Headless

[Event Recap] Industry Experts on Headless Commerce Benefits and Trends

March 25, 2021

Headless ecommerce is steadily growing in popularity, but you wouldn’t be alone if you’ve wondered what it might mean for your online store. Which is why we invited three market leaders to share their first-hand experiences, and bust myths around the topic at our recent Headless Commerce, Explained webinar.

We hosted Nicole Murray from Avex Designs, Mark Shesser from Coldsmoke Creative, and Bryant Garvin from Groove Life. Each of whom have brought major brands like Purple, Undersun, and OneBlade headless. 

They shared the nitty-gritty of what it takes to decouple a storefront’s backend, the reasons why so many brands are looking to headless commerce now, and options you have for taking the leap. 

Here are a few themes that emerged in our chat, with added insight from other voices in the space. But before we dive in:

What does it mean to “go headless”?

Headless commerce consists of a few key elements:

  • The frontend: This is what shoppers see when they click through your store’s website (the layout, images, UX, sales copy, etc.). It’s also known as the presentation layer.
  • The backend: This is your Shopify or the ecommerce platform you use to run your store that keeps everything from inventory to payment processing working. 
  • APIs: Application Programmer Interfaces. This is the tech that allows the front and backend to work independently, yet communicate seamlessly.
Visual breakdown of how headless commerce architecture works

A headless ecommerce store means that these front and backend layers are separated. This architecture gives brands the freedom to customize their websites beyond the limits of third-party stock themes to create a truly unique customer experience.

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Why go headless?

As Nicole from Avex summed up on our panel, “There are many reasons to go headless, but if you’re on Shopify and your app list is a doom scroll, then maybe it’s time to make a change. If you need speed, performance, flexibility...then headless is a great option.”

She went on to explain that the swap to headless looks different for every brand, but once you’ve outgrown the basic turnkey solution (a traditional ecommerce platform alone), you may want to start thinking about the options decoupling opens up. 

Quote from Colin Darretta, CEO, Wellpath

Bryant Garvin, CMO at Groove Life, echoed this emphasizing that if brands want improved control over their website’s look and feel, decoupling is a great way to achieve the flexibility marketers crave:

Quote from Bryant Garvin, CMO, Groove Life

Others in the space agree, especially as brands scale to have advanced content management needs. As the Managing Director of commerce at Deloitte Digital shared with us:

Quote from Paul Do Foro, Managing Director of Commerce and Content, Deloitte Digital

Bryant went on to say that while bespoke themes helping brands with better designs are technically possible on traditional ecommerce platforms, the issue is that they often cripple site speed and require full-time frontend and backend developers. Not to mention platform updates that can cause things in the custom template to break. 

Instead he encouraged ecommerce directors to consider where they’re placing efforts: “Your web team should be focused on improving the customer experience,” Bryant said, “Not spending whole days keeping the wheels on the car.” 

On why their clients have chosen to go headless, Mark Shesser shared that brands like Undersun have viewed speed, time to market, and an elevated experience the new competitive advantage headless can give:

Quote from Mark Shesser, Founder at Coldsmoke Creative

Busting myths around headless commerce

One of the most upvoted questions during our event was: Why use Shopify if you’re only going to decouple it? Which happens to be one of the biggest headless myths. 

The myth that by going headless, you’ll depart from Shopify entirely simply isn’t reality—a move to headless isn’t a move away from Shopify or Magento, Salesforce Commerce Cloud, or whatever your existing backend. With headless, you gain flexibility while the two platforms work together in harmony. 

Our panelists shared that Shopify does a ton of work behind the scenes, including:

  • Order management
  • Inventory
  • Payment
  • PCI compliance
  • Fraud monitoring

As Nicole said: “Shopify is a service you need, unless you’re building it yourself...which you’d be crazy to do. Cutting out Shopify means you’re building a bespoke ecommerce site from scratch. Everything from a shopping cart to Apple Pay would have to be custom coded.”

Bryant mentioned a brand would need a whole floor of developers to build and manage such a system: “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “Shopify has a place, and that’s handling all the complex data behind the scenes so you don’t have to.”

Another common headless commerce myth is that it’s exceedingly complicated to go headless. In reality, while an initial effort is required, our panelists emphasised that you ultimately control the complexity of your headless build. Moreover, the payoff can bring long-term simplicity and ease-of-use to your website.

Quote from Lucas Walker, Founder at Rolled Up Podcast Network

While it’s natural to consider whether a swap to headless introduces complexity, changing your architecture via a bundled frontend-as-a-service (as opposed to an entirely bespoke approach) can actually make things much easier. Further, excellent agency partners can make things especially smooth. 

How fast is headless?

Every marketer knows the importance of having a fast page load time, especially if many of your customers order via mobile. A slow site makes for higher bounce rates and a decrease in sales. Going headless with a progressive web app (PWA), however, removes the issue of laggy app-bloat and supercharges ecommerce site page-to-page time because of the way a PWA progressively loads pages.

Quote from Nicole Murray, Project Manager at Avex Designs

Headless is great for speed, but it’s also great for achieving the custom store experience you want with third-party solutions (without your Shopify app list becoming that dreaded doom scroll). As Chris Young shares:

Quote from Chris Young, CEO, Circumference

Nicole offered up OneBlade as a great example of a headless ecommerce site she’s worked on. “They had subscription options, non-subscriptions, variations.” She went on to say that changes that would’ve been complicated to do in traditional ecommerce platforms became possible in under an hour with the help of headless coders and a decoupled architecture.

OneBlade's new headless commerce site

Deciding to take the plunge

Bryant Garvin’s company Groove Life worked with an agency to handle headless migration, as they had a custom Shopify theme and wanted to keep all the features when they migrated. 

“Depending on how custom your site is, the costs go up. It all depends on the type of business that you’re running,” he said.

Nicole emphasized the importance of planning. “When going headless, you have to think out the whole experience from front to back and create a unique experience for your customer. It’s vital not to take anything for granted,” she said.

Overall, when migrating to headless, it’s important to have a solid plan. Our panel of experts said discovery meetings and good partners on both sides of the process were key to their successful headless transitions. 

Launch with a QA crew

Launching a headless site requires some care and consideration. Bryant and his team at Groove Life tackled launching their new headless site slowly and carefully and did a lot of production in house, testing subdomains and traffic.

“Eventually you have to pull the trigger,” he said, “Be aware: it’ll take time. You need post-launch resources to stabilize any hiccups.” 

He also recommended trying a soft launch with power users (like they did with a private Facebook group of their best customers). This way you can get constructive feedback from customers who weren’t going to be put-off by any potential bugs you’ll work out in the transition.

Headless, explained

Overall, going headless doesn’t have to be for everyone. It is a great path, however, for brands that are:

  • Looking to create a unique customer experience that’ll make them stand out
  • Worried conversion rates are being hit by sluggish page loading times (especially if you have many customers who use mobile or tablet devices to shop)
  • Experiencing app bloat and the design limitations of a traditional ecommerce platform

If these sound familiar, going headless might be for you.

Quote from Chris Cantino, Partner at Color Invests

The main takeaway: Do your research, decide exactly what you want to offer your customers, work with a good team during and after the transition process, and then watch your site speed—and profits—take off. 


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