What is Headless eCommerce? | Tech Terms to Know

September 15, 2020

Category: Best Practices

An ever-changing business landscape and constantly evolving customer demands is a key reason enterprises and software vendors alike are strangling the monolith and moving to headless eCommerce. But, what is headless eCommerce exactly? 

What is Headless eCommerce?

Simply put, headless eCommerce platforms have decoupled, or separated, the frontend user experience from the back-end business logic. This allows developers to use the eCommerce platform’s API to deliver the platform’s business logic (features, functionality, etc.) to whatever user experience they’d like.

You can think of the head in terms of any kind of user interface or experience. A vending machine can be a head. A desktop browser experience can be a head. A smartwatch can be a head. With headless eCommerce, you can update or change the head(s) without disrupting the backend 

Headless eCommerce

A quick refresher on software architecture: If you think about software as a “stack” of components, the top of the stack would be the user interface, or the part that the user interacts with (sometimes this is called the “front-end”).  The rest of the stack is where the software derives all of its functionality, like the business logic and the data model (sometimes this is called the “back-end’).  

So the “head” in “headless” is the user experience. You’re accessing that back-end functionality via API, and building any sort of “head”, or user interface, for both the buyer and the admin interface on top.

What are the Benefits of Headless eCommerce?

here are 5 key benefits.

1. Minimize the Total Cost of Ownership: 

Typically on-premise solutions are sold in the form of core-based licenses. This cost model often becomes a problem for scale. As you grow and more hardware is needed to handle that growth, you need to buy more licenses. Additionally, monolithic software vendors typically release new versions a few times a year, and typically these changes are fundamental to the core. So businesses wanting to take advantage of these upgrades need to constantly review and rewrite parts of their custom code to make sure it works with the new version.

Monolithic Platform to Headless eCommerce Platform

2. Gain Agility and Speed:

Monolithic architecture requires developers to work with many different layers. So accomplishing a seemingly simple task, like building a new, custom promotion and displaying it in the frontend user experience, often takes backend developers a few days to implement.

Because the frontend is completely separated from the backend on a headless eCommerce platform, changes to the frontend user experience can happen a lot more quickly and with a lot less risk to the backend code.

3. Integrate Efficiently and Effectively:

Unlike traditional, monolithic software, headless eCommerce platforms harness the power and agility of APIs to allow you to create a tech stack unique to your business. Headless, API-first platforms enable what’s called a “best-of-breed” technology strategy. Through integration, you’re able to create your own “virtual suite” of best-in-class software. 

The beauty of a best-of-breed approach is that you’re not relying on the capabilities of an all-in-one suite option. You can choose the best-of-the-best capabilities across the board so that your software does what you need it to do for your business. And you can switch applications out as your business needs change or as the software changes.

4. Easily Extend Ordering to New Channels, Devices, Customers, and more: 

With headless eCommerce, multiple frontends can be connected to the same backend. You can run and manage multiple user experiences across multiple devices without managing a mess of different systems – think wearable devices, IoT, vending machines, and more.

5. Improve Time-to-Value:

No matter the eCommerce platform, the back-end business logic, functionality, and capabilities comprise up to 85% of a software development process. With headless, you are starting from the point of completion which is allowing you to focus on the user experience and deliver a final solution for far less cost, time, and effort.

Why is Headless eCommerce Important?

When eCommerce first came about, the majority of traffic to websites came from desktop computers. As a result, the eCommerce platforms that sprung up were full-stack, monolithic architectures where the front-end and back-end were “prepackaged” and tightly tied together.

Overtime, the path to purchase has evolved far beyond simple desktop browser transactions to mobile, wearable technologies, IoT, etc. As buyers’ preferences continue to change, the ability to adapt and evolve the user experience requires the ability to control, add to, adjust, and change the user experience (aka the “heads”) more important than ever.

Headless eCommerce provides the customization capabilities, flexibility, and scalability needed to meet evolving customer needs in today’s B2B landscape. 


Looking for more information on headless eCommerce?

Here are 6 more resources to explore:

1. 5 Steps for Migrating from Monolithic eCommerce to Headless eCommerce: Four51 has helped many complex businesses migrate to modern, headless eCommerce and we’ve outlined how a typical migration project works with Four51 OrderCoud. 

2. What is MACH architecture? Understand the set of technology principles behind new best-of-breed technology platforms. MACH stands for microservices-based, API-first, cloud-native SaaS, and headless.

3.  5 Reasons to Migrate from Monolithic eCommerce to Headless eCommerce: Headless eCommerce platforms have quickly become the go-to solution for businesses…but why?

4.  The Spectrum of Headless eCommerce: With so many different definitions out there and so many different vendors to choose from, it’s difficult to decipher what headless eCommerce really means. Understanding the spectrum of headless options is important.

5.  Why Headless eCommerce : Why are research firms like Forrester claiming “headless” will become the default technology choice this year?

6.  With Headless eCommerce, MVPs are the New RFP: The way businesses decide how to buy new technology must evolve with the technology itself. Explore the case for requesting an MVP (minimum viable product) instead of an RFP (request for proposal) when vetting eCommerce vendors.

7.  5 Reasons CTOs are Choosing Headless eCommerce Infrastructure: Today’s CTOs understand that the pace of eCommerce and order management adoption is driving the need for enterprises to think ahead. Here are 5 reasons they’re opting for this more modern architecture.

Migrating your B2B eCommerce Experience from Monolithic to Headless eCommerce eBook

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