Member Exclusive   //   February 19, 2021

Unpacked: Everything retailers need to know about headless commerce

As e-commerce has grown into a bigger industry, brands now have more ways to build their online stores than ever before.

One type of e-commerce architecture that’s become increasingly talked about is headless commerce. At its most basic level, headless commerce means that the architecture for the front-end of the website is decoupled from the back-end, which gives companies more control over how their website looks and runs.

In recent months, a number of startups that have created turnkey solutions to help e-commerce companies go headless have raised a significant amount of venture capital money. These startups include Fabric, which announced it had raised a $43 million venture round earlier in February, and Nacelle, which raised $18 million in funding.

But a headless solution also comes with the potential for more headaches — the developers that Modern Retail spoke with said that headless commerce makes the most sense for companies that have a tech team in-house.

“You innately become somewhat of a technology company when you’re operating headless,” said Patrick Johnson, CEO of Progress Labs. Johnson, whose firm has built websites for DTC brands like Andie and Haus, said that he thinks “there’s absolutely value in headless.” But, he added that his firm “offers headless as an option on most of our proposals, and we have yet to have a client take us up on it,” because of the technical complexity involved.

Read on for more about what exactly headless commerce systems entail, and what companies should consider before deciding whether or not it’s right for them.

What is headless commerce? 

Typically on e-commerce platforms like Shopify, the back-end of a website — which includes parts like an order management system — is directly tied to the front-end, or what the customer sees on the website.

“Right now, on a normal Shopify store, when you go to it, there is a backend, and then the backend is generating a bunch of HTML — and that’s the website,” said Mark William Lewis, founder and chief technology officer e-commerce development and design firm Netalico.

But with a headless commerce system, because the front-end and the back-end are decoupled, the front-end server only needs to request the information needed to run a particular page from the back-end server. For a product detail page, that might include, “the title of the product, the image, the price,” Lewis said.

That’s partly why websites that run on a headless commerce stack can run faster, which according to evangelists, is one of the biggest benefits of going headless. And, the fact that the brand has total control over how their website looks and runs.

“When doing this through a platform like Shopify, I would argue you have probably an 80% to 95% control,” he added. That’s because while Shopify might give companies tools to customize what photos appear on their website or what font they use, companies that use it are still operating within the confines Shopify has drawn up — for example, they have to use Shopify’s checkout flow.

What do companies need to consider before going headless? 

One of the most frequently cited benefits of headless commerce is that it enables pages to run faster. According to both Lewis and Johnson, headless commerce can enable websites and pages pages to run more quickly — but it’s not a given. “Where there is an asterisk here is if there is poorly written code, it’s not going to go that fast,” said Johnson, comparing the maintenance of a headless commerce stack to a maintenance of a car.

Because headless commerce systems are entirely custom, many companies that go headless either have a dedicated engineering team in-house, or work closely with an agency that can constantly be making sure the website is up-to-date.

Additionally, for companies that go headless, it can be more challenging to integrate third-party applications to their website that were built within the Shopify ecosystem. For a company that uses a headless commerce system, “the integrations are going to take some amount of custom development time,” said Lewis, because the website wasn’t built using the coding language that an app that primarily works with Shopify merchants expects.

Lastly, Johnson also advises that companies “figure out their data analytics,” before moving to a headless commerce stack, if they’ve been relying on Shopify’s analytics dashboard to get data like page views or how many customers add a particular item to their cart. 

Are there certain types of companies that are a better fit for headless? 

Johnson said that companies that do at least $10 million to $20 million annually in revenue, are “in a good position to consider headless.” That doesn’t necessarily mean they should move to a headless commerce stack, but that they might be big enough to make the necessary investments to support it. 

Generally speaking, it can be more expensive to implement a headless commerce system than a website that runs solely on Shopify, though the costs can vary wildly. Lewis said that for his firm, a Shopify custom build starts at around $25,000 and runs up to maybe $50,000, while for a headless commerce build “we are really talking more about starting around $50,000, because everything that you’re doing is totally custom.” The costs of running a headless commerce stack also depends on how many software developers a company would want to hire to maintain it.

Johnson said that he thinks companies may want to consider a headless commerce solution if they have a business model that a “platform like Shopify out-of-the-box cannot support.” For example, if their products require a very customized purchasing flow — Johnson gave the example of a butcher brand where a customer decide what cuts of meat to add to a subscription box. Or, if a company has a big international business, a headless commerce system might more easily allow them to customize how different web pages look to customers in a certain country.

Lewis, for his part said, “I would say still at this point if you are considering headless — reconsider it,” unless the company has a very specific reason for adopting a headless commerce stack, beyond just wanting a faster-running website.

I do think headless commerce will be the way of the future — I think it’s in the nascent stages right now,” said Johnson.