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eCommerce

Comparing Headless Commerce Platforms: Which Should You Choose?

Gibson Toombs
January 19th, 2021
10 MINUTE READ

Many brands are trading in their traditional eCommerce setup for a headless architecture. To stay competitive in a world with over 2 billion digital shoppers, online merchants are constantly coming up with new approaches for marketing and selling products to consumers. 

With so many options available to them at any time, shoppers will pay little attention to online stores that are without a welcoming design, helpful content, and an intuitive user experience. This puts pressure on brands to ensure that their customer experience is constantly being refreshed to keep up with ever-changing industry trends and consumer habits. 

But with a traditional eCommerce platform—where the front-end presentation layer and back-end eCommerce engine are tightly connected under a single monolithic structure—making frequent additions and modifications to the customer experience can require a great deal of time, effort, and money. The headless commerce approach offers a solution to this problem. 

What is headless commerce?

Headless commerce involves decoupling an online store’s front end from its back end so that they can operate independently of one another. This provides greater freedom and flexibility to front-end developers and marketers, who aim to create the most effective user experience possible, without being limited by the store’s underlying eCommerce platform. 

With a traditional, single-pillar approach, any changes to the front-end presentation layer—no matter how big or small—can have an impact on the back-end eCommerce functionality. 

With a headless approach, developers can improve upon the customer-facing side by adding new designs, features, and content, without having to also update the back-end code, which can take hours, sometimes days. Being able to make these modifications in real time enables quick and efficient workflows for development teams, freeing up more time to focus on marketing- and sales-related initiatives. 

How headless architecture works

The goal of building a headless architecture is to streamline the process of delivering content to various platforms and devices so that the merchant can expand the scope of their eCommerce strategy. This is accomplished by employing various interconnected eCommerce technologies that make up the front and back end of an online store. 

Front-end customer-experience layers often incorporate the following solutions:

  • Content management system (CMS): This is a tool used to build websites. Your CMS allows you to create, manage, and update web content without requiring technical expertise. Some of the most common CMSs used by well-known brands today include WordPress, Contentstack, Drupal, Contentful, and Adobe Experience Manager. 
  • Digital experience platform (DXP): Similar to CMSs, DXPs allow merchants to add and modify content to online stores, but on a significantly larger scale. The traditional CMS usually only provides control over basic websites and mobile apps. But with a DXP, you can easily deliver and modify content on farther-reaching verticals, such as airport kiosks, digital signage, video games, and virtual reality devices.
  • Progressive web application (PWA): PWAs are essentially a mix between traditional websites and native mobile applications. They function as standard web pages in the sense that they can be accessed on any modern browser, but they have the look and feel of mobile apps. As more and more consumers prefer to do their shopping on mobile devices, PWAs offer merchants the best of both worlds. 

While the front-end solutions deal with optimizing customer experience, the back-end eCommerce platform handles tasks like payment authorization, product information, inventory management, and data security. Again, making changes to the front end does not result in additional development work on the back end under a headless system. 

The decoupled front end stays connected to the back end via application programming interface (API) calls. Headless commerce platforms are often referred to as “API-driven,” since they rely on APIs to facilitate communication between the front and back end. Think of an API as a waiter in a restaurant, delivering orders from the customer’s table (the front end) to the kitchen (the back end). Any action taken by a user, like clicking on a product page or entering payment information, triggers a specific API call.

Benefits of switching to headless

Here are the top reasons brands are transitioning from traditional to headless eCommerce:

Omnichannel customer experience

A headless commerce platform allows you to power multiple front-end touchpoints with a single eCommerce platform. By providing a true omnichannel experience, your customers can shop for and purchase products on whichever platform or device they prefer. 

There are various front-end channels you can add—and easily deliver content to—under a headless model, such as social media platforms, mobile apps, smartwatches, voice assistants, and more. As technology changes and consumers start going to new platforms and devices to do their shopping, headless commerce enables you to continue adding new touchpoints to your customer experience. 

Personalization

Personalization is becoming increasingly important for brands that aim to provide superior customer experiences. The process involves collecting your customers’ personal data, such as browsing behavior, purchase history, and geographical location, then using that information to deliver specific content, product recommendations, promotional offers, etc. Headless architecture supports this constant flow of dynamic content, which is proven to improve customer engagement and increase sales. 

Speedy innovation

Keeping up with consumer trends and expectations requires a lot of development work. With the presentation layer separated from the eCommerce engine, creative strategists can assign tasks to front-end developers, without also creating work for IT teams managing the back end. This gives online merchants the ability to quickly modify and add new content to front-end touchpoints. It also makes it easier for them to test out new features, designs, customer flows, etc.

Low development costs

With a more efficient system for innovating presentation-layer channels, your team can spend less time and resources on writing and updating back-end code. This means lower development costs overall as your business grows. 

Refined security

Online businesses always need to be conscious of cyberattacks. Under a monolithic system, hackers that gain access to the front end may also be able to access the back end, which can result in a breach of customer data, damaged inventory, and a hacked payment system. With headless architecture, there’s a smaller chance of compromised accounts gaining unauthorized access to the entire system and causing major harm.

Is headless commerce right for your company?

It’s safe to say that for online businesses trying to grow and leverage new technologies, going headless is an essential move. However, making this transition might not be at the top of your list of priorities. If you’re wondering whether now is the right time to implement a headless architecture, here are some factors to consider:

  • Legacy CMS issues: If you’re currently using an older CMS, you might run into some implementation problems when switching to a headless commerce platform. It’s important to make sure that your CMS is not limiting the capabilities of your eCommerce platform. To get the most out of headless architecture, you may need to swap out your legacy CMS for a more modern solution. 
  • Limited content needs: As discussed, being able to consistently deliver videos, podcasts, blogs, and other types of content to multiple channels is a major benefit of going headless. However, some companies’ sales and marketing strategies don’t rely as much on content—especially those in less-competitive industries. If your business falls into this category, you might be fine sticking with a traditional eCommerce setup.
  • Integration costs: Implementing a new eCommerce platform, PWA, DXP, or other headless solution can get expensive. It’s important to get an idea of how much the switch to headless will cost your business, as well as any site downtime that might occur in the process. 

Remember, you don’t need to go through this process alone. Working with an eCommerce partner like Codal will help you determine if and when adopting a headless approach is the right move for your business.

How to evaluate headless commerce platforms

Before we dive into the top headless commerce platforms, here are some key points to keep in mind, as well as some questions to ask along the way:

  • Define your goals: What digital channels do you want to include in your customer journey? What kind of content will you be delivering to consumers? How often will you be modifying your online storefronts? 
  • Lock down your budget: How much are you willing to spend on integrating new headless solutions? Are you planning to expand or shrink your development team? How long will it take to see an increase in revenue after switching to headless?
  • Prioritize ongoing support: Who will you reach out to when something goes wrong? Who will help facilitate things like testing out new features, tracking data, and collecting feedback?

Top headless commerce platforms

BigCommerce, Shopify Plus, Magento, ElasticPath, and Commercetools are five of the best headless commerce platforms available. But which one is the best fit for your business? Let’s take a closer look at each one.

BigCommerce

BigCommerce’s headless eCommerce platform can integrate with almost any CMS, DXP, PWA, or custom-built solution. Most of the brands employing BigCommerce on the back end are using WordPress, Drupal, Adobe Experience Manager, or Sitecore to power the front end. Some of these brands include Burrow, Larq, Louise Kennedy, and K2 Sports. BigCommerce also works with many B2B companies, such as General Electric, Harvard Business Publishing, and HD Supply. 

One of the many features businesses love about BigCommerce is its extensive catalog of APIs. With the Checkout API, for example, developers can build customized checkout experiences that are optimized for recurring orders and subscriptions. Another example is the Shipping Provider API, which connects online storefronts to third-party shipping services so that customers can see shipping rates in real time. Users of other headless eCommerce platforms—including BigCommerce’s top competitor, Shopify Plus—are often bound to their platform’s native checkout capabilities, with little opportunity for customization.

Shopify Plus 

Shopify Plus is larger and serves more merchants than BigCommerce, particularly in the category of enterprise B2C. With Shopify’s storefront API, brands can sell products on various platforms and devices, including nontraditional channels like video games and augmented reality devices. When it comes to integrating a CMS, most Shopify customers use Contentful, ContentStack, and Prismic. Examples of brands that have seen success with Shopify’s headless eCommerce platform include Parachute Home, Staples Canada, Clare, Yoga Girl, and Seedlip Drinks. 

According to their differences in clientele, BigCommerce seems to be a better fit for B2B companies that have more complex needs involving checkout, while Shopify Plus may be more suitable for B2C brands that simply need a reliable platform to process payments from various digital channels.

Magento

Magento Commerce is owned by Adobe. As a result, many of the brands using Magento’s headless platform also use Adobe Experience Manager as their CMS. By offering API sets GraphQL and REST, merchants can include other integrations and front-end channels as well. For brands that want to implement a PWA, Magento comes with an intuitive “PWA Studio” that can help get the job done.

Magento doesn’t have as much to offer as BigCommerce and Shopify Plus, but it can be a good fit for brands that need a strong eCommerce back end for their headless build. Oliver Bonas, Biscuiteers, UK Meds, and Topps Tiles are some of the brands currently working with Magento’s headless solutions.

Elastic Path

Unlike the first three SaaS providers on this list, Elastic Path is a smaller company that solely provides headless commerce or API-first solutions. The service claims to offer “DIY control” in conjunction with the simplicity of a traditional eCommerce platform like Shopify. Elastic Path’s headless platform is used by many brands, including Tesla, Intuit, Goodman, Breville, and Swisscom.  

Commercetools

Commercetools has a headless solution that boasts robust performance and zero-downtime deployments. This solution comes with a service level agreement (SLA) that guarantees the server will be up and running at least 99.8% of the time—a promise that not all SaaS providers can make. Commercetools works with many well-known B2B and B2C brands, such as Carhartt, Eurail, Riedel, Rewe, and Scrappel. 

Wrapping up

It’s easy to see why the headless approach is being described as the future of eCommerce. By creating highly-personalized, omnichannel experiences for consumers, your business will achieve stronger customer engagement, as well as increased conversion rates and customer retention. Plus, less work for developers on the back end means lower costs, higher productivity, and more room for innovation on the front end. 

When it comes to choosing the right headless commerce platform for your business, there are many factors to consider. Codal can guide you through this transformation, using the latest, most cutting-edge technologies available. 

With a history of helping brands take their eCommerce strategy to the next level, we know how to design and implement a headless architecture that aligns with your goals. We also have a list of trusted partners, including BigCommerce and Shopify Plus, who can support us along the way.

If you’re ready to get started with headless commerce or would like to learn more about it, reach out to Codal today!

Gibson Toombs
AUTHOR

Gibson Toombs

Gibson Toombs is a Technical Content Writer at Codal. His writing career began in 2015 after graduating from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Since then, he has worked on many projects, covering a wide range of technical topics, from solar energy to cybersecurity. When he’s not taking complex ideas and turning them into easily-digestible pieces of content, Gibson can be found playing guitar and writing songs at his apartment in Chicago.

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