Separate your product catalog from commerce.

A comprehensive guide to headless commerce.

What is headless commerce? Is it the right solution for your business? This guide will walk you through the benefits of headless commerce compared to the traditional one, highlighting the main differences between the two approaches, and showing how Commerce Layer can help you go headless and stay innovative, without pain.


Why this guide

In 2019, studies found that more than 227 million Americans shop online. The number of online shoppers was already expected to rise in the coming years before a global pandemic gave many consumers no choice but to shop for essentials, stream entertainment, donate holiday gifts, and more on the web. Online purchases of grocery items alone climbed by 40 percent in 2020. The industry has been a major disruptor in the midst of the pandemic, where many have had to rely solely on shopping online.

Managing the influx of online shoppers and standing out from the millions of ecommerce stores now on the web can be a complicated process. Designing an ecommerce interface to be faster on the backend and a beautiful experience for customers on the frontend is a constant struggle. Changes made to the backend can cause serious problems on the storefront, and vice versa. Maintaining mobile-first versions of a website is necessary to keep up with demand. Integrating payment platform capabilities, like PayPal or Apple Pay, requires extensive changes to the backend and may affect the layout of consumer-facing storefront pages. Having a variety of tools and applications, such as email marketing, payment processing, and targeted social media advertising operating at once can slow down your backend, causing slow load speeds that may drive customers away from your site and towards your competitors.

Adjusting for the growing number of online shoppers requires technology that allows stores to be responsive, user-friendly, and attractive in order to stand out among the millions of shops and marketplaces on the web. Headless commerce has developed as one such technology. In this guide, you’ll learn what headless commerce is, why it was developed, and how it can help you revolutionize your customers’ experience.

Chapter 1

What is headless commerce

What is headless commerce? Put simply, headless commerce is the practice of separating the frontend and backend of an ecommerce store. It offers a simple solution to the many limitations of traditional ecommerce. The frontend of the store becomes a presentation layer that can easily be edited, changed, and manipulated without requiring advanced coding skills or affecting the ecommerce solution on the backend powering the store. Products and content can be added to the site and changes to applications like payment processing methods can be tested independently of backend operations without affecting the live version of the site.

To achieve this separate interface, commerce APIs, or application programming interfaces, are used to create a bridge between the two halves of a site. The bridge creates a connection between a frontend application that controls what the customer sees and experiences and the backend infrastructure, which includes the technology for managing inventory, prices, checkouts, security and more. Thanks to this separation, website owners are no longer restricted to a set of templates for designing their storefront. This allows for greater creativity and flexibility in designing an attractive, responsive storefront that resonates with customers and meets their needs and expectations.

Headless commerce makes space for greater creativity and flexibility in designing an attractive, responsive storefront that resonates with customers and meets their needs and expectations.

While it may seem more complicated than traditional commerce, this approach is actually a streamlined way of handling an online store. Utilizing a headless commerce approach to an online store offers a number of benefits to businesses. Perhaps the biggest benefit is the chance to improve the customer experience, starting from the moment an online shopper arrives on your site.

The average web page visit lasts less than a minute. Making a positive impression on customers and avoiding any potential problems, like slow load speeds or a tough-to-navigate interface can help to keep shoppers on your site. A site utilizing a headless commerce approach can avoid many of these problems and make moves to improve customer satisfaction before a purchase is ever made. Because advanced coding is not required to make changes to an online store, these changes can be made more easily. It allows you to be instantly responsive to changes in the market, customer complaints, product recalls, or even changes in social expectations among customers, like a move away from certain styles or phrases. This is a sharp contrast to traditional ecommerce, where changes are often made to a site’s storefront in waves. With headless commerce, you can easily change the frontend without disturbing the backend.

It allows you to be instantly responsive to changes in the market, customer complaints, product recalls, or even changes in social expectations among customers.

While customers may enjoy shopping from many different brands, each brand has a unique client profile. Their customers share various interests and expectations, and they expect those from the brand at every stage of their relationship. These interests and expectations are also constantly changing, and if the brand wants to keep their client base, they must react to those changes. With a separate frontend, companies can control every element of the user experience. Changes can be made quickly and seamlessly to adjust how customers interact with the site to better align with expectations.

Finally, online shoppers are now accessing the internet from a wide variety of devices. Almost three decades ago, online customers shopped exclusively from desktop computers. Now, you can browse groceries or order clothing from your cellphone, tablet, TV, or even a smart home device like a Google Home or an Alexa-enabled refrigerator. But in order to accommodate customers using various devices, businesses must ensure their online store is optimized for them. This is a challenge with traditional ecommerce solutions because designers must account for responsive design across each type of device. Otherwise, certain elements of the online store may disappear or not display correctly on some devices, even if they are correct on other devices. In some cases, a version of an online store may need to be built by a developer for each device, which means an even bigger investment as well as more complications when it comes time to update or make changes to your store. With headless commerce, it’s easy to ensure every version of your online store looks great and is user-friendly, no matter which device your customers choose to shop from.

Now that we’ve answered the question, “what is headless commerce,” as well as how it benefits the customer experience, it’s time to learn what sets it apart from traditional commerce. To better understand why ecommerce is the clear choice for many businesses, it’s important to understand the history of the solution and how changes to the global market led to a demand for a new way of operating online stores.

Chapter 2

The history of headless commerce

The history of headless commerce is relatively new, though it has its roots in the natural shortcomings of traditional commerce. It has developed in recent years as an option for online retailers looking to gain more control over their user experience, as well as their storefront management.

To understand the history of headless commerce, you first need to understand how traditional commerce developed to what we recognize today. Traditional commerce has gone through a number of changes since it was first developed, each aimed at fixing some of its problems. But this design method’s limitations continue even after these changes, leading to the demand for a solution and the rise of headless commerce.

When ecommerce first became widely available to online shoppers in the early 2000s, companies utilized a monolithic ecommerce design. At the time, this structure was revolutionary, because ecommerce itself was still revolutionary. The frontend and backend of a website were completely intertwined. Even the slightest changes to the frontend of a site would require extensive work on the backend. This meant updates were slow to implement, and it took a lot of time to bring new products to the market. Development was not only time-consuming but also very expensive. Creating an ecommerce store was something only larger businesses were able to do because they had the resources it took to invest in professional web development and management. Despite the limitations of a monolithic ecommerce structure, some businesses continue to utilize this design, creating traditional, yet outdated websites with limited options for innovation. While these types of websites may be acceptable to certain audiences who are used to purchasing the same products over and over again in this way, younger consumers and those with a desire for a smoother online experience tend to find these sites clunky and unprofessional and perceive the brands as outdated and unchanging. The ability of these sites to expand their client base and target new markets is limited.

Businesses who were not satisfied with the many drawbacks of monolithic ecommerce designs sought more commerce-focused options, leading to what is called the commerce-led approach. This structure puts the ecommerce platform at the center of the business model. Any additional platforms or plugins a business wanted to use needed to be implemented from the ecommerce platform. The ecommerce platform is the customer-facing interface, which greatly limits customization and personalization options. Commerce-led websites are entirely focused on the ecommerce store, with few options for adding editorial content or other tools for marketing and building brand loyalty. Standard templates are often the only option for creating a storefront, while standard plugins and applications limit the ability of businesses to utilize new and emerging tools for marketing, customer retention, SEO and more.

Increased dependence on search engines and a desire to build authentic connections with customers led to the third phase of ecommerce, the content-led approach. Just as ecommerce was the focus of the previous phase, content became the focus at the stage. Rather than relying on an ecommerce platform, website owners now turned to content management systems to build their sites on. While this is a great approach for implementing SEO strategies and delivering content to customers, it limits the storefront capabilities even more. The store may be difficult to manage or appear unprofessional compared to other ecommerce options. At this phase, there are still limited options for customizing the user-experience beyond delivering curated content. In addition, some site owners may only offer content and want to become shoppable.

While each new step of the growth of ecommerce sought to fix problems associated with previous phases and adapted to new customer expectations, each relied on traditional commerce, which limited the creativity and responsiveness of websites. The backend and frontend of stores remained tied, making changes time-consuming and costly, and often causing interruptions to the shopping experience. Integrating an ecommerce store across platforms and channels remained a challenge.

The idea to break the strong tie between the back and frontend of an ecommerce store remains relatively new compared to the age of ecommerce itself. But in just a few short years, the new approach has revolutionized how businesses of all sizes implement and manage online stores. Headless commerce now allows businesses complete control over what the customer sees and how they interact with an online store. Changes can be rolled out seamlessly, without affecting the performance of the backend of the store.

Businesses implementing headless commerce now have complete control over what the customer sees and how they interact with an online store.

The history of headless commerce is still evolving, with developers continuing to find new ways to enhance the front and backend experiences separately. The result is websites becoming easier to manage, simple to make changes to, and ultra-responsive to evolving customer demands and expectations. While headless commerce may have developed as a response to the limitations of traditional commerce, the two remain separate approaches to ecommerce.

Chapter 3

Headless commerce vs traditional commerce: what's the difference?

Understanding the difference between headless commerce vs traditional commerce will help you better see why the former is the clear solution for modern ecommerce sites.

When you shop online today, it’s easy to forget the countless platforms and technologies behind every sale. Various applications and coding go into listing the products on a site’s storefront. Menus must be managed and products separated by sections or “departments.” These products may be linked to various other marketplaces and social media sites, as well as linked to individual, targeted advertisements, all with the aim of drawing in customers, increasing brand visibility, and landing a sale. When a customer makes a purchase, their personal information needs to be gathered, both in order to process the sale and to create a customer profile that can then be used for more targeted advertising and future sales. The payment itself must be processed, either as a credit card payment or through a connection with an outside payment platform like Apple Pay, Google Pay, or PayPal. After the sale, tracking information may be provided to increase customer satisfaction, often with a link to the tracking software of the shipping company a business uses. Information about the sale has to be transferred to warehouses or drop shippers so the item can be set aside, packaged, and sent. Inventory must be updated on the backend so the online store does not sell more of a product than a business has in stock. The purchase typically triggers a series of emails to the customer as well, both about their recent purchase and encouraging future ones.

To the customer, each of these actions occurs seamlessly, often in seconds. A customer can perform every function, from shopping for a product to making a purchase to paying for it within an online store, even though they are actually using many different platforms and technologies to do so. The reason they are able to do so is traditional commerce.

Early online retailers first developed methods for creating a virtual storefront mimicking what consumers expected from their favorite department stores. Products were arranged in rows alongside important information like prices and descriptions. While social media, web advertising, and tie-ins to marketplaces would come later, payment processing was an early development.

Over the next couple of decades, this method of ecommerce was perfected, going through the stages we mentioned above and becoming what we know consider traditional commerce. Today, the term “traditional commerce” refers to an online store with an interconnected frontend and backend. These stores are typically straightforward and classic in their approach, with products listed in sections and accessed through menus. The storefront rarely changes, because doing so requires extensive coding on the backend as well. Options for changing the storefront are limited and will come with an outage varying in length depending on the amount of work needing done to the backend. Changes are restricted to colors and font changes, new banners, or adding products.

While the traditional commerce approach creates site structures customers are likely to find familiar, they are far from groundbreaking. As the market continues to be overwhelmed with online shopping options, shoppers are now increasingly searching for unique, responsive websites, something traditional commerce technology simply cannot deliver. Traditional commerce sites are also difficult to implement. Once built, they may require months of training in order for employees to be able to manage their business’ site. Even then, a trained designer will still be required to implement advanced tasks. This means sites are slow to respond to market demands. By the time a change is rolled out in response to a trend, the trend may have passed.

As the market continues to be overwhelmed with online shopping options, shoppers are now increasingly searching for unique, responsive websites, something traditional commerce technology simply cannot deliver.

Headless commerce arose as a solution to the technical challenges of traditional commerce. Perhaps the biggest difference between headless commerce vs traditional commerce is the ability to quickly roll out changes, with little or no work required on the backend and no interruption to the customer experience.

Seeking a way to eliminate the advanced coding required to make even simple changes to a storefront and a desire to create customized, creative approaches to ecommerce, developers have created technology allowing the backend and frontend of a site to be separated. The backend handles and stores the content of the site, while the frontend acts separately, with content management, social media integration, and payment platforms managed here without a need to connect to the backend. The frontend and backend are tied by an API bridge, allowing them to work together without being fiercely interconnected as they are with traditional commerce. Retail storefronts can be fully customized to suit an organization’s customer base. Changes can be made with ease, and without advanced coding knowledge, which means employees no longer need extensive training to step in. Applications and plugins like payment processing options, mobile applications, reward programs, and more can be added to a site with ease, and without necessary outages.

The frontend and backend are tied by an API bridge, allowing them to work together without being fiercely interconnected as they are with traditional commerce.

Choosing between headless commerce vs traditional commerce depends on businesses’ needs, their customer’s expectations, and their resources. Traditional commerce may create storefronts familiar to consumers, but they are limited in their design and require a big investment both at the development stage and for managing the site. With limitations on frontend designs and a number of technical drawbacks, traditional commerce is too restrictive for businesses looking to stay responsive to customer demands and build a unique brand. Headless commerce offers greater flexibility in design and connecting with outside applications because it decouples the front and backend of a site.

Now that you understand the difference between headless commerce vs traditional commerce, let’s explore the specific benefits a business can enjoy when they make the switch.

Chapter 4

Benefits of headless commerce

Businesses seeking a way to customize their user experience and streamline how they manage and update their ecommerce site turn to headless commerce for the solution. The benefits of headless commerce impact the businesses utilizing it, the developers tasked with building backends, the employees responsible for managing frontend applications, and the customers experiencing a customized, responsive online shopping experience.

  • Omnichannel integration
    One of the benefits of headless commerce is it allows businesses to interact with customers and build brand loyalty through omnichannel retailing. For traditional retailers with brick-and-mortar stores as well as an online presence, omnichannel retail creates a seamless experience from in-person shopping to online purchases. Many stores utilize interactive displays where customers can shop products out of stock in the store or only available online. Online-only and brick-and-mortar retailers take this omnichannel trend one step further by integrating social media or the availability of products in online marketplaces into their sales strategies, in an effort to get their brands and products in front of consumers as many times as possible. Omnichannel integration is more than just an optional strategy; consumers have come to expect it. A study by the Harvard Business Review found 73 percent of consumers use multiple channels when they shop, as opposed to only shopping online or in-person. Just as traditional commerce limits businesses’ ability to create cross-platforms between a website and a mobile-friendly site or an application, it also limits the functionality of omnichannel technology.

  • Allows for integration of third party payment processing and marketplaces
    Many online marketplaces and applications now link directly to online stores. Consumers no longer exclusively visit a website in order to make a purchase from a brand or to submit their payment. For instance, a consumer may utilize Google’s shopping tab option to find and purchase a product. When they make a purchase, they may gravitate towards websites allowing them to utilize platforms like Google Pay, Apple Pay, or PayPal, as many of these offer advanced online purchase protection and make checkout a breeze. Headless commerce allows online stores to link to marketplaces and to accept alternative payment options beyond credit cards or gift cards.

  • Improves the customer experience
    While you’re opening up new channels of online and in-person shopping, headless commerce also allows you to create a more unique and creative experience for customers. Because a traditional ecommerce store requires a strict coupling of the front and backend, creativity is limited by what can be built in this way. A few standard templates are often the only options for the storefront. This makes it difficult to customize the user experience, resulting in cookie-cutter online stores. Headless commerce eliminates this problem by allowing for frontend development with unlimited creativity. The sky is the limit in terms of design and you can update and make changes to stay up-to-date with the latest customer trends and demands.

  • Creates a space for content management
    Besides creativity, another feature many traditional ecommerce stores lack is content beyond the storefront. Successful small businesses have turned to other content, like blogs, news, games and more to draw web surfers to their site and begin to introduce products. Influencer marketing is a growing trend helping businesses fulfill a consumer desire for authenticity and cashing in on the popularity of social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube. Search engine optimization, or SEO, can be implemented using a blog. Alongside real content, like advice columns, stories or news, blogs function as a tool for boosting search engine ranking and building a reputation as an authority in a field. Headless commerce makes it easy to add and edit the content on a site without affecting the functionality of the ecommerce transactional side.

  • Paves the way for faster load speeds
    Another of the benefits of headless commerce online stores can enjoy is faster load speeds. By separating frontend applications like content management, email marketing, and payment platform integration, the added strain of these functions is removed from the backend powering your site. As a result, site speeds are faster, which in turn aids in conversion rates and ensures nothing stands between your site and sales. Site speed will remain fast even when rolling out tweaks and upgrades to your site, because you can run tests on one part of your platform, such as your checkout process, without affecting the rest of your storefront.

  • Avoids the need for advanced coding or design skills
    With a separated backend, advanced coding is no longer necessary in order to make changes to the storefront. For the business, this means employees need less training in order to start accessing and updating an online store. Ecommerce platforms can be integrated and utilized, making it faster and easier to build and manage an online store. Brand changes can be made and content updated without needing to work with a skilled developer to make them. This eliminates many potential delays as well, allowing businesses to quickly roll out changes in response to customer demands or changes in the market. In times of social disruption or in the face of a product recall, the ability to make changes instantly can go a long way towards saving a brand’s reputation. Long-term, changes can be implemented and updates run without requiring a full, time-consuming, expensive redesign of your site, as well as the downtime that goes with it.

  • Allows for increased security
    Alongside expecting brands to be responsive to social issues, consumers also assume online stores are doing their part to protect their security. A single cybersecurity attack can result in stolen customer information and financial data that can cripple small, large, or even enterprise businesses and cause them to lose customer loyalty and trust instantly. Headless commerce offers a variety of options for increasing security. Besides the ability to roll out security updates quickly in response to threats or problems, it also allows for greater PCI compliance. PCI DSS, or The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard, is a set of requirements designed to ensure companies are correctly processing, transmitting, and storing the credit card information of its customers. Store owners will have more capabilities for inventory tracking, as well as fraud and threat management, allowing them to better protect their buyer data and purchases, ensuring a better client experience and improved customer satisfaction. With so many online stores and marketplaces to choose from, a lack of security or the ability to track their purchases is a red flag for most consumers.

  • Makes it easier to scale a business in the future
    Protecting customer security long-term is a necessary investment for any businesses looking to survive in the future. Staying responsive to online shopping trends and customer expectations of brands is as well. As your business grows, if you’re relying on traditional commerce, your website is unlikely to easily or seamlessly grow with it. With headless commerce, new and emerging platforms and technologies can be added with ease, allowing your online store to grow as you scale your business. This is especially helpful for things such as Black Friday or Cyber Monday where your team can be agile and easily make updates.


Commerce Layer, headless by design

Headless commerce is a modern alternative to the many restrictions and limitations of traditional commerce. As consumers increasingly turn to online shopping to meet their needs and choose to shop on a variety of devices, traditional commerce, with its tightly integrated front and backend, no longer meets the needs of modern shoppers. By separating the frontend and backend of a site, headless commerce allows businesses to gain greater control over the design of their ecommerce store, and with it, their customers’ experience. Changes can be made quickly and seamlessly, and platforms or plugins integrated without causing time-consuming, costly outages. And those changes can be implemented by employees without advanced coding experience, without the threat of creating problems on the backend of the site.

Commerce Layer makes it easier than ever to implement headless commerce on your own online store. With custom interfaces, omnichannel experiences, a unified market hub, a customer friendly API microservices architecture, and more, it makes creating a new website or implementing new features on an existing one a breeze.