Headless commerce: definition and benefits for startups

Headless commerce is a common buzzword thrown around. We break down what it actually means and why it matters for startups.

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The ecommerce space is constantly evolving and becoming more competitive. As a result, businesses find themselves having to improve customer experience and keep up with trends. This requires agile software.

That’s where headless commerce comes in. As disjointed as the term might sound, headless commerce is a flexible and streamlined way of setting up your software architecture. Yet this buzzword is severely misunderstood. To help you figure out if headless commerce is the next step for your business, we break down what it is, the benefits, and the platforms that are best positioned to help you make that transition.

Key Statistics

  • 80% of companies that don’t currently use headless architecture are planning to adopt it in the next two years (Salesforce)
  • 92% of businesses think it’s easier to deliver a powerful digital experience with headless commerce platforms (WPengine)
  • Retail businesses that implemented headless commerce reported a 35% rise in conversion rates and a 82% growth between 2018-2019 (Gitnux)

What is headless commerce?

Headless commerce is used to describe software architecture that’s made up of three different puzzle pieces: your frontend, API (Application Programming Interface), and your backend. You can think of it as a tech sandwich: you have the two bread layers (the backend and the frontend) connected by the fillings (API). Essentially, The API layer is a bridge for data that is transferred between services. It connects the frontend to the backend and any other third-party services.

Unlike traditional commerce, the frontend and the backend are separate in an ecommerce application. This gives you the opportunity to build your ecommerce application in a way that fits your business needs perfectly as you can design your API layer. This flexibility lets you update your ecommerce application and respond to emerging trends quicker, helping you stay competitive.

Headless commerce architecture vs traditional ecommerce architecture

Up until the arrival of headless commerce, traditional ecommerce was the norm. Also known as legacy or all-in-one system, traditional ecommerce provides all the components needed for handling business logic, displaying the user interface layer, and managing content all in the same tightly coupled codebase.

Although having everything tightly packaged in the same codebase can make it sound more organised and compact, that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, with traditional ecommerce, updating your system with new user experiences can require updates to both the front and back ends. This can turn even small changes into time-comsuming projects..

Legacy ecommerce has a pre-defined user experience, giving you little flexibility when it comes to updating your business logic to match emerging trends. Moreover, moving to modern JavaScript frameworks that can deliver web performance can be risky giving how tightly interconnected the whole system is. Changes therefore require rigorous testing, time, and money. This all means it’s not a scalable solution as you can quickly outgrow the default systems of an all-in-one system.

Headless commerce is the response to everything that’s lacking with traditional ecommerce. Since it separates the layers of an ecommerce system into individual pieces, you can easily implement changes to improve the UX. As a result, headless commerce can support:

  • Brands that want to implement an omnichannel strategy → headless commerce lets you gather all available content and product data to give shoppers quick access to the channels they use to shop online.
  • Companies that seek more flexibility → headless commerce gives you more agility when it comes to redesigning your UX. This helps you keep up with new trends and demands in ecommerce.

Benefits of headless commerce for ecommerce startups

Headless commerce is displacing traditional ecommerce. There’s plenty of benefits to consider if you’re on the fence about making the transition. Here’s a few to keep in mind:

✔️ Better employee adoption → headless commerce is modern and simple, making it more accessible to all your employees who are responsible for uploading and managing content. This means you can easily update the frontend without any advanced skills.

✔️ Equip yourself with the right tools for the job → headless commerce gives brands the tools to build custom experiences that shoppers can’t get anywhere else. Having an API layer is essential to ensure coordinated, brand-consistent experiences across channels.

✔️ Save time → changes to the front end can be made quickly and developers can save time on user interface changes. With just a few clicks or some light coding, you can jumpstart commerce apps that increase conversion.

✔️ Scalability → headless commerce future-proofs your system as you can continuously update your UX. This means you won’t outgrow the preset design that comes attached to traditional ecommerce.

✔️ Expand omnichannel retail possibilities → omnichannel commerce requires flexibility on both the organisational and tech levels. Therefore, headless commerce helps you manage your omnichannel capabilities better as you can constantly adapt the UX to fit your business needs.

Headless commerce statistics

  • 74% of organisations recognise that failure to adopt emerging commerce solutions will negatively impact areas of their business
  • 80% of businesses that don’t have headless architecture today say they plan to implement it in the next two years
  • 77% of organisations with headless architecture say it enables faster changes to storefronts
  • 73% of respondents say it’s likely or very likely they’ll take their business as a consume elsewhere when a brand doesn’t have the shopping experience they expect
  • Headless commerce adoption has grown by 50% in the last two years
  • Headless commerce platform users see a 23% reduction in bounce rate
  • 69% of consumers prefer shopping on websites with personalised experiences, enabled by headless commerce platforms
  • Businesses using headless commerce have reported a 20% decrease in website load times
  • Headless commerce platforms enable businesses to switch technologies 25% faster than their traditional counterparts

If you want to make the transition, you’ll need to have a headless commerce platform. Here’s a few options to consider:

Shopify Plus

Shopify Plus integrates its top Content Manager Software and other frontend solutions that can turn any screen into a virtual storefront. With Shopify Plus, you can access its storefront API which lets you design engaging storefronts for web, mobile, video games and more quickly. It requires little developer knowledge, meaning it will have low barriers of entry for all your employees involved in content management

  • URL customisation which lets you change your site address for SEO and brand purposes
  • Improved website load time and 99.98% uptime guarantee
  • Unlimited omnichannel capabilities
  • No-hassle localisation and translation
  • Can’t use Shopify’s theming engine or app proxy with headless commerce
  • Additional complexity as you’ll have to customise a lot of components

Adobe Commerce

Adobe Commerce provides almost unlimited customisation, albeit at a higher price than Shopify Plus. You can build app-like experiences across multiple touchpoints such as mobile apps, multi-web page apps, IoT devices and even virtual reality. Visitor data is used to segment customers and personalise the shopping experience with targeted promotions, suggestions and coupons.

  • Comprehensive set of tools for ecommerce store implementation
  • Integrated shipping APIs
  • Multi-store, multi-language, multi-currency and multi-warehouse functionality
  • One of the priciest options for headless commerce (you’ll need to request a bespoke quote)
  • Built for simple ecommerce subscription models so not apt for complex subscription models


BigCommerce lets users build headless architecture and includes lots of useful integrations that can be implemented with prebuilt connections to some well known CMS platforms and other frontend frameworks. It comes equipped with simple prebuilt plugins for WordPress, Contentful, and Contentstack.

  • Strong range of third-party integrations
  • Easy to customise
  • Allows custom coding
  • Slower loading speed than its competitor
  • Backend interface looks slightly clunkier than competitors

Conclusion: how to make headless tech work for your business

Headless commerce represents a significant step forward for businesses struggling with the inflexibility of their current traditional ecommerce set up. As the market continues to evolve and customers increasingly demand a more polished UX, businesses need to equip themselves with the right tools to meet these needs.

Choosing the right platform will support your transition and is an investment that should bring long term dividends in terms of customer experience.

Written by:
Fernanda is a Mexican-born Startups Writer. Specialising in the Marketing & Finding Customers pillar, she’s always on the lookout for how startups can leverage tools, software, and insights to help solidify their brand, retain clients, and find new areas for growth. Having grown up in Mexico City and Abu Dhabi, Fernanda is passionate about how businesses can adapt to new challenges in different economic environments to grow and find creative ways to engage with new and existing customers. With a background in journalism, politics, and international relations, Fernanda has written for a multitude of online magazines about topics ranging from Latin American politics to how businesses can retain staff during a recession. She is currently strengthening her journalistic muscle by studying for a part-time multimedia journalism degree from the National Council of Training for Journalists (NCTJ).

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