re an established player on the ecommerce scene, converting to headless systems isn’t going to be a straightforward move.

1. Development time and cost

The most obvious issue here is that developing two different systems will take time, money, and expertise. While ready-made CMS platforms like Shopify have ongoing costs, those costs include the peace of mind of having access to proven systems with development, testing, and support being handled for you.

Even developing a single system from scratch would likely be cheaper, as there is less time and testing involved. Entrepreneurs aren’t necessarily developers either, so setting up your own in-house development team to handle your specialised systems and provide continual development and support is going to be expensive - and doubly so if you have separate front- and back-ends.

2. Presentation, SEO, and Marketing

Your front-end is extremely important. How you design and code your site’s head is often the difference between success and failure in the digital age. Users will make snap judgments based on appearances, or move on to other sites out of frustration with clunky UX elements – no matter how good your product or service is.

At the same time, your front-end is also the face you present to Google, and needs to be designed with Search Engine Optimisation in mind. The front-ends provided in systems like Shopify and designed by our own team draw from experience and expertise to help you get noticed. If you choose to design your own, then you can add the costs of this intricate optimisation and all the strategies that come thereafter to your already ballooning development and running costs.

If you don’t have the expertise to balance aesthetics with functionality, then you won’t be able to optimise your front-end. This means that the optimisation headless ecommerce promises simply won’t materialise.

3. Sustainability, Growth, and Evolution

The potential for adaptation and growth that comes with having a separate front-end also comes with a price-tag. Continuous development to make use of new opportunities and to take advantage of new trends will mean that your updates will have to be rolled out more frequently and customised to both your particular systems as well as the APIs.

While headless systems allow for the front-end to integrate into more touchpoints, every integration will have its own particular application that you will have to account for. APIs can help you here, but it will still be limited by what your system is capable of. You have more room to adapt, but that adaptation is made more complex by headless systems. This will affect the long-term costs and feasibility of your platform, for better and for worse.

The Benefits of Being (Nearly) Headless

We don’t want to sound like doom prophets though! Headless ecommerce provides opportunities that a resourceful entrepreneur can make use of for sure.

As with any application of technology to the markets, it has growing pains. But headless systems can allow you to do some things that other platforms can’t do just yet. Ironically, they are related to the challenges we mentioned above. Challenges and opportunity often go hand-in-hand, especially in the high-octane world of ecommerce!

1. Development Freedom

While headless commerce can raise the costs quite a bit, the freedom that comes with developing independent systems is nothing to scoff at. If the APIs can keep up, and you know what you’re doing, headless platforms allow you to build a store that most accurately fits your vision.

You can create a unique UX, giving your ecommerce site its own identity that sets it apart. You can also come up with unique and efficient ways of managing your back-end, giving you a leg-up over your competitors.

2. Competitiveness

Being capable of rapidly and radically adapting your front- and back-ends to take advantage of the opportunities that open up in the market without being held back by the limitations of established CMS platforms is going to give you a competitive edge. However, that’s only if you have the resources and know-how to capitalise on those opportunities. This is difficult to do on your own if you’re just starting out, and if you’re not getting help from experts in the field, the complexity of development means that even an established site can struggle.

3. Platform Access Expansion

Possibly the most exciting thing about headless ecommerce is how it can free your front-end up to be integrated into the internet of things. This gives you the ability to expand your contact with your user base exponentially, as you can provide access to your store on anything from a fridge to a smart-watch.

One way in which this happens is with Progressive Web Applications. PWAs allow for app-like functionality on a variety of platforms, by using plugins and coding native to most browsers. Along with APIs, this could extend your coverage over an ever-growing list of platforms, while preserving your unique UX.

The elephant in the room is your reliance on APIs. If the APIs can’t bridge the gap yet, then neither can you.

Headless Shopify

Due to the nature of headless ecommerce, much of the functionality which Shopify site owners rely on simply won’t be available. This mostly relates to the theme editor. For example, you won’t:

  • Have access to Shopify Plug and Play apps.
  • Be able to preview themes.
  • Have access to native accounts.
  • Be able to edit and view seamlessly (also known as What You See Is What You Get or WYSIWYG editing)

API integration is also not going to be easy, depending on just how many you plan to incorporate, and how far you are going to push your front-end away from accepted platform templates.

But remember, Shopify (as the leading CMS platforms for ecommerce), has not been blind to the potential of headless ecommerce. Shopify Plus allows for headless development and design, so you can rely on Shopify’s proven track-record while exploring the possibilities that this new approach opens up. So if you’re feeling adventurous and want to tackle headless ecommerce, we know how to do it for you!

Should You Lose Your Head?

Headless ecommerce is a new phenomenon, and it is still flapping its wings frantically after being pushed out of the developer’s nest. It can help your business soar with its impressive capabilities. It can also drag it down with its complexity and costs. Until it has matured and become simpler and cheaper to develop and maintain, you will be taking on a risk that might just be too big right now.

The costs of headless development will be difficult for a new start-up to cover, and established companies may struggle to transition between platforms without losing much of what made them work in the first place.

Traditional ecommerce platforms have a lot to offer, and providers like Shopify are pushing the boundaries of what their platforms can do while making it a lot simpler to make use of the revolutions in connectivity we are experiencing.

If you want to start your journey in ecommerce, let us build your store for you! We will run through all your requirements and guide you to the best solution for your business – headless or not. We provide the best combination of flexibility and reliability available on the market and strive to put your success first.

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