Is Headless Commerce Right for You? The Pros and Cons of Headless Commerce

September 18, 2019

Look around and you will see examples of interdependence everywhere.

A sweltering summer day causes too many ACs to run, overwhelming the power grid, resulting in an electricity outage. Solution: A back-up generator.

That big project, well documented and months in the making, is about to be revealed but a last minute change from a client stakeholder may mean starting over.  Solution: Agile approach.

The simple change you want to make to your ecommerce site means you need to also edit the database and code and reconfigure the front end. Solution: Headless commerce. 

An Introduction to Headless Commerce

Once a niche trend, headless commerce has become an increasingly popular approach. As the above examples point to the concept of interdependence, headless commerce is about separation and independence. The head (front end presentation layer) is separated from the body (back-end application layer). Why separation may be a good thing requires an understanding of why they were interdependent in the first place. 

In the early days of ecommerce, shopping was relatively simple. The majority of traffic was desktop oriented and as such, the platforms were created to be all-in-one. 

Fast forward to today. Who would have imagined that the shopping experience would expand to social feeds, multiple screens and to no screens at all with IoT? All these new customer touchpoints (heads) both contribute to and reflect the ever expanding landscape of ecommerce technology. And forcing these heads to work with a single platform is becoming increasingly difficult. Instead, headless commerce allows a retailer to separate the heads from the commerce functionality and pull in best of breed technologies.

Given all the amazing new possibilities for customer experience, migrating to headless commerce may seem like a no brainer. But be forewarned: we’ve seen many cautionary tales of companies diving into this new architecture without much consideration for the impact on time and money. Knowing the trade-offs in advance will help you determine whether this is right for your organization.

Headless Commerce: The Pros

Headless commerce delivers better customer experience and omnichannel shopping

In the age of the customer, it’s not enough to meet current customer expectations. Retailers must anticipate what those customers may want tomorrow, next month and next year. Being able to anticipate and experiment with these shopping scenarios can happen in a headless environment where retailers aren’t restricted by out-of-the box templates or themes. The vast range of customer touchpoints ranging from banner ads, social media, videos, wearables and voice can deliver a competitive advantage to forward looking retailers by meeting customers anywhere they are. 

Headless commerce enables customization and experimentation

Every new customer touchpoint will require customization, and in a traditional ecommerce environment, even the smallest customization on the front-end requires developers to edit multiple layers of coding between the front-end through the database layer that is buried in the back-end. In a headless commerce environment, design teams can create different user interfaces, experiment endlessly with the look and feel and run continuous test and optimization cycles to rapidly gage customer adoption and preference – all with no back-end changes. 

Headless commerce allows for flexible and faster integrations

In a traditional commerce environment, updates and integrations can take up to a few weeks. But in a headless commerce environment, integrations are API driven which enables data to be transferred quickly and seamlessly.  Software platforms like your CMS, CRM, marketing automation, ERPs and more can communicate directly with each other making integrations faster and more flexible.

Is Headless Commerce Right For You?

Headless Commerce: The Cons

Headless commerce can be costly

When you separate your front-end from your back-end, you now have two separate environments, each needing to be hosted and managed. That’s two times the cost, with no guarantee as to two times the traffic and conversion to support these costs. In addition to the monthly infrastructure costs, there are upfront costs to set up or migrate to a headless environment and ongoing costs to test and implement all the possibilities for new customer touchpoints.

Headless commerce creates customization but also more complexity

Instead of one interdependent platform and one “throat to choke”, you are now dealing with multiple vendors and technologies, each with their own set of bugs and security vulnerabilities and their own way to install, configure, troubleshoot and support. And all these headless independent projects taking place at the same time requires separate development teams, separate test cases, separate QA teams and lots of complexity. 

Headless commerce means the potential loss of native ecommerce functionality

Depending on your existing ecommerce platform, you may lose some native front-end functionality when you separate it from the back-end. Page building, previewing (WYSIWYG), and merchandising may no longer be available and you may be limited to what can be updated and/or edited without the risk of voiding a warranty or preventing any future upgrades.


What to ask yourself before moving forward with headless commerce

The decision to go headless will impact every part of your organization and requires a hard look at where you are today and where you want to go in the future. As a starting point, here are some questions for your organization to explore:

  1. What new customer-facing experiences are on your roadmap?
  2. What functionalities will you need to build these experiences?
  3. How sophisticated is your current e-commerce setup?
  4. How heavily invested are you in your current CMS?
  5. What are your current IT and development resources?
  6. How many systems are you currently running that would need to plug in to a headless environment?

The big investment required for headless commerce makes sense for some but will be overly ambitious for others. We advocate a roadmap-driven approach where the long-term possibilities for commerce are balanced against the revenue you need to generate in the short term.