Everything You Need to Know About Headless Commerce in 2020

It can be difficult for online stores to find a platform that offers everything they need. 

A content management system (CMS) like WordPress or Drupal offers a high degree of customization, which is ideal for developing unique content and creating an engaging experience for your users. 

But a CMS can be limited when it comes to ecommerce functionality. For example, WordPress doesn’t have any native ecommerce features, and the ecommerce plugins available for WordPress often have performance and security issues. 

Ecommerce platforms such as Shopify and BigCommerce are a much better option for payment processing and order management. But while the backend provided by an ecommerce platform is strong, the frontend is less flexible than what you get with a CMS. There just aren’t as many options for customizing your content.

Enter headless commerce.

What is Headless Commerce and Who’s Using It?

Headless commerce is the decoupling the frontend of your store from the backend. That way, you can take advantage of a flexible CMS for your user interface while still using a powerful ecommerce platform for your backend processes (PCI compliance, checkout security, fraud protection, etc.). It’s the best of both worlds. 

A traditional versus headless commerce approach
Image source: BigCommerce

Walmart, Nike and Starbucks, as well as countless smaller stores, now use headless commerce. The top ecommerce platforms are clearly aware that this is a growing trend, as they’ve made a big investment in facilitating headless versions of their platforms. 

BigCommerce has developed plugins for WordPress, Drupal and several other CMSs that make it easy to connect a BigCommerce store to a separate frontend solution. And even if there’s no BigCommerce plugin for your particular frontend solution, you can still use BigCommerce’s sophisticated APIs to attach a BigCommerce backend to your site.

Shopify has also developed APIs for headless commerce. Additionally, Salesforce recently released tools that allow developers to work in a headless system on its Commerce Cloud platform.

The Benefits of Headless Commerce

We mentioned that many online stores use headless commerce because it allows them to be more creative with their content. But why would they want to do that, exactly? What makes the content on your store so important?

One issue is that paid advertising is getting more expensive. The rates on Google and Facebook have risen significantly in recent years, which means that online stores are getting less of a return on their investment in advertising on these platforms. 

From a bottom line perspective, it now makes sense to invest a large share of the money you were using for paid advertising into improving the user experience of your website. With the right content, you can accomplish many of the goals you generally target with paid advertising: showing off the most impressive features of your products, highlighting positive reviews and testimonials from authorities in your industry, etc.

Amazon and Ecommerce

Another issue that leads to online stores using headless commerce is Amazon. For many stores, the sales they generate as a third-party seller on Amazon make up most of their revenue. 

But Amazon has shown that it doesn’t just want to be a marketplace for other businesses — the company has been working hard to cut out the middleman and produce its own products to sell on its platform. AmazonBasics products are among the best sellers in 22 out of the 51 main categories on Amazon. 

Amazon has many other private brands as well, including Amazon Essentials (clothing), Amazon Elements (baby wipes, diapers, vitamins and supplements) and 365 (the Whole Foods store brand, which was acquired by Amazon in 2017). The mere presence of these brands on Amazon would add competition and make life more difficult for third-party sellers. But the real issue is that Amazon promotes its own products over others, even when a customer is just a couple clicks away from buying products from a third-party seller. 

You can expect Amazon to continue ramping up its own brands and crowding out third-party sellers. If the existence of your business currently depends on Amazon, you should think about transitioning to a more independent business model sooner rather than later; you may not be able to support your business on Amazon for long.

Headless commerce allows you to be more independent. With high-end content and a frictionless user experience, you can use your own site to impress new customers and keep your existing customers coming back for more. 

Make Your Team More Efficient With Headless Commerce

In a traditional ecommerce setup that has the frontend and backend connected, your frontend web designers and content creators are forced to closely collaborate with your backend developers.

This arrangement often leads to projects being delayed, as one end may need to wait for the other to finish something before they can continue on a particular task. 

But with headless commerce, your frontend team and backend team can do all their work separately. You’ll be able to avoid delays and quickly complete your projects.

This is important in ecommerce, as there are more stores on the internet than ever before (as of 2019, there are 5.6 million online stores globally). With that much competition, it takes a lot to stand out. 

How can you confirm that a certain piece of sales copy, page design or any other frontend change will improve user experience? There’s no way to know for sure until you try it out and see what happens. And the more changes you test, the more likely you are to discover ways to successfully improve your site.

Headless commerce will make your team efficient enough to keep trying out new ideas until you develop a better user experience than all your competitors.

Headless Commerce in Action

At this point, you may be wondering what exactly headless commerce can do for you in terms of your conversion rate, sales revenue and other objective measures. 

Thankfully, Shopify recently published a case study that sheds some light on this area. 

Babylist is an online service that allows expecting parents to create registries. Then, friends and family can use the parent’s registry to buy them gifts. 

There was no ecommerce platform that allowed Babylist to effectively serve both of its user types (parents creating registries and friends/family buying them gifts). So, the company made its own ecommerce infrastructure from scratch. 

This worked well for a while, but when Babylist started to scale up it ran into issues. For example, when the service expanded into all 50 states, the team had to write thousands of lines of code for tax calculations and fulfillment integrations. 

Babylist decided to go headless and plug in Shopify Plus for its checkout process and order management — this provided the company with more bandwidth to use on improving its frontend user interface. 

Babylist headless infrastructure
Image source: Shopify

After the transition to headless commerce, Babylist recorded the following improvements over the year of 2019:

  • The number of gifts given through the platform increased by 102%
  • Order volume increased by 145%
  • Monthly iOS app checkouts increased by 300%

By using headless commerce for your online store, you may very well be able to achieve similar success. 

Adam Ritchie is a writer based in Silver Spring, Maryland. He writes about ecommerce trends and best practices for Shogun. His previous clients include Groupon, Clutch and New Theory.