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What is Headless eCommerce?

August 8, 2022
Imagine you owned a brick-and-mortar location where every time you wanted to update a single display shelf, you had to gut and rebuild the whole aisle, if not the entire storefront. That setup would be enormously inconvenient, and you’d actually be disincentivized against ever making changes. That simply doesn’t work—not for physical locations or eCommerce. Changes and flexibility are necessary to keep pace in today’s hypercompetitive eCommerce world. Launching apps and new front ends, emerging trends, revenue streams, omnichannel marketing opportunities, and more all necessitate adaptive operations that can be modified on-the-fly. But the tools you use today may not be the best ones for tomorrow, particularly for scaling businesses adding new services. So, how can you create an eCommerce website and management platform that remains future-proof, easily modified, and ever-responsive to all devices? Headless eCommerce architecture is your answer.

Defining Headless eCommerce

You may have heard the term used recently, but many digital storefront operators still find themselves asking, “What is headless eCommerce?” It refers to a specific type of site architecture where your visitor-facing front end and management-facing back end are decoupled from each other.

You can think of this design and development style as modular construction. Your website and its presentation become more of a container framework, and every container functions without (automatically) impacting the operation of others.

To achieve this, each container relies on API communication protocols rather than hardcoding or permanent relational links.

As each container loads for site visitors, its contents are retrieved from the back end; what’s coded into the containers and APIs leveraged in headless eCommerce is, effectively, where to pull from and not what to pull specifically.

Because of this configuration, you can build new frameworks and manage each container’s contents—the what—separately from other front-end presentations and without affecting your back-end environment.

What are RESTful API Methods?

RESTful APIs enable headless architecture. This is because the modular container framework for headless eCommerce relies on retrieving the container’s contents when site visitors load new pages.

RESTful application programming interfaces (APIs) provide that retrieval protocol, relying on HTTP methods that act as commands.

Why You Should Decouple Frontends and Backends—Site Performance

Building a responsive website that loads on any device with coupled architecture requires all of that logic (e.g., what to load, how to load it) exists in one place and is executed every single time.

And that bloats the coding such that your site’s loading and performance speeds suffer significantly.

In contrast, headless eCommerce architecture allows you to build separate and lightweight front ends. Depending on your customers’ device, your headless architecture will recognize which should be loaded and call for that specific version—no other coding needs to be executed.

The same information and customer experience can be delivered across every device-specific front end, but they’ll each be loaded and perform with substantially increased speed.

Progressive Web Apps (PWAs)

Progressive web apps (PWA) provide another lightweight solution for building a multi-device storefront, but they aren’t quite the same as completely headless architecture despite most people considering them synonymous.

PWAs operate much like native apps, but customers can either navigate to them within their web browser—simplifying access—or install them on their device. As a hybrid between native apps and web pages, they also retain optimal performance even with low internet connectivity.

A PWA app is:

  • Discoverable
  • Linkable
  • Installable
  • Compatible with old and new browsers (i.e., progressively enhanced)
  • Operable regardless of internet connectivity
  • Can send push notifications for re-engagement
  • Responsively designed for consistent operation and performance across all devices

Although PWAs are distinct from headless architecture, developing one will help you achieve effectively the same result when it comes to the customer’s experience. For many eCommerce businesses, a PWA is a quicker—if less comprehensive—solution.

Headless eCommerce Architecture for Easier Management

Crucially, headless architecture also means that the content and eCommerce tools within each front-end container can be updated or swapped out entirely at will. It provides optimal management and planning flexibility. When your operational needs, strategy, or resources change, a headless eCommerce site will always support your ability to adapt accordingly.

For example, when your customers proceed to their cart for checkout, your website’s front end doesn’t include coding for which payment fields to display but instead for a container. That container loads your chosen payment gateway, and what the user sees is based on its back-end configuration. You can easily change how the container is displayed or the rest of the page on the front end without affecting your payment gateway’s operation. Likewise, you can also adjust its configuration on the back end without affecting how it’s displayed.

Today, sites built on platforms like Adobe Commerce / Magento are (or support) this decoupled style of operation. Many digital storefront operators leverage that as a crucial competitive advantage. If you’re looking for how to get into eCommerce, you’ll want to prioritize a headless approach from the start.

Leveraging SaaS and Modular Tools with Headless Architecture

There are so many diverse capabilities that eCommerce sites need to leverage to remain competitive. But most of them are now offered as software-as-a-service (SaaS) products from specialized third-party providers, ready to be integrated via APIs. It’s become unimaginable for many industries to operate without the SaaS delivery model; eCommerce is no exception.

The introduction of these SaaS solutions and tools to eCommerce has been the critical driver of headless architecture. Consider some of the essential eCommerce tools many sites rely on:

  • Payment gateways for processing card payments
  • Review tools for showing customer confidence
  • Product recommendations for cross- and upselling
  • Live chat or chatbots for support
  • Omnichannel marketing platforms (e.g., email, social media)
  • Customer data platforms for developing strategies and real-time actions
  • ERP systems for overseeing customer relationships, inventory, content, and more

With a monolithic site, each of the above would need to be custom-built for your site. For example, you wouldn’t be able to go to Adobe Marketplace to purchase, add, and configure functions within minutes. Instead, the process would involve extensive scoping, development, and testing that would balloon the cost well beyond a recoverable investment for all but the largest online retailers.

Monolithic sites are too much of a hindrance in today’s eCommerce landscape. Conversely, headless architecture provides operators with a sturdy platform supporting modular components that can be interchanged or removed without collapsing the rest.

Headless Advantages Simplified Management, Responsive Design, and Scalability

The advantages of headless eCommerce are particularly impactful for management efforts, uniform site presentation on any device, and resource scaling due to the inherent flexibility.

Examining these advantages more thoroughly, it’s clear to see how essential headless architecture is for competing within today’s eCommerce world. It provides:

  • Faster site builds and performance – When frontends and backends remain tightly coupled with monolithic architecture, generating the former always necessitates fully building out the latter. The extensive development work required to accommodate responsive design exponentially raises costs and time-to-launch—but still delivers a slowly performing site that must load all coding and logic regardless of whether it’s needed for a given customer’s experience.
  • Simplified management – When the solutions, tools, and other resources within your eCommerce system are managed without impacting each other, there is far less risk that incompatible adjustments (or mistakes) will impact your entire site than with monolithic architecture. Furthermore, front-end, back-end, and even non-technical personnel can be responsible for simplified management tasks specific to one resource or the responsibility of exchanging it for another.
  • Responsive design – Responsive design means your website will load properly on any device (e.g., laptop, smartphone). With a monolithic architecture, one version of your site loads the same across all devices, even if the result is a clunky user experience. A container framework’s layout is easily adjusted to seamlessly accommodate any screen size, supporting a consistent omnichannel experience.
  • Scalability – Some of the eCommerce solutions you utilize today may not be the best ones for your business as it scales. With headless architecture’s modular framework, swapping the resources and functionality that load within each container becomes a frictionless process that doesn’t affect other site operations or require extensive development work for even the most minor edits.

Go Headless with DotcomWeavers

Headless architecture is a necessity for competitive eCommerce brands. Fortunately, platforms like Adobe Commerce / Magento enable digital storefronts to adopt a headless approach.

However, many API integrations to ERP solutions and other eCommerce tools don’t function precisely how you want them to, communicate the datasets you need, or communicate them on an ideal schedule. That’s where custom work still comes in handy.

At DotcomWeavers, our team of officially recognized Adobe Commerce / Magento experts has a decade and a half of custom development experience with the industry’s best platform. We’ll build the custom APIs your eCommerce ecosystem needs to thrive—streamlining back-end management and polishing front-end presentation. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation and learn more!

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