[VIDEO] Understanding the Headless eCommerce Spectrum

March 3, 2020

Categories: Best Practices, Videos

As the term “headless eCommerce” is buzzing, enterprises are starting to see the importance of adding headless eCommerce technology to their tech stacks. And to respond to that demand, you’re seeing eCommerce vendors add “headless options” to their eCommerce platforms. 

We’re seeing a “headless eCommerce spectrum” arise.

Kayla Bryant, Marketing Director at Four51, and Rich Landa, Chief Product Officer, sat down to discuss the headless eCommerce spectrum, and what you should watch and listen for in the vendor selection space to sort out the best type of headless eCommerce platform for your business.

In case you need a refresher, how does Four51 define headless eCommerce:

Headless eCommerce platforms are characterized by the absence of the front-end user experience, or the “head.” You can think of the “head” in terms of any kind of user interface or experience. A vending machine can be the head. A desktop browser experience can be the head. Your apple watch can be the head.

>>> WATCH: [VIDEO] WHY HEADLESS ECOMMERCE?

Headless platforms have API’s that developers use to create custom (but separate and de-coupled) user interfaces. 

An API (Application Programming Interface) is a set of programming code that enables software programs to exchange data, and in some cases consume functionality from another application. APIs serve numerous purposes. Generally, they can simplify and speed up software development. Developers can add functionality (i.e., tax, shipping, payment processing) from other providers to existing solutions or build new applications using services by third-party providers.

But not all API’s are created equally. 

So when it comes to headless eCommerce platforms, significant confusion has been created as enterprises start to look at adding headless eCommerce technology (powered by APIs) to their tech stacks.

This has created confusion, as some of these headless options are built using traditional APIs while others are part of newer API-first platforms.

What’s the difference between traditional APIs and newer API-first platforms?

Traditional API’s are built around existing applications, primarily to exchange data with other third party integrations. These types of traditional API’s typically offer less customization flexibility because the API is restricted by the underlying platform core. In other words, the API does not allow access to the entire functionality of the underlying platform which limits the customization opportunities.

A common example of a traditional API is legacy software applications that were built to perform a function like an ecommerce site, for example. As those applications needed to add functionality or provide ways to exchange data, API’s were added to the existing application to enable that.

On the other side of the spectrum, you have true headless, API-first eCommerce platforms. API-first means the entire platform has been designed from the ground up to be consumed via APIs. This leads to a much larger customization opportunity, because you have access to virtually ALL of the functionality of the back-end code to create your front-end application.

It’s with these API-first platforms that you get a pure headless experience because you really can create and customize the entire user interface and user experience from the ground up.

What is the headless eCommerce spectrum?

When we talk about this “spectrum” of headless eCommerce solutions, it really starts with APIs. On one end of the spectrum you have API’s that have been added to a platform that can be called “headless” but can only enable front-ends with restricted functionality.  On the other end, you have true API-first platforms that are also called “headless” but they enable virtually unrestricted front-end customization.

the headless ecommerce spectrum

Even though some platforms call themselves “headless” you have to understand more about their API’s to know how much customization they allow.

The degree of customization you need should help you decide on the type of API to pursue. You can get customization with both types – traditional APIs and API-first platforms, but you should also weigh the amount of work it will take to get the customization you need. Using a platform that’s closer to the API-first end of the spectrum will result in faster project completion times and fewer workarounds than if you use a platform with a more traditional API.


Hopefully this helps people understand what to look for in the category of “headless” eCommerce platforms and API’s, and what the two mean for developing a custom user experience for your commerce solution.