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eCommerce

A Review of Shopify Headless Commerce

Gibson Toombs
January 11th, 2021
12 MINUTE READ

If your company is considering switching from a traditional eCommerce system to a headless architecture, Shopify Plus can be an invaluable resource. Many well-known brands, such as Koala, Inkbox, and Impossible Foods, have teamed up with Shopify to adopt the headless commerce approach. 

In this article, we’ll discuss the top benefits of using Shopify to go headless, the associated costs, and other helpful information for merchants thinking about making the transition. But before we get into all that, let’s make sure we fully understand what it means to “go headless” in an eCommerce context.  

What is headless commerce?

Headless commerce refers to the process of decoupling an online store’s front-end presentation layer from its back-end eCommerce platform. Unlike the traditional monolithic approach, which keeps the front and back end tightly connected, this system allows developers to modify and add new content to the customer-facing side, without having to make significant updates to the back-end code. This gives brands the flexibility to provide their customers with highly customized and personalized shopping experiences across a wide range of channels.

Whenever marketers or designers want to change elements of their front-end presentation layer, a headless architecture allows them to do so without causing issues to the back-end eCommerce engine. Inversely, if developers are modifying the back-end system that processes customer transactions, they don’t have to worry about causing issues on the front end, such as bugs and site outages.

Shopify’s approach to headless commerce

Shopify Plus uses a storefront application programming interface (API) to provide merchants with omnichannel capabilities. This means that businesses can sell products via websites, apps, and even video games, with complete creative control over how those channels are presented to consumers. When it’s time for customers to make a purchase, Shopify’s storefront API facilitates a seamless checkout experience. 

Research shows that 98% of Americans switch between multiple devices over the course of one day. By establishing a unified shopping experience across various devices, from smartphones to airport kiosks, businesses can increase consumer engagement, conversion rates, and customer retention. With Shopify’s storefront API powering the underlying eCommerce engine, merchants can focus on optimizing presentation layers on multiple channels to create a seamless and meaningful customer journey, based on ever-evolving consumer trends.  

Customization and Personalization

For brands in hyper-competitive spaces like retail and travel, creating a content-first, personalized consumer experience is key, and adopting headless architecture is a step in the right direction. Decoupling the front end from the back end allows for much greater flexibility when it comes to customizing your customer experience layer (also referred to as the “CX layer”). 

Customizing the CX layer

Designing a beautiful online storefront to catch the eyes of consumers—and being able to make changes to that design in real time—is an obvious advantage here. But it’s important to keep in mind that traditional HTML websites are not the only channels consumers use to interact with brands from their devices. Here are some other channels that live on the CX layer and go hand-in-hand with the headless commerce model.

  • Native mobile app: Not to be confused with web apps, native mobile web applications are developed specifically for mobile devices, such as iPhone or Android. These are the apps you download from the app store onto your smartphone, whereas web apps are accessible via your internet browser.    
  • Progressive web application (PWA): Through the eyes of a common consumer, PWAs look like native mobile applications. They are designed to be mobile-first, but can also act as a traditional website on any modern browser. PWAs are constructed using the latest in web technologies.
  • Point of sale (POS): This refers to any system in a physical store used for facilitating customer orders. 
  • Voice commerce: Many believe that voice commerce is the future of eCommerce. In fact, according to a study by Microsoft, 72% of consumers use voice assistants, like Alexa and Google Assistant, to shop for products.  
  • Online marketplaces: If you sell your products on Amazon, Ebay, or other online marketplaces, those are considered CX layer channels as well. 

With a headless architecture, you can sell products to your customers at all of these digital touchpoints. And with Shopify’s storefront API handling each transaction, you can stay focused on making those channels as cohesive as possible for consumers. 

Designing a personalized shopping experience 

Since every customer is unique, there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for designing CX layer channels. Instead, brands need to be much more granular in their approach. This involves not just understanding the different demographics you’re targeting, but also paying attention to how they interact with your website, PWA, native mobile app, etc. 

If you’re noticing a high bounce rate, it could be that your website’s navigation system is not intuitive enough, or perhaps you’re not providing helpful enough information to people visiting your site for the first time. Whatever the case is, it’s imperative to acknowledge user behaviors and respond with strategic modifications. Headless gives you the flexibility of testing out different layouts and designs, without having to make significant changes to the eCommerce back end. You can track the results of these tests via your business dashboard, then adjust your strategy accordingly.

Headless architecture also gives developers the ability to deliver hyper-focused content to individual consumers. As more and more eCommerce merchants embrace personalization, most online shoppers have come to expect it. In fact, 71% of consumers agree that an impersonal shopping experience can be frustrating. And the last thing you want is a frustrated customer, who can easily bounce over to your competitor’s website to find what they’re looking for. 

If you’re still not sure what we mean by “personalization,” here are some common examples:

  • Pop-up offers: Pop-ups don’t always have to be a nuisance, so long as they offer something of value to the user. For instance, when someone visits your website for the first time, you could present them with a pop-up that offers a 10% off coupon with their first purchase. This is a common practice used by eCommerce brands to increase conversion rates and bring customers back for repeat purchases.
  • User generated content (UGC): Customer reviews, Tweets, Instagram posts, and videos created about your brand by your customers are all examples of UGC. Having customers share information about your products and services on their social channels can make a huge difference in driving sales. In order to get more UGC, brands will often offer their customers promotions and discounts in exchange for posting a picture using their product on Instagram, sharing their purchase on Facebook, etc. This content can be displayed and frequently updated on your website, giving users the ability to click through to see each customer’s full post.
  • Continuous shopping for return customers: The goal here is to allow customers to pick up right where they left off the last time they visited your website. By remembering which items the customer viewed, the site can present those items to them, rather than making them start their search all over. A good example of this is Netflix’s “Continue Watching” feature. 
  • Product detail page (PDP) recommendations: This approach involves recommending products to customers that are similar to ones they’ve looked at or purchased in the past, or even in real time. For example, when a customer views a PDP for a pair of pants at an online clothing store, the merchant can immediately present them with PDP recommendations for other pants in the same style. 
  • Bestseller lists: Bookstores display the top-selling books at the front of the store for a reason: People are attracted to products that are popular. The same logic applies to online stores. Many brands have a “top products” feature on their homepage that updates every 24 hours. 

All of these personalization tactics can be supported under a headless model powered by Shopify Plus. Because these features and content require heavy monitoring and updating on the customer-facing side, it’s more efficient for marketers, developers, and designers to deploy them via a loosely connected tech stack. 

Cutting costs by going headless

With a platform like Shopify Plus powering the back-end eCommerce engine, you can save a lot of money on development costs. However, there are many factors to consider when calculating the overall cost and ROI of switching to headless. Every merchant has different development needs and capabilities. 

Some companies that have been around for a while don’t feel the need to abandon their legacy platform, since they already have a large IT department working under a very specific system. Plus, if they’re already a well-established brand in a less-competitive space, they may not feel the need to embrace omnichannel sales and marketing. For brands that only have a few developers in-house—and are focused on creating content-led, personalized customer journeys—the ROI of switching to headless can be immense. Here are a few of the basics expenses that come with adopting a headless architecture.

  • Service fees: There are usually one-time fees that come with hiring a SaaS provider.
  • Subscription costs: Depending on your plan, you’ll pay a certain amount to Shopify each month or year to use their storefront API.
  • Operational costs: This refers to how much you’ll pay employees and freelancers to manage your Shopify headless system. 
  • Third-party purchases: When you need specific licenses or integrations, those will come with additional expenses as well. 

With a traditional monolithic architecture, adding new features and content to the front end can create a lot of work for developers. Again, any changes made to the customer-facing side can have a negative impact on the back end, so you need developers on staff to manage these modifications and prevent front-end issues like bugs and site outages. If your brand is constantly making changes to the website, such as streamlining the UX navigation or deploying new pop-up offers, you’ll need to pour a lot of time and manpower into handling those tasks. So as you scale, you’ll need to bring on more developers, which can get very expensive very fast. Rather than building out an enormous IT department, you can lean on a platform like Shopify to manage the eCommerce-side of your business.

Headless architecture increases efficiency and saves time

Perhaps the greatest advantage of going headless is having the power to adapt to ever-evolving consumer trends in real time. Tasks that used to take countless hours in the hands of many developers can now be completed in no time at all. In order to stay competitive in volatile industries like retail, travel, and entertainment, brands must be able to make swift modifications to their website, mobile app, kiosks, and other channels. They also need to be able to deliver personalized content like continuous shopping and PDP recommendations, based on the search and spending habits of their customers. Shopify’s storefront API gives merchants this kind of speed and control. 

It’s also important to address the greater amount of flexibility front-end developers have under the headless model. With a monolithic approach, developers are usually stuck writing in one specific programming language. But with headless, they can speak in whatever language they are most comfortable with, whether it’s Python, Java, Ruby, or HTML. 

And let’s not forget about integrations. Whatever systems you use for product information management (PIM), enterprise resource planning (ERP), or customer relationship management (CRM), all of them can be integrated into your decoupled tech stack. 

Examples of successful headless commerce with Shopify Plus

Here are five brands that currently use Shopify’s storefront API to power their eCommerce engine:

Inkbox

Inkbox, an online store for semi-permanent tattoos, has experienced great success with the headless commerce approach. They use a custom front end for their presentation layer, combined with Shopify’s back-end eCommerce platform. This allows them to process hundreds of customer orders at once, while also facilitating a smooth and personalized user experience. 

Impossible Foods

In order to generate more leads and up their conversion rate, Impossible Foods needed a solution for providing useful, more personalized information to their customers. With the help of Shopify Plus and Contentful CMS, they were able to transform their minimal website into a content-led, performance-focused online storefront. This resulted in stronger customer engagement and a reduced bounce rate. 

Koala

Koala, The most popular mattress brand in Australia, wanted to create an immersive customer experience via a flexible PWA. They accomplished this with the help of Shopify’s storefront API, along with a third-party CMS. Making this transition streamlined their entire tech stack, getting rid of unnecessary code that was slowing down the site. Now, they are able to deploy new pages, content, and products at a much quicker pace. 

Staples Canada

This enterprise retailer transitioned from a monolithic approach to a headless system, using Shopify, Contentful, and Akeno. Staples Canada now has greater freedom and flexibility when it comes to front-end developments. They can efficiently update product pages, streamline navigation, and keep their homepage constantly updated with new sales promotions.

Deliveroo

Deliveroo, a global restaurant delivery service, used Shopify Plus to handle orders on various digital channels. This gave them more flexibility in designing visual layouts, resulting in a more efficient user onboarding process. 

Wrapping up

There are many benefits to going headless, from cutting costs to increasing overall speed and efficiency. If you want to stand out among your competitors with a beautiful and optimized online storefront, as well as create a cohesive, personalized customer experience across various touchpoints, then it might be time to abandon your legacy eCommerce platform. 

However, since the headless approach is still relatively new, it’s not always clear how to get the most value out of technologies like Shopify’s storefront API. Teaming up with experts who have years of experience working with these technologies—and a proven track record in the eCommerce space—will help take your brand to new heights. 

A trusted partner

Codal is a web development and design agency that specializes in eCommerce. Our passion is helping businesses of all sizes improve brand visibility with strategic planning and elegant solutions. 

As a certified partner to Shopify, we understand the underlying technology and how to implement it into a sophisticated omnichannel sales and marketing approach. 

We’ll start by getting to know your brand inside and out, identifying what’s currently working and areas that could use improvement. In collaboration with our friends over at Shopify, our team will guide your business through the transformation from your legacy platform to a headless architecture. 

Interested in learning more about Shopify headless commerce? 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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