What Is Headless Ecommerce?

What Is Headless Ecommerce?

What Is Headless Ecommerce?

What is headless commerce? Before we jump into the definition, it’s helpful to understand the background and foundation. You can’t properly understand headless commerce and its benefits without understanding the history behind it.

In the beginning there was only one channel for the customer to shop: the store, or more likely the market. Fast forward to the year 2000 and a new method referred to as “ecommerce” is on the rise. It was not seen as an extension of the store, but rather as a whole new channel to sell through. In fact, most retailers referred to their website as their ‘online store.’ Retailers had physical stores and an online store. Many of them had a single ecommerce warehouse that shipped out all ecommerce orders. Even the supply chain for these organizations treated the warehouse as a separate ‘store,’ often referring to their ecommerce warehouse as a store itself, such as ‘store 100.’

In the mid-2000s, there was a rise of ecommerce platforms to help support this new web channel. Demandware, Shopify, Magento, and more all came out then. Merchants purchased or built ecommerce platforms to better sell through this new online channel. These platforms acted as a one-stop shop: enabling merchants to upload their products, create online categories, offer discounts and promotions, manage the on-site search, send a customer through an online checkout, and more. Each channel was handled by separate technology as well as completely separate organizational teams.

As time progressed, ecommerce continued to grow in importance. Websites transformed from just showcases for products, and a conduit for checking out, to digital experiences. A company’s online presence was no longer an afterthought or a separate channel, but rather central to all other channels.

Fast forward to 2020. According to Retail Dive, in 2020, 87% of shoppers began their product searches online and 71% said they use their mobile devices in stores. Retailer websites moved from being simply an ‘online store’ to serving as the face of the business. Yet many companies are leveraging content management capabilities that come standard with their ecommerce platform. But these tools are limited, restricting marketers’ flexibility and agility. And so, many organizations find themselves hamstrung by their current content management capabilities, reliant on IT to make basic front end changes or not being able to make them at all.

What Is Headless Commerce? Just APIs

As the demand for better content management capabilities has grown, the idea of headless commerce has arisen. This concept is the idea that the ecommerce platform will still handle all of the ecommerce functionalities (category management, discount & promotions, payment, etc.) but a 3rd-party system will manage the presentation layer.

Most often this 3rd-party system is a content management tool. Merchants leverage a 3rd-party CMS instead of the native content management capabilities of the ecommerce platform. But, a headless implementation can also refer to voice commerce, mobile apps, or even smart watches. It is ultimately the decoupling of the back end commerce platform from the front end presentation layer. The “head” of the ecommerce platform is replaced with a “head” powered by a 3rd-party tool.

Although headless is a new concept in ecommerce, in and of itself this concept is not new. A headless architecture just involves using an ecommerce platform as the back end and APIs to enable a decoupled front end experience. Best said by Forrester’s Joe Sicman, “It’s only the commerce and content vendors that use the term “headless,” and that’s because of their unique history. Social networks, banks, and everyone else just talk about their APIs.”

Is Headless Ecommerce Right for Your Business?

As with all commerce buzz words, the important question is what do you do with it? Leveraging a best-in-class commerce and content management platform can provide great benefit and flexibility to your business. But it can also be costly and bring unnecessary complexity for some.

Below are some questions to ask yourself to determine if headless ecommerce makes sense for your business:

  1. Is your website primarily used for representing your brand or primarily used for selling your products?
  2. Do you have a preferred CMS to manage the presentation layer on your site?
  3. How often do you currently change content on the website?
  4. What does it cost (business and IT resources) to make those changes?
  5. If a CMS was purchased, who in your organization would own and manage that?
  6. What is your budget for the website?

A Word of Caution in Your Headless Pursuit

Every ecommerce platform talks about how they can support and offer APIs for headless. But a question worth asking is, “is the commerce platform properly built for headless?” You don’t want to be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

If you recall, we covered how most of the well-known commerce platforms were developed in the mid 2000s. When they were first made, platforms were composed of monolithic systems meant to be the primary technology supporting the online channel. Many of them added APIs to support headless, but underneath the covers, they remained interdependent monolithic systems.

what is headless ecommerce microservices

Microservices and API-First architecture were technological advances that make the headless path smooth and scalable.

  • A Microservices Platform – The platform was built and meant to be consumed piece by piece, not in an all-or-nothing fashion (such as monolithic architecture).
  • API-First Platform – APIs for the platform were built before functionality or front end experiences are built.

Remember, headless ecommerce is exposing the presentation layer of the ecommerce platform through APIs. A microservices, API-first platform means that the platform was built “headless” ready from day 1.

This architecture is what makes Kibo’s ecommerce platform uniquely suited to handle headless use cases. Kibo was built wholly microservices-based and 100% API-first. The Kibo platform provides a native CMS to all of its customers, but it is built on the exact same API available for headless implementations. This provides robust out-of-the-box capabilities as well as unmatched flexibility to leverage third party CMS’s or other tools as desired.


Written by Blake Billings, Sr. Solutions Engineer, Kibo Commerce

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