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What Is Headless Commerce (And Is It Right for Your Store?)

eCom and Marketing

July 9th, 2020

Headless Commerce Feature Image

Since the term began surfacing in eCommerce circles a few years ago, “headless commerce” has been growing in popularity. Today, major brands like Lancome and Michael Kors use headless architecture to run their eCommerce stores.

Even so, it’s still a relatively new concept--and as a result, many merchants struggle to determine if headless commerce is right for their store. In this article, we explain what headless commerce means, how it compares to traditional eCommerce and what questions to ask yourself when deciding if it's the right option for your online operation.

What is Headless Commerce?

Headless commerce is a type of website architecture that features a separated frontend and backend. This means that your frontend elements (like your storefront design and presentation) can run independently from your backend functionality (like shipping and fulfillment, analytics, customer data, and taxes).

Defining headless commerce graphic

It’s a simple but radical innovation: with headless commerce, merchants are free to update their customer-facing websites without backend code changes or system updates. The reverse is also true: Headless commerce also allows brands to update their backend systems without disrupting their frontend customer experience.

Headless Commerce vs. Traditional eCommerce

It’s helpful to compare headless commerce to traditional eCommerce to understand how powerful this decoupling between your frontend and backend is. Let’s take a look.

Traditional vs Headless image

Traditional eCommerce

Before headless commerce, there were only traditional eCommerce website solutions. A traditional eCommerce website is one complete system. The backend and frontend are rigidly connected and responsive to one another. This means that if you want to modernize your frontend for a mobile-first solution, you’ll have to change your entire backend, which often involves a risky and costly migration away from your current eCommerce platform.

Typically, traditional eCommerce websites feature a simple, templated frontend presentation. This templated website design isn’t often customizable beyond the original creation.

Traditional eCommerce is best for merchants who are primarily concerned with building out their initial eCommerce store. In other words, it's a good option if you are just starting out or if you aren’t initially focused on customization, conversion rate optimization and average order value.

Pros of Traditional eCommerce

Traditional eCommerce is often the choice for new or small online merchants because it can be set up by a beginner. Here are the traditional eCommerce advantages:

  • Easy Setup: Using an all-in-one platform, new merchants can get their store up with little knowledge of web development.

  • Less Financial Investment: Traditional eCommerce can be set up without custom features, which lowers the cost. Additionally, merchants can create their websites on their own, forgoing the cost of a website developer or designer.

Cons of Traditional eCommerce

As brands scale, traditional eCommerce can start to have its challenges. Here are the disadvantages of traditional eCommerce:

  • Slower Loading Speeds: The connected frontend and backend slow loading speeds, which has a negative impact on conversion rates.

  • Changes are Hard to Make: It takes time to make significant changes to a traditional eCommerce store because those changes must be made at every level. Note: By pairing your existing eCommerce platform with a headless Content Management System, merchandisers can more easily change content, drag and drop and build landing pages--all without developer resources required.

  • Jack of All Trades, Master of None: With traditional eCommerce, you aren’t able to combine different technologies to create an optimized store. Instead, you must stick with whatever technology is built into your platform. This “jack of all trades, master of none” approach can be very limiting to advanced merchants and web developers.

Headless Commerce

Remember that headless commerce is a split system: The frontend and backend are not connected directly, but they communicate when necessary through APIs. A headless commerce website is most valuable for the flexibility the split system provides. It allows developers to create custom websites that are tailored to brands’ needs at every level and provides the advantage of Progressive Web App technology (which decreases latency and increases conversion rates). Headless commerce is an exciting choice for established or rapidly growing brands that want to stay agile.

Pros of Headless Commerce

Merchants who are ready to scale will find the flexibility of headless commerce much better than the rigidity of traditional eCommerce. Here are the biggest advantages of headless commerce:

  • Customization is Easier: Headless commerce is built for customization, both at setup and over time. You can drag and drop to rearrange your store, change content on the fly, and build new landing pages--all without a developer.

  • Improved Customer Experience: Headless commerce opens the doors to a much-improved customer shopping experience. By going headless, merchants can take advantage of Progressive Web App technology which significantly reduces page load speed. In fact, it helped Ballsy increase their conversion rates by 28%.

  • Combine the Best Tech for an Optimized Website: Headless allows you to pull in tools that are best for your store and combine them into a seamless system. This means that you can build a store that’s tailored for exactly what your brand needs and works more efficiently than an all-in-one-platform.

Note: Nacelle takes a slightly different approach to headless commerce in that it isn't trying to replace your eCommerce platform, but rather works with it to offer you headless functionality.

Cons of Headless Commerce

The main disadvantages of headless commerce center around the advanced level of web development enterprise required, which can be a hindrance for some merchants. Let’s look more closely at the downsides of headless commerce:

  • Most Efficient for Large Retailers or Experienced Merchants: Headless is often best for larger, more established brands who have more products and either have an in-house development team or work with an agency partner. If you’re just starting off, stick to a traditional solution to maximize your flexibility. Smaller stores can use headless also, but it will likely require support from a knowledgeable partner.

  • Codebase is Inconsistent: The frontends of headless commerce stores are typically very custom. This means that you may become dependent on the developer who originally created it to make updates. And without a solution like Nacelle, the codebase can become fragmented making it difficult to maintain over time.

How to Know if Headless Commerce is Right for Your Store

As you’ve seen, headless commerce can be advantageous for many merchants. But, it’s not for everyone. Here’s how you’ll know if headless commerce is right for your store:

1. Are you Focused on Increasing Conversions?

Headless commerce opens the door to technology like Progressive Web Apps which significantly improve load times on your storefront. In turn, faster load times correlate with increases in conversion rates. Hubspot reported that even a one-second delay can reduce conversion rates by as much as 7%.

Hubspot's How Speed Affects Your Website Infographic

Source: Hubspot

2. Do You Want to be Mobile-first?

Mobile commerce is on the rise, doubling since 2015. Headless commerce with a solution like Nacelle has a consistent codebase that is mobile-first. This allows you to optimize your store for mobile shopping experiences while improving the desktop experience at the same time.

3. Do you Experience Traffic Spikes?

Headless commerce ensures that every page on your website can handle massive spikes in traffic--without slowing loading speeds. This is critical for brands that tend to see spikes around big shopping days (like Black Friday and Cyber Monday) as well as for influencer-driven brands wherein one tweet or post could quickly send a large amount of traffic to the brand’s website.

4. Are you Interested in Taking Advantage of Modern Tools?

With headless, you give your developers the opportunity to use new tools and techniques, like Git, Unit Testing, and CI/CD pipelines to deploy. These modern solutions increase stability in the codebase, ensure code collisions don't happen and decrease risk when deploying new sections of your storefront.

5. Do you Want to be Able to Change Your Storefront Without the Need of a Developer?

You can pair your headless commerce system with a headless Content Management System to allow your creative team to make changes to your storefront without the expertise of a developer.

6. Are you Planning to Scale Up?

Not only does headless commerce empower developers to use modern tools to ensure there are fewer errors and mistakes (which help them work faster), but headless also enables fast growth and agile scaling because it allows brands to:

  • Improve and streamline workflows

  • Improve data pipeline, which is a big factor if you are interested in analytics and BI tools

  • Handle more traffic with ease

  • Schedule pages to go live at a future time of choice

  • Build landing pages on the fly without a developer

  • Drag and drop to rearrange pages

  • Preview changes in a staging environment before publishing live

How Nacelle can Power Your Headless Commerce Solution

Nacelle amplifies the benefits of headless commerce while simplifying the work for your team. Here’s how:

  • Speeds up Loading Times 600-700x: Nacelle-powered stores see a 600-700% increase in loading speeds. This decrease in loading time increases conversion rates.

  • Makes Frontend Changes Easy (Without a Developer): Nacelle improves the workflows for your frontend teams. Teams can use Nacelle’s drag-and-drop templates to make seamless updates on the presentation, edit content, schedule posts ahead of time, and build landing pages--all without a developer’s help.

  • Integrates With 31 Leading eCommerce Tools: Nacelle makes it easy to take advantage of the most innovative tools for your store, such as Shopify Plus, Klaviyo, Yotpo, Recharge and more.

  • Can be Set up in Minutes: Nacelle’s headless theme can be implemented in 15 minutes. Nacelle customer Ballsy launched its entire website in just 22 business days and saw a 28% increase in conversion rate by improving their page load speed by 15.8 seconds.

Keep Your eCommerce Business Agile With Headless Commerce

For eCommerce merchants looking to scale, increase their conversion rates, and stay adaptable for the future, headless commerce is the most attractive solution. And going headless isn’t as daunting as you might think. With a user-friendly solution, you’re able to get all the benefits of headless commerce without confusion or time-intensive builds.

With Nacelle, the process of setting up and maintaining a headless commerce solution is easy. See how we can help you achieve a seamless transition to headless commerce: Request a demo today.

Photo of Kalah Siegel

Kalah Siegel

Content Marketing Manager

Kalah Siegel is Nacelle's in-house Content Marketing Manager. Her career has spanned both digital marketing and journalism. Her favorite part about her role at Nacelle is helping eCommerce brands better understand the innovation that's available to them through headless commerce.

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