What is Headless Commerce?

Headless Commerce is a common term for software architecture, in which the central assumption is separating the UI (frontend) from the business logic (backend). These two layers communicate with each other via API, but there are no strict dependencies between them.

This type of architecture opens up almost limitless possibilities in terms of customizations, speeds up time-to-market, and enables eCommerce brands to enrich and differentiate the customer experience. Long story short, headless commerce - providing a high level of flexibility - enables businesses to build the platform that meets their business needs while fulfilling customer expectations.

No wonder that this commerce solution is making a dizzying career nowadays. However, the media frenzy around the headless solutions might also cause some confusion.  

Let’s dive into details to dispel it.

Read more: What is headless architecture, and why is it the future of eCommerce solutions?
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The growing popularity of headless makes the issue a bit water down. It is often confused with microservices, composable commerce, packed business services, and MACH architecture. And -  truth to be said - no wonder, as all of them focus on API. Yes, headless emphasizes decoupling the frontend (client layer) from the backend system (business logic and data). It differs from microservices, but - in general - it is all about composing systems by putting together loosely coupled elements in a LEGO-like way.

‍It is not just "techie" stuff that only developers might be interested in. That architectural assumption opens up a way to various business benefits, conversion growth included.
Patrick Friday
CEO at Vue Storefront

What are the differences between Headless and Traditional Commerce Architecture?

“Headless” means with no frontend (aka. head), obviously, but to make all the benefit coming from this decapitation clear, we should rewind the tape a little bit and go back to the roots.

And, in the beginning, there were monoliths.

What are Monoliths ("All-in-One") Systems?

Monolithic architecture is relatively straightforward as it basically relies on providing all components needed for storing, managing, and publishing content on the web with a single codebase.

A decade ago, monoliths (aka. traditional commerce systems) were the only available option for eCommerce businesses, and no wonder they dominated the eCommerce landscape. Yet, it was not only because of a lack of better options. For years, monoliths were a legit choice with a convenient "all-in-one" approach. They relieved merchants from the need of digging through the internet in search of particular services such as payments, CMSs, or loyalty programs, as all were coming in one, neat bundle.

Why are eCommerce brands looking for alternatives to traditional eCommerce?

As the eCommerce industry accelerated, the convenient “all-in-one” approach represented by monolithic eCommerce platforms occurred to be a drawback.

Why? There at least a few reasons:

  • Legacy systems issues
  • Old-fashioned tech stack
  • Lack of agility
  • Dependencies from one provider

However, all of them can be reduced to one statement: traditional commerce platforms were simply incapable of keeping up with the industry’s pace growing at a breakneck pace. Technology, once mighty and omnipotent, started to fail.

Sellers must be capable of updates, upgrades, and optimized stores, constantly chasing the customer’s attention. It was never as difficult as it is now because - despite being offline almost all the time - our attention span is childlike short, and only the best possible experience has a chance to break our mindlessly net scrolling. ‍

Traditional commerce platforms, with their default, usually sluggish and sometimes slightly dull frontend layers, were just not enough, and customizing them was a risky process. Since the front end and the backend were one unit, every, even the most tin frontend update, could potentially interfere with the entire business’s stability. Merchants had to be very cautious, and cautiousness doomed them to follow the trends instead of setting them.

What brands switched to headless commerce platforms?

Headless for many years was a go-to direction reserved only for the Silicon Valley unicorns that were about to disrupt the old order. Their market positions (and let's say it out loud - financial possibilities) almost forced them to make bold decisions, and going headless was one of them back then. But, just take a glance at the household names below: clearly, it turned out to be a good choice.

Of course, we are far from giving headless platforms all credits, but they were undoubtedly one of the success factors.

  • Netflix was one of the first. When the components within its monolithic app were tightly connected, every, even the tiniest error, could lead to several days of downtime, which this VOD service can't afford.

  • Amazon is another example, and the reason is pretty evident given the scale of its operations. Long deployments and difficulties with adding new features would have slowed down the company’s growth, and that was not part of the plan.

  • For Uber, the monolithic app was just fine when the company was a local enterprise. Yet, similar to Amazon, it became a massive roadblock when scaling the business.

  • Zalando hit a similar ceiling. In 2010, the company switched from monoliths to speed up innovations and A/B testing, bringing the best conversion.

How does Headless Commerce work?

The heart and soul of headless platforms is an API that enables the delivery of properly optimized content stored at a backend to any desired touch points. Generally,  Headless Platform (backend) responsible for data storage “talks” (passing requests) with bodiless frontend (head) responsible for presenting them at the presentation layer via API.  

API is a “bridge” for data transferred between the backend and the frontend, which provides a presenting layer in a consistent and standard format across multiple channels.

What is API-first architecture?

API can be used to pull information to the desktop, mobile, wearables, smart cars, IoT (Internet of Things) devices, and so on, enabling merchants to go full omnichannel and secure their capacity for scaling the business.

What are microservices?  

Microservice architecture is based on the approach where IT systems are composed of collections of single services connected with lightweight protocols. Each service is responsible for a specified business feature, making them easier to understand and developed by autonomous teams.

Read moreWhat is microservices? 

What is Composable Commerce?

“Composable Commerce” tries to grasp the general business meaning of systems’ modularity. Gartner, who came up with that name, points out that “microservices” - even though used commonly to describe every modular system - do not align with the technical definition. Gartner decided then to focus on packaged business capabilities (PBCs) instead of services.

Read more: What is Composable Commerce? 

How Monoliths Systems stop your eCommerce from growing?

Monolith systems are too slow to keep up with the market needs. It was not a problem when the eCommerce industry was at its baby phase, remaining just a fraction of worldwide commerce. Now, when all rushed up, forcing brands to embrace digital sales fully, monoliths fail.

  • Slow pace of development

They were designed to be “all-in-one,” no to be extended or customized.

  • High risk of even the tiniest update

Every update can potentially interfere with the system’s stability. It is a no-brainer.

  • Time-consuming testing

Given the above risk, testing processes must be extensive and so - are time-consuming.

  • Limited control of user experience and user interface layer

Frontends coming with traditional systems are usually just themes with no or minimal customization possibilities, which occur to be a severe business drawback. With limited customizability, it is hard to answer ever-changing customer expectations effectively.

  • Dependency on one provider

Monoliths made by one vendor exclude the options. Merchants cannot easily replace particular elements within the systems for those which suit their needs better.  

What are the benefits of Headless Commerce Architecture?

The primary technical assumption of every headless commerce system is its API-first, combined with modular architecture. These features are the foundation of concrete business advantages.

Flexibility of a start-up

Headless Commerce architecture is meant to be customized and adjusted to current business needs. Thanks to the safe separation of units - adding new features or testing new services are free of the risk of interfering with the whole system.

They can be tested independently and added only when they work well. Merchants gain the freedom of composing their systems from best-of-breed services perfectly aligned with the scale of their businesses, local preferences of their customers, and current possibilities. They can switch from them at any time, too.

Cutted time-to-market

Development teams can develop, deploy, and scale the services independently of others. The entire system, but divided into parts, enables them to work at different speeds, not to mention it makes the new developer’s onboarding process more straightforward. Taking all of that into account, it is clear that adding new features is way faster within the headless commerce platform model than within monoliths.

Lower down IT costs

Separation of concerns implied another significant benefit, which is low - compared to monolithic architecture - costs. As mentioned above, IT teams can work separately without jeopardizing the system integrity. All of it means the cost of their work can be reduced.

Improving shopping experiences

It is also related to flexibility, but - considering the role user experience (UX) plays in increasing conversion rate - we think this benefit deserves to be stressed strongly. Customer expectations in the eCommerce business are not limited to attractive prices, so it is very tricky to fulfill them. Especially that, broadly understood shopping experiences are growing into crucial decision factors.

Technology that enables merchants to improve them is worth their weight in gold. A bodiless frontend connected with a headless platform allows merchants to freely manage user experiences, including checkout flow, loyalty programs, and content delivery.

Tailor-made eCommerce system

Headless platform as a foundation of eCommerce systems opens up a way to almost limitless possibilities to “design” their systems. Headless backend connected with bodiless frontend allows eCommerce teams to choose from best-of-breed commerce solutions and assemble them to tailor-made the system that answers the unique business demands.

Traditional eCommerce platform features are mostly pre-defined, and there are limited possibilities of adding or removing external services such as CMSs or checkouts. With a headless backend and bodiless frontend, brands can freely compose their system to service their businesses.

What are the use cases of Headless Commerce?

Commonly, going headless is considered as a way reserved for enterprise-scaled and digital-matured businesses with a particular amount of resources needed to proceed with the entire migration.

However, the truth is more nuanced, as the given API can be typically used as a whole or cherry-picked, and the migration can be done partially. It leads to financial advantages, as the processes can be conveniently and safely scheduled in time.

Modularity and extensibility were paramount for us. Not only did we have peace of mind that we can realize future requirements, but it also enabled us to launch changes to our users incrementally, running commercetools in parallel. Although this cautious and risk-averse approach may take a little longer, it results in a smoother roll-out with happy users whilst also minimizing the shock to internal operations – often compared to an open-heart surgery by our senior leadership.
Halil Koklu
CTO at LoveCrafts
Love Crafts
Love Crafts

Embracing complicated business logic with headless commerce

Switching to headless architecture requires some digital maturity level or the willingness to explore digital sales’ potential. Still, especially nowadays, many mid-size companies seem to fulfill these requirements. The popularity of headless commerce solutions, which started going beyond the tight circle of developers and CTOs, also helps.

The ecosystem of “headless-oriented” services is expanding, and they are more and more accessible and straightforward. It would be an exaggeration to compare it with the eCommerce SaaS-like situation, but there is no doubt that we are witnessing the armaments race. More and more brands are dying to win the title “headless standard,” and - despite the overall landscape can be a little bit foggy - this is great news for eCommerce businesses.

A few years ago, the only way to go headless was to code it from scratch. Now, there are various frameworks, builders, and even the whole cloud-based platform that can spare this necessity.

The particular reasons that spoke for moving forward from legacy monolithic systems (or at least for “chopping off” their heads and choosing the bodiless frontend) differ a lot due to unique business demands. It is tough to get the common denominator from every given use case.

Read the stories Vue Storefront's clients.

With Vue Storefront, there are no technological limitations. No matter what backend you are using currently, you are not doomed for the default frontend if it doesn’t suit your needs. Suppose you are looking for a way to increase site speed, improve customer experience, reshape user interface, and/or improve the marketing team’ experiences responsible for managing the content. In that case, Vue Storefront is at your service.
Filip Rakowski
CTO at Vue Storefront

What are Headless eCommerce Platforms worth considering?

Finding a truly API-first platform is not an easy task. Most of the providers already sensed the trend and put “API-first” on their banners, but their interpretation of being “headless” was sometimes far-fetched.

However, the situation is slowly clearing up, with the significant involvement of companies gathered in MACH Alliance.

MACH Alliance is a non-profit organization aimed to share knowledge of the benefits brought by vendor-neutral, modular software ecosystems, and one of its founders is commercetools. It is one of the few platforms that can be considered genuinely headless because, unlike competitors with the “headless claim” in their banner, it was genuinely built with the API-first and cloud-native approach in mind long before it became fashionable.

In 2020 Gartner, Forrester, and IDC MarketScape honored commercetools with a placement in the “Leaders Category” in their world-renowned industry reports.

commercetools are only truly API-first

commercetools developers didn't even bother building a downloadable piece of software. Instead, they created an entirely cloud-hosted eCommerce and powerful API. It enables users to access the platform without worrying about any infrastructure-related issues; it’s enough to create an account and then freely integrate your store with any third-party tools.

Many of our customers see surges in online sales, and we are working to help them be as fast, flexible, and responsive as this challenging situation requires, which is what our platform is built to do. While protecting colleagues and customers are primary goals, this is not the time to pull back on finding new ways to prepare a business for the months ahead and beyond this crisis.
Dirk Hoerig,
Co-Founder, and CEO at commercetools, said on PR Newswire.
Vue Storefront Board Members
Y Combinator-backed Vue Storefront aims to be the ‘glue’ for e-commerce
Read more at TechCrunch

When Headless Commerce started to be considered the best answer for the challenges that modern eCommerce brands must face, Vue Storefront was already in the middle with the commercial offer, buile on top the open-source version.

A full-blown Enterprise version of Vue Storefront is designed to be connected with commercetools and coveres its features out-of-the-box.

Now, there are two versions of Vue Storefront available:

Read more: Vue Storefront Open Source vs Vue Storefront Enterprise. What are the differences?

  • Enterprise - dedicated to businesses that use commercetools and are willing to invest in a more advanced front-end than the one that comes bundled.

  • Open Source - a frontend that can be easily placed on top of any headless  eCommerce platform

commercetools paired with Vue Storefront gives merchants more than just a backend and a frontend. This pairing opens up numerous possibilities for adding any services they desire. It doesn’t matter if the services you need are already available on the market (in this case, we provide native integrations) or services that you will build yourself.

Thanks to Vue Storefront’s API, both of these approaches are equally valid and possible. You can choose your own path freely and change it whenever the need arises.

Explore MACH Technology

As an API-first solution, Vue Storefront is a perfect fit for any headless commerce platform.

We are part of MACH Alliance, the community of tech vendors and software providers advocating Microservices, API-First, Cloud-Native and Headless approach.

Read more in our guide
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