Oct 15, 2023

Headless commerce: A comprehensive guide

headless commerce on Shopify
headless commerce on Shopify

Instant Team

Headless commerce: A comprehensive guide

Going headless or adopting a headless site architecture has been gaining popularity for eCommerce brands.

Unlike traditional eCommerce models, headless commerce separates the front-end user experience from the back-end data management, offering unprecedented flexibility and personalization opportunities. 

This architectural shift enhances the user experience and aligns with the evolving technological landscape, making businesses more agile and adaptable. 

But is headless commerce right for your business? 

This headless commerce guide will explain the ins and outs of headless architecture, its benefits, practical applications, alternatives, and the impact of headless commerce on both businesses and consumers.

What is headless commerce?

The term headless commerce might sound a bit abstract. Luckily, it’s much simpler than it sounds; let’s break it down. 

Definition of headless commerce

Headless commerce, stripped to its core, is an eCommerce model that decouples the front-end presentation layer from the back-end functionality. 

Think of it as splitting the 'head' (everything your customer sees and interacts with on your website or app) from the 'body' (the heavy lifting of data management and complex operations behind the scenes). 

It's like having a shop display window independent of the warehouse.

In a traditional eCommerce setup, both these elements are intertwined within the same system. However, in a headless commerce model, the front-end presentation layer receives data from the back-end via APIs. This separation leads to a swifter, more responsive, and personalized shopping experience.

How headless commerce works

The backend of an eCommerce brand acts as its operational core, handling order fulfillment, inventory management, credit card information storage, and product detail updates. Meanwhile, the front end is the customer-facing aspect, the interface users see and interact with.

In a headless commerce architecture, the front and back end are distinct entities, allowing integration with top-tier tools. 

Examples include headless content management systems (CMS) such as Storyblok, Contentful, and Contentstack, customer relationship management (CRM) systems like Salesforce, and other tools like Algolia.

The back and front-end communication occurs through APIs (Application Programming Interfaces), which facilitate data exchange between different software products. For instance, APIs enable interaction between your Shopify backend and the front end.

Customers engage exclusively with the front end, remaining oblivious to backend operations. To illustrate how this functions in practice:

  1. A customer visits your eCommerce site. The front end loads in their web browser, fetching product details from the Shopify backend via an API.

  2. Upon making a purchase, the front end sends a request to the backend through an API.

  3. The backend processes this request and communicates back to the front end, confirming the successful completion of the purchase.

headless commerce shopping process

Key features of headless commerce

Headless commerce offers a lot of possibilities for ecommerce brands: 

  1. Omnichannel ready: With the help of APIs, the same backend can power multiple front-end applications. Whether it's a mobile app or an in-store kiosk, your business can offer a consistent brand experience across multiple platforms.

  2. Future-proof: As technologies advance, your business will need to adapt. Luckily, headless commerce is technology-agnostic. Hence, you have the flexibility to update the front end without worrying about backend disruptions, ensuring your business is always prepared for the future.

  3. Scalability: The decoupled nature of headless commerce offers better scalability. It allows the back and front end to scale independently, dynamically supporting your business's growth.

Now that you understand the key features of headless commerce, we can dive into the potential benefits of going headless. 

The benefits of headless commerce

The benefits of headless commerce primarily revolve around three pivotal points: user experience, customization, and performance.

Enhanced user experience

First impressions last; in eCommerce, that first impression often equates to user experience (UX).

Headless commerce can significantly improve UX because it detaches front-end presentation layers from the backend logic. 

Simply put, no matter the device—mobile, tablet, desktop—the user sees an interface specifically optimized for their device, creating a seamless and personalized shopping experience. Multiple touchpoints accommodate customers' comfort and preferences, driving higher engagement and, ultimately, conversions. 

The business side benefits, too—with backend activities unaffected by front-end changes, overall operations are smoother and more efficient.

Greater flexibility and customization

Have you ever wondered how tech giants like Amazon update their storefronts or add new features without disrupting the customer experience? The answer lies in the liberty headless commerce grants, mainly flexible customization.

It liberates the front end from the limitations of standard eCommerce platforms. 

Businesses can shape one-of-a-kind, dynamic interfaces in line with branding guidelines or seasonal campaigns. 

A tech team can work parallelly on improvements, updates, or new channels without affecting the backend operations—no more waiting for deployment windows or modifying entire systems for a simple front-end tweak.

Improved speed and performance

Performance plays a pivotal role in eCommerce success. Customers have limited patience for slow-loading websites. Worse, sluggish sites have a direct, negative impact on search engine rankings.

As the front end (the user interface) fetches data from the backend through APIs, it benefits from a lightweight division of responsibility. 

Without the traditional eCommerce platform constraints, this architecture provides faster loading times—enhancing customer experience while better positioning your site in search engine rankings. Fewer customer drop-offs and higher SEO rankings? That's a win-win situation.

In conclusion, headless commerce can help companies provide exceptional, fast, and personalized customer experiences.

Is headless right for your brand?

The benefits provided by a headless approach might sound appealing - but there are a few reasons why, for smaller brands, a headless setup isn’t the right fit. 

Here are factors to consider:

1. Complexity:

Headless commerce requires separating the front-end and back-end, which adds complexity to website development and maintenance. Smaller brands often have limited technical resources and may find it challenging to manage and update a headless setup effectively.

2. Cost:

Developing a headless ecommerce platform typically involves higher upfront costs compared to traditional, monolithic platforms. This is due to the need for specialized development skills to build and integrate separate systems. For smaller businesses with limited budgets, this can be a significant barrier.

3. Time to market:

Implementing a headless architecture can take longer than setting up a traditional ecommerce site. This could delay the launch of an online store, which can be a critical factor for small businesses looking to quickly establish an online presence.

4. Integrated features:

Many all-in-one ecommerce platforms offer a range of integrated features like payment processing, inventory management, and customer relationship management. With a headless setup, these features may need to be developed or integrated separately, which can be resource-intensive for smaller businesses.

5. Technical expertise:

Managing a headless ecommerce site requires a higher level of technical expertise. Smaller brands often don’t have the in-house capability to handle such technical demands and would need to rely on external developers, adding to the ongoing costs.

6. Scalability and optimization:

While headless commerce is excellent for scalability and customization, smaller brands may not initially need such extensive capabilities. They might benefit more from the simplicity and ease of use of integrated platforms that are less customizable but easier to manage.

7. SEO and Marketing challenges:

Due to the separation of the front-end and back-end, SEO and marketing efforts can be more challenging in a headless setup. Ensuring that the website is optimized for search engines and integrates well with marketing tools might require additional effort and expertise.

While a headless architecture offers great flexibility and can be highly beneficial for larger businesses or those with specific needs, its complexity, cost, and technical demands may not align well with the resources and objectives of smaller ecommerce brands.

These brands might benefit more from a simpler, integrated approach that offers ease of use, quicker setup, and lower initial costs.

Headless commerce alternatives

One popular alternative to going headless is coupling a powerful, traditional eCommerce platform (like Shopify) with a page builder app (like Instant Page Builder). 

headless commerce alternative

The right set-up can deliver the same key benefits of going headless and more. 

Here are some reasons why:

1.  Ease of use:

  • User-Friendly interface: Shopify Plus offers a user-friendly interface that is intuitive for non-technical users. This contrasts with headless setups, which often require more technical know-how.

  • Page builder apps: Shopify page builder apps provide drag-and-drop functionality, allowing users to design and customize pages without needing coding skills. This ease of use is a significant advantage for brands that don't have in-house technical expertise.

2. Integrated ecosystem:

  • All-in-One solution: Shopify provides a comprehensive solution that includes hosting, security, payment processing, and other essential ecommerce features. This integrated approach is simpler than managing separate front-end and back-end systems, as in headless commerce.

  • App integrations: The Shopify ecosystem offers a wide range of apps and plugins for additional functionalities, which can be easily integrated with a few clicks.

3. Cost-effectiveness:

  • Lower initial costs: Setting up a store on Shopify with a page builder app generally requires a lower initial investment compared to developing a headless solution.

  • Predictable pricing: Shopify has a predictable pricing model, whereas headless solutions might incur variable costs due to custom development, maintenance, and hosting.

4. Speed to market:

  • Faster setup: With Shopify and a page builder, brands can launch their online store much faster than with a headless approach, which often involves extensive development and integration work.

5. Reliability and support:

  • Stable and secure platform: Shopify Plus is known for its stability and high-level security features, which are important for ecommerce businesses.

  • Dedicated support: Shopify and Instant offer dedicated support, which can be invaluable for brands without technical expertise.

6. SEO and marketing tools:

  • Built-in SEO features: Shopify and Instant Page Builder both include built-in SEO features, making it easier to optimize your store for search engines.

  • Marketing integrations: Easily integrate with various marketing tools and platforms, which is crucial for ecommerce success.

8. Community and resources:

  • Vibrant community: Shopify has a large community of users and developers, providing a wealth of shared knowledge and resources. Instant has the Instant Slack Community where merchants can exchange ideas and ask questions.

  • Access to experts: Brands can easily find expert developers or designers familiar with Shopify if they need specialized customizations.

In summary, for brands that do not require the extreme level of customization and flexibility that headless commerce offers, Shopify combined with Instant Page Builder presents a more accessible, cost-effective, and time-efficient solution. 

It provides a balance of ease of use, integrated features, and scalability that is well-suited to the needs of many ecommerce businesses. 

Businesses will need to decide for themselves if going headless is the best choice or coupling a traditional ecommerce solution with a modern page builder app.

Implementing headless commerce: a step-by-step guide

After diving into the advantages of headless commerce, you might be curious about how to implement a headless setup for your business. 

Step 1: Evaluating your business needs

Understanding your business requirements is a good first step when considering a switch to headless commerce.

An integral part of this initial assessment involves examining your commerce ecosystem's intricacies. Evaluate aspects like your existing tech stack, the size of your digital footprint, the kinds of integrations needed, and your team's technical skills.

This in-depth analysis will help you define a clear vision for implementing headless commerce that aligns perfectly with your business objectives.

Step 2: Choosing the right headless commerce platform

The choice of a headless commerce platform can significantly influence your business performance. Features like scalability, flexibility, API support, and architecture compatibility are vital considerations during selection.

While enterprise-level scalable platforms are suited for large businesses, smaller enterprises might opt for simpler alternatives. API support, whether RESTful or GraphQL, also counts, as it assists in building interactive experiences. Compatibility with your present architecture ensures that the platform can be smoothly integrated into your existing system.

Step 3: Develop a migration plan

Once you've picked the ideal platform, chalking out a functional migration plan is the next move. A well-laid plan minimizes business interruption during the transition and reduces potential risks.

Ensure the migration process includes transferring all data, ensuring integrations work as expected and preserving SEO rankings to optimize for existing workflows.

A comprehensive plan can make your transition to headless commerce as smooth as a well-oiled machine.

Step 4: Implementing and testing

With all the groundwork done, you can now move to the implementation phase. Start by setting up the environment, configuring the platform, and developing necessary integrations.

But implementation isn't the final step. Testing the new system is equally essential. Ensure it's working optimally across various scenarios and stress conditions. Following this, carry out a thorough quality assurance check for any possible flaws or shortcomings.

After a successful testing phase, your business is ready to go headless.

While implementing headless commerce can seem daunting, breaking it down into these steps makes the process more manageable.

If you’re still unsure if headless commerce is right for you, it might be time to dive into the differences between headless and traditional commerce. 

Headless commerce vs traditional commerce: A comparative analysis

To achieve greater scalability and flexibility in their digital presence, businesses are moving towards headless commerce, pulling away from traditional commerce. The following points shed light on how they differ and why the transition might be beneficial.

Differences in architecture

Headless commerce and traditional (monolithic) commerce are primarily differentiated by their architectural layout. 

the difference between headless commerce and monolithic commerce

Traditional commerce has a front-end and back-end tied together, limiting tech stack choices, whereas headless commerce separates these two. 

This separation allows developers to use any technology to build the front-end, independent of the back-end operations, facilitating endless possibilities for customization.

Moreover, headless commerce, by its structure, promotes an API-driven approach. This sort of design allows multiple 'heads' or touchpoints (websites, mobile apps, IoT devices, etc.) to fetch data from the backend. 

Here's a more in-depth look at a headless architecture:

headless commerce architecture

This design differs significantly from traditional commerce, where each user interface requires its bespoke backend system. 

Flexibility and customization

Tailoring customer interaction points to suit unique business requirements has always been a significant challenge in traditional commerce. The monolithic structure of conventional solutions makes it difficult to modify or introduce new touchpoints without disrupting existing operations.

Conversely, the decoupled nature of headless commerce fosters greater flexibility. It allows for the customization of every touchpoint without interfering with back-end operations or other touchpoints. Basically, headless commerce provides businesses with a 'design it your way' freedom. 

Speed and performance

Speed and performance are crucial for any eCommerce platform. In a traditional commerce setup, changes to the front end can predispose the entire system to downtime or performance issues. However, modifications in headless structures only affect the concerned touchpoints, leaving the backend and other touchpoints unaffected. 

As such, headless commerce offers the administrator more control, creating opportunities for better risk management and enhanced performance. API calls in headless systems often result in faster load times, ensuring a quick, engaging user experience.

User experience

Finally, user experience is paramount in the digital age. Due to their rigid structure, traditional commerce systems often falter in creating seamless user experiences across numerous devices and platforms. Headless commerce, on the other hand, excels in this domain. 

Allowing tailored solutions for different touchpoints enables a consistent, user-friendly experience across any customer interaction point.

While headless commerce seems to have many benefits over traditional commerce, it's important to remember that it isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. It's best suited for businesses that seek to provide a high degree of customization and have the resources to manage and optimize multiple touchpoints.

Having explored the differences between headless and traditional commerce, businesses can now decide which architecture would suit their needs best.

Exploring top headless commerce platforms

Whether you're about to launch or navigating through expansion challenges, selecting a headless commerce platform is a significant milestone in your brand's evolution.

Shopify Plus

Shopify Plus ascends as a solid platform in headless commerce. It offers powerful APIs and a wide range of third-party integrations. With Shopify Plus, businesses can alter front-end experiences without touching the backend, making running campaigns and promotions across various shopping channels easier. Its robust infrastructure enhances site performance, making it eligible to handle high-volume transactions. Shopify Plus ensures security features, making it a safe place for businesses to thrive. 

Power of APIs

Shopify Plus paves the way for businesses to create custom storefronts by harnessing the utility of APIs. The storefront API integrates with various interfaces like mobile, web, game consoles, and the list goes on. This offers brands an unprecedented opportunity to customize shopping experiences.

Security and high-volume performance

Shopify Plus safeguards businesses with Level 1 PCI compliance, a secure socket layer certificate, and a dedicated SSL. Combine that with 99.99% server uptime, and you guarantee your customers a safe and efficient service.


BigCommerce offers deep headless capabilities coupled with a prebuilt front end. This platform specializes in facilitating multichannel selling supported by effective commerce APIs. With BigCommerce, retailers can push their products across multiple digital touchpoints such as Instagram, eBay, Amazon, Google Shopping, etc. 

Flexibility in multichannel selling

BigCommerce's built-in hooks into popular marketplaces, social networks, and offline point-of-sale systems make distributing products a breeze. It consolidates all operations and executes them from a single control panel.

Adobe Commerce

Adobe Commerce, formerly Magento, fuels seamless shopping experiences across an array of devices. Known for its open-source flexibility, Adobe Commerce offers exceptional functionality, a wide array of extensions, and complete control over your platform's aesthetic and technical dimensions. 

Customizability and flexibility

Adobe Commerce boasts high customizability and flexibility, enabling businesses to mold the storefront to their preferences. Adobe Commerce's open-source software allows for extensive creativity without compromising the back-end commerce functionality.

Salesforce Commerce Cloud

Salesforce Commerce Cloud imbues headless commerce with a customer-centric approach. Its unified, AI-powered platform facilitates personalized shopping experiences across all channels. Salesforce provides predictive analytics to better understand customer behavior. 

AI-powered personalization

Salesforce’s AI-infused platform empowers businesses to offer personalized shopping encounters, thereby enhancing conversion rates. This real-time personalization fuels customer engagement and also streamlines business operations.

Businesses can choose the right headless commerce solution by understanding these top platforms. They can guide their digital transformation and propel their business to cater to nuanced consumer needs.

Predicted trends in headless commerce

Here are the ways headless commerce is predicted to revamp the retail landscape:

  • Omni-channel experiences: Instead of each channel having a different view based on its design, all channels will have a single, unifying digital experience that is seamless, identical, and enriched across all platforms.

  • Greater personalization: Given its API-driven structure, headless commerce allows for improved data collection, enabling retailers to offer a more personalized experience based on consumers' purchasing behaviors, search queries, and other interactions.

  • Speedy content delivery: With its backend and front end operating separately, the delivery of content will become faster and more efficient, improving the speed of loading webpages and apps, which is vital for user engagement.

How headless commerce is shaping the future of eCommerce

The transition from traditional to headless commerce is a leap towards a more customer-centric, agile, and scalable business model. 

Here's how it's shaping the eCommerce landscape:

  • Customizability: Retailers have the freedom to tailor the user interface to their preferences without any platform restrictions. This means they can choose to make changes that align with customer needs and business goals.

  • Scalability: Unburdened by front-end limitations, businesses are better positioned to scale up, do A/B testing with ease, and rapidly adapt to the shifts in the market.

  • API-driven: As an API-focused model, it easily integrates with other applications. This means businesses can seamlessly avail new features and updates without entirely overhauling the system or disrupting customer experience.

Preparing your business for the future with headless commerce

Switching to headless commerce might be a big step; here's how to prepare for the shift:

  • Find a technology partner: Switching to a headless model requires technical expertise. Choosing the right technology partner who can help analyze your current business model, predict future trends, and build a flexible, scalable eCommerce platform will be vital.

  • Invest in team training: Your workforce is your greatest asset. Invest time in training them in the new system for smoother adoption.

  • Plan your resources: Implementing headless commerce needs resources - both time and money - neatly planned to make the transition seamless

Going headless is a big step; be sure to consider all of the points mentioned above to see if it’s the best fit for your business. 


Headless commerce decouples the front end of your online store from the back end, boosting performance while fostering customization.

In summary, headless commerce represents a significant leap forward in the world of eCommerce, marking a departure from traditional, monolithic models. 

This approach offers enhanced flexibility and scalability and ensures a personalized and seamless user experience across various platforms. 

By embracing headless commerce, businesses are better positioned to adapt to rapid technological changes and evolving consumer expectations. 

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Start building now

Explore Instant today to start building high-converting landing pages and sections, no-code required.




© Instant