Headless commerce: A simple guide to an optimal setup!

Find out what a headless commerce is, and how this setup offers flexibility, rapid testing, and site control for ecommerce brands.
Headless commerce is a decoupled frontend and backend system, linked via APIs. Brands gain flexibility, customization, and agility from this set up. Find out everything you need to know about headless commerce.

In 2023, headless commerce is undoubtably the optimal technical set up for most ecommerce brands. In this article we will explore why this is the case, the fundamentals of this technical architecture, and the necessary components you will need.


What is headless commerce?

At its core, headless commerce represents a departure from the traditional tightly-coupled ecommerce frontend and backend systems. In this decoupled model, the frontend, responsible for the user interface, and the backend, comprising systems like ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), PIM (Product Information Management), and WMS (Warehouse Management System), are linked seamlessly through APIs (Application Programming Interfaces).

Image Source: Elasticpath


In essence, headless commerce liberates brands from the constraints of an integrated system, allowing them to develop, customize, and optimize each component independently.


This modular approach streamlines updates and empowers businesses to create unique and engaging user experiences.


Headless commerce vs. traditional commerce

Traditional commerce, often called monolithic, legacy, or all-in-one systems, reigned supreme in the ecommerce industry for over a decade. However, its era has ended, gracefully making way for the much more flexible headless approach.


To understand the distinctions between these two paradigms, let's look at the fundamental concepts behind each.


The monolithic approach

In traditional commerce, monolithic systems encompass all essential components within a single, tightly interconnected codebase. These systems handle various functions, including business logic, user interface (UI) presentation, content management, and more. This comprehensive nature is what earns them the name "all-in-one" systems.


Decoupling for agility

Headless commerce introduces a paradigm shift by strategically decoupling distinct units responsible for specific services. This decoupling involves segregating the frontend, which handles UI presentation, from the backend, which houses the business logic. 


Image Source: Dynamicyield


Furthermore, headless commerce extends beyond this divide, encompassing Content Management Systems (CMS) for content and integrating with third-party tools such as payment providers, analytics, and CRMs. The communication between these units is orchestrated seamlessly through Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).



Advantages of headless commerce

1. A completely customizable front end

In the traditional ecommerce setup, the design and layout of the storefront are often constrained by the limitations of the backend system. Headless commerce, however, breaks these barriers by offering brands the freedom to craft a frontend that perfectly aligns with their unique identity and customer preferences. This flexibility translates into enhanced user engagement and a more compelling online presence.


2. The ability to test quickly and implement

In the ever-evolving digital landscape, agility is paramount. Headless commerce enables brands to swiftly experiment with new features, designs, and user experiences without disrupting the backend operations. This iteration speed empowers brands to adapt to changing market trends, gather real-time user feedback, and implement enhancements promptly, thus fostering a competitive edge.


Skullcandy, a leading audio brand, provides an excellent illustration of this advantage. They  could rapidly experiment with different layouts, user interfaces, and features by implementing a headless architecture. 



Skullcandy adopted a hybrid strategy integrating a headless CMS for structuring and staging assets before content release by utilizing an open SaaS platform. The CMS's scheduling feature empowers the team to publish pages autonomously, even at night. This approach has expanded to other site areas and empowered Skullcandy to push creative boundaries, presenting its brand unrestrictedly.


3. Ownership of site architecture

A key advantage of headless commerce is the ownership it bestows upon brands over their site architecture. Unlike traditional systems, where the backend dictates the frontend's functionality, headless commerce allows businesses to design the optimal architecture that meets their specific requirements. This control provides more streamlined ecommerce operations and facilitates seamless scalability as the business grows.


Adopting a headless commerce strategy, Adidas, a renowned global sportswear giant, has enhanced the pace and responsiveness of its online shopping journey.



Employing a microservices framework, they adeptly manage surges in web traffic during product launches and peak shopping seasons, ensuring their website consistently maintains its swift and agile performance.


This strategic move has resonated positively with their customer base and propelled Adidas to maintain a leading edge in the fiercely competitive sportswear market. 


Components of a headless commerce architecture

Frontend architecture

The frontend of a headless commerce architecture plays a pivotal role in delivering an exceptional user experience. This component comprises two essential elements: a Content Management System (CMS) and a Frontend as a Service (FaaS).


1. Content management system (CMS)

The CMS forms the foundation of the frontend, enabling brands to manage and organize content effortlessly. Unlike traditional setups, where the CMS is intertwined with the backend, headless commerce separates the two, allowing brands to choose a CMS that aligns with their content strategy. Popular options like WordPress, Drupal, or even custom-built solutions can be seamlessly integrated, providing a user-friendly interface to create, edit, and optimize content.


2. Frontend as a service (FaaS)

The FaaS component handles the presentation layer, ensuring the user interface is visually appealing and highly responsive. This aspect of the architecture allows for the development of dynamic and interactive web experiences, facilitating smooth navigation and engaging interactions. The separation of the FaaS from the backend grants brands the liberty to experiment with cutting-edge technologies, optimize performance, and deliver a seamless user journey.


Backend architecture

While the frontend is responsible for user interaction, the backend architecture of headless commerce comprises several vital components.


1. ERP (Enterprise resource planning)

The ERP system forms the backbone of many business operations, managing critical processes such as inventory, order fulfillment, and customer data. In a headless commerce setup, the ERP seamlessly communicates with the frontend through APIs, enabling real-time updates and synchronization. This integration ensures that customer-facing interactions are informed by accurate and up-to-date backend information, enhancing the overall user experience.


Brands can use marketplace integration software, like ChannelEngine, to connect with a wide range of marketplaces and webshops with a single connection rather than having to build APIs to every sales channel. 


2. PIM (Product information management)

For brands with extensive product offerings, a PIM system is indispensable. It centralizes product information, streamlining the management of details like descriptions, images, and specifications. The PIM collaborates harmoniously with the frontend through API integration, ensuring consistent and accurate product displays across the digital storefront.


3. Ecommerce platform

The ecommerce platform serves as the transactional hub of the headless commerce architecture. This backend component facilitates online sales, order processing, and payment management. The ecommerce platform seamlessly communicates with the frontend through API interactions ensuring a unified and secure customer shopping experience. 


The ecommerce platform becomes active upon a customer's selection of products and initiation of the checkout process on the website. It performs tasks such as computing the overall cost, securely processing payments, and skillfully handling the complexities of inventory management and order fulfillment, all conducted discreetly in the background.


API integrations

At the heart of headless commerce is integrating various components through APIs. APIs enable seamless communication and data exchange between the front and backend and third-party services. This orchestration ensures that each element functions cohesively, offering users a consistent and fluid experience. 


Setting up API connections between every ecommerce system is a costly and time consuming undertaking. This is where integration software like ChannelEngine adds tremendous value. Rather than setting up and managing every connection yourself, you can manage it centrally from one simple dashboard. 



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