Headless Commerce Guide: Going Headless in 2023

  • Changing consumer trends require retailers to adopt technologies that provide a consistent customer journey across sales channels.

  • Headless commerce complements modularity to enable brands to scale efficiently and without incurring significant technical debt.

  • fabric Commerce Platform is a powerful and versatile modular commerce platform that provides retailers with a scalable out-of-the-box commerce experience.

Modern e-commerce is continually changing, spurred, in part, by shifting consumer trends. Before the ubiquity of mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, the success of e-commerce hinged on consumers’ access to personal computers.

Today, 65% of online shoppers use smartphones to make e-commerce purchases, compared to 42% who use laptops and 26% who use desktop PCs. According to Insider Intelligence, mobile e-commerce sales are expected to account for 44.2% of retail e-commerce sales in the U.S. by 2025.

These trends precipitate a need for e-commerce retailers to further adapt and evolve if they hope to secure this growing market. Headless commerce lets brands deliver seamless experiences across sales channels, providing a consistent customer journey regardless of where and how a customer embarks upon it.

Using headless commerce means brands can fine-tune the sales journey on PC, mobile, in-app, through physical kiosks, and elsewhere. At the same time, customers aren’t penalized for their preferences; the same information available to them via desktop is available in your branded mobile app, providing a streamlined experience across the board.

Adopting headless commerce and its modularity helps brands reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO), in addition to improving flexibility, functionality, and scalability.

  • What Is Headless Commerce?
  • Headless Commerce 101
  • 6 Headless Commerce Benefits
  • 3 Headless Commerce Challenges
  • Headless Commerce Use Cases
  • Headless Commerce Considerations

What Is Headless Commerce?

Headless commerce is the concept of decoupling the frontend from the backend. In other words, headless commerce lets brands present different or customized presentation layers — the frontend — while maintaining a single source of content and data — the backend. This means brands can differentiate the customer experience from channel to channel to create a consistent experience where desired and differentiation when needed.

Why is headless commerce important?

Changing consumer trends highlighted the importance of omnichannel activities. But embracing omnichannel without a clear idea of how to implement it can diminish its value and contribute to a brand’s TCO.

A headless commerce architecture lets brands adopt, deploy, and scale an omnichannel sales approach without incurring significant technical debt.

Headless Commerce 101: Everything You Need To Know

Headless e-commerce might sound like a new concept, but the term was initially coined in 2013 by Dirk Hoering to describe separating “single-head ‘suite’ platforms from this new ‘multi-headed’ approach.” In short, the headless commerce definition outlines a shift from commerce-led platforms — monoliths like Salesforce Demandware, Oracle ATG, and Shopify — to a content-led approach based around a content management system (CMS).

By separating the frontend and backend using a headless CMS, retailers can optimize the same content across devices and channels, using application programming interfaces (APIs) to sync the data between the CMS (the frontend) and e-commerce functionality (such as the cart, inventory, and other backend services).


How headless commerce works

In a headless commerce architecture, the frontend — or presentation layer — is decoupled from the backend — which handles business logic and commerce services. APIs facilitate communication between the frontend and backend, pulling information from the latter and displaying it on the former.

A typical headless commerce architecture is made up of three elements:

Backend systems are the individual components or modules that collect, handle, and manage data and information. Backend systems include modules like the cart and checkout, customer relationship management (CRM), inventory management, order management systems (OMS), pricing and promotions, and product information management (PIM).

APIs allow applications and services to communicate with one another, even if those applications use different frameworks. This liberates developers from using a single technology or programming language to develop applications. In a headless commerce solution, APIs push information from the backend to the frontend whenever a request is made.

A headless CMS centralizes and manages content on the backend. Where a traditional CMS combines content and display layers, a headless CMS feeds content to different frontend displays via APIs. This lets developers design unique and device-specific displays for each sales channel while tapping into the same content shared with other frontend touchpoints.


Types of headless commerce

The term “headless commerce” is often used interchangeably with “modular commerce” and “composable commerce.” Though each concept shares similarities — and a basis in headless commerce overall — they’re distinct from one another.

Modular commerce uses individual microservices, each dedicated to a specific task or functionality. These microservices are modular, which means they operate independently from one another and rely on APIs to communicate with the frontend and CMS.

Composable commerce builds upon the concept of modular commerce by allowing brands to choose solutions that best fit each of their unique business needs and compose them into a fit for purpose technology stack.

Who uses headless commerce?

Headless commerce is ideal for retailers who are expanding beyond an e-commerce website and into multiple distinct sales channels. This might include adding physical retail presences, selling via marketplaces, selling via mobile apps, or moving into B2B for the first time. A headless commerce solution lets mid-enterprise-sized brands and retailers broaden their reach while securing — and maintaining — a low TCO.

Headless commerce is also a good fit for brands that are finding resistance or a one-size-fits-none barrier when trying to integrate these channels into an existing monolithic commerce platform. These platforms typically must build a solution for the lowest common denominator between all retailers and typically make it difficult for brands that want to push outside the paradigm set by the commerce platform.

In many ways, Amazon helped popularize modular commerce by decoupling its architecture and relying on APIs for cross-functional communication — effectively employing a headless commerce solution. Each backend component was restructured into an independent service in an early example of microservices.

But retailers like Amazon and other e-commerce giants aren’t the only brands that can benefit from using a headless commerce solution. Medical e-commerce brands like Alpaca Audiology have successfully leveraged headless commerce architecture to complement and enhance their existing sales channels.

6 Headless Commerce Benefits

Adopting a headless commerce platform or replatforming from a monolith can benefit mid-enterprise retailers planning to scale or expand their e-commerce operations.

1. Headless e-commerce enables omnichannel sales

Headless commerce platforms don’t require retailers to use templates or other confining frameworks to expand into new sales channels. This means you’re not limited in which sales channels you adopt, granting you the ability to integrate common methods — like desktop and mobile-responsive websites, mobile apps, and social media — in addition to other sales channels, like IoT-connected devices, without developing a unique e-commerce solution for each touchpoint. Furthermore, you can adopt these sales channels without increasing your TCO.

2. Easy integration with new and existing systems

APIs let you integrate your headless commerce platform with other internal tools and systems. Functionality can be enhanced even further by connecting third-party applications to your headless solution via APIs.

Our API-first, headless, composable platform, fabric Commerce Platform, makes integration with new and existing systems possible across complete commerce data sets. Many monolithic and legacy platforms provide APIs, but they are incomplete. On these platforms, some data are not accessible via API, creating the overhead of manual entry and upkeep and adding the risk of human error. To create a consistent experience, full automation is preferred.

3. Faster page load times

Traditional e-commerce platforms rely heavily on shared resources, like CSS and Javascript files, to serve content and data to customers. High traffic or an excessive volume of requests can degrade performance, causing crashes and driving away potential sales.

With a headless commerce platform, the frontend typically employs a Progressive Web App (PWA) approach. This approach loads a minimal presentation layer for the customer experience and uses APIs to pull data from the backend on demand. This means pages and content load quickly and without performance degradation, even under heavy load. Additionally, PWAs give brands more control over their SEO and URLs than restrictive monolithic platforms can.

4. Developer flexibility

Because each component of the frontend and the backend is a smaller, modular component focused on a single task or functionality, changes tend to be simpler, and therefore faster and lower risk. Developers can update each component independently to minimize complexity, risk, and downtime. This helps retailers tweak functionality when needed, without necessitating or contributing to lost traffic and sales throughout.

Similarly, every module or microservice within a headless commerce platform is independent of each other. This means developers can use different programming languages and frameworks to develop them, choosing the best solution for the job without dependence on a single codebase.

5. Enhanced security

Headless commerce platforms that employ API best practices and API gateways can be more secure than monolithic competitors. In addition, because headless commerce architecture is based on modularity, developers can deploy security updates to independent services on an as-needed basis. Using headless commerce can also help brands achieve better PCI compliance.

6. Better customer experience

Headless commerce presents customers with a unique shopping experience tailored to the sales channel of their choice or preference. Each presentation is optimized for the device or channel to provide a great and native experience.

At the same time, the customer journey is consistent — pricing, promos, stock, and other information is identical across touchpoints.

And because the frontend is detached from the backend, retailers can leverage APIs — such as personalization software — over time to introduce new functionality and scale efforts across all sales channels.

3 Headless Commerce Challenges

To avoid contributing to their TCO, brands need to carefully weigh the challenges of adopting a headless commerce solution.

1. Ongoing costs and complexity

Many headless commerce platforms lack a frontend. Though this means your brand is free to develop and deploy a custom frontend, doing so necessitates development time and other resources beyond the cost of your chosen headless commerce solution.

Along the same lines, the modularity of a headless commerce platform can introduce additional complexity beyond what your team is used to. There might be some lead-up in transitioning from a monolithic system to a distributed system.

2. Difficulty replatforming

Migrating from your existing solution to a headless commerce platform can be slow and requires careful planning and detailed orchestration to pull off. When coupled with the potential for developers to acquaint themselves with a modular system, you might incur some technical debt or suffer some downtime. Once you make the initial effort to move to a headless, composable platform, future difficulty is greatly reduced.

3. Shifting processes and culture

The modularity of headless architecture gives your team the ability and structure to ship new features continuously. Though these integrations help you scale your e-commerce efforts, their rapidity of deployment differs from the slower pace your team might be familiar with when working on a monolithic platform. Handling these new responsibilities can require changes to your organization, its structure, and its personnel, impacting your processes and culture.

Headless Commerce Use Cases

The modularity afforded by switching to a headless commerce platform means brands can efficiently scale without significantly contributing to the TCO. This scalability — which helps end the pain of replatforming — means retailers of all types and sizes can benefit from going headless:

  • Marketplaces like Amazon and Etsy can support multiple sales channels, avoid server-side issues, and integrate a wide variety of touchpoints, including IoT-enabled devices.
  • D2C companies can leverage the modularity of headless commerce to personalize the shopping experience or adopt an omnichannel sales approach.
  • B2B companies can use a headless commerce platform to improve and simplify the customer experience via APIs, including those that make re-ordering easier.
  • B2E solutions might use headless commerce to combine a CMS with accurate and consistent product information via APIs.

The modularity of a headless commerce solution means retailers can continue to scale over time, meeting increased or changing demands with additional functionality that enables the brand to continue growing.

How fabric Commerce Platform Can End the Pain of Replatforming

Monolithic and non-modular e-commerce solutions can hamper your brand’s ability to grow and scale as it needs to. Continually replatforming to introduce necessary functionality or overcome technical challenges can increase your total cost of ownership and eat into revenue.

fabric Commerce Platform is a configurable and composable headless commerce solution. It empowers brands with the ability to rapidly deploy and scale unique brand experiences using a versatile management platform and powerful e-commerce APIs. Brands can leverage fabric PIM, fabric OMS, and fabric Offers to manage inventory, prices, promotions, and orders across all sales channels, helping end the pain of replatforming and future-proofing the opportunity to scale and grow efficiently.

Bradley Taylor

Tech advocate and writer @ fabric.

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