What is headless commerce? How can Shopify help merchants build headless commerce?

Ellie Ho
Jun 7, 2024
3 min read

In a world where customers expect tailored and, most importantly, convenient online experiences with a massive 89% of consumers citing this as a vital requirement of shopping, many merchants are sure to be looking for a way to effectively meet this need. Fortunately, the fast-paced nature of technology constantly creates ways for eCommerce merchants to implement strategies that are a better fit for their customers, one of which is headless commerce.

In this article, we will define exactly what headless commerce is, explain why this is a technique that eCommerce merchants - particularly in the retail sector - should consider, and finally, how you can use Shopify to build your own headless commerce to enhance your customers’ experiences to boost sales. So, let’s get started!

What is Headless Commerce?

Headless commerce is the separation of the front-end and the back-end of an eCommerce platform so they function independently of each other.

The front-end of an eCommerce platform refers to the visual and experiential elements of the website that the customer interacts with as they use the site. This includes site navigation, menus, content, and images; it is, therefore, the customer-facing portion of your website. The back-end is the technology deployed to make your website functional and dynamic as it stores and organizes data so that the front-end works, transforming it from a static site to a dynamic site.

So what happens when these two elements are separated from each other?

Typically, when building an eCommerce site, the front-end and back-end are created in tandem on a single platform. However, when these two elements are separated, merchants have greater power over which platforms to use for the customer-facing portion of their commerce and which to use for the back-end.

In this scenario, application programmable interfaces - otherwise known as APIs - are built first and used to connect the transactional part of the site with customized user interfaces.

headless commerce definition

Source: Planning PME

APIs act as an intermediary between the user and the complex technical workings of a website or app, they allow a user to interact in a user-friendly way. APIs can perform a variety of actions which are detailed below:

  • Accessing data - APIs allow different apps and services to exchange information. For example, the Weather app on Android phones retrieves weather data from The Weather Channel with the use of an API. This allows Android to display accurate weather updates using their specific user interface.
  • Simplification for app development - various APIs are used to connect apps with the operating systems of electronic devices. This makes it a lot simpler for developers to create apps as they do not have to consider how to, for example, connect the app to wifi, storage, GPS, or how to optimize the app for specific devices. APIs instead directly ask the system to render these connections and optimizations, meaning developers can focus on brand-specific features of the app.
  • Increasing the capabilities of devices - developers can use APIs to expand the capabilities of different apps, websites, or electronic devices. For example, LG can use APIs to give Google Home the ability to turn off and on LG appliances. This would therefore make Google Home compatible with all LG devices and appliances.
  • Improving security - have you ever noticed pop-ups on your phone of different apps asking for permission to access your camera or location? That, in fact, is not the work of the app itself, but of the APIs that connect the app to your phone’s operating system. APIs, therefore, provide users with information and control over how they allow apps to interact with them and what information they choose to share with particular apps.

APIs ultimately cater to the need from consumers to have greater flexibility over how they interact with and discover your commerce, as well as improving the experience of using your commerce across different devices. Additionally, it also allows merchants to ensure a top back-end functionality.

Why is headless commerce important?

Increased options for interaction

As mentioned previously, headless commerce gives greater options to customers over how they interact with your commerce. By incorporating headless commerce, merchants can be sure that they have given their customers the opportunity to browse the sites and make purchases easily from wherever they are.

Providing consumers with various ways to shop and interact with your brand online, aside from desktop sites, is proving to be of great importance. A 2016 study on American shopping habits unearthed that 51% of American’s used a cellphone to make a purchase. These mobile shopping habits have only intensified with time. According to Button, the total number of mobile orders per shopper on their platform increased by 38% between 2019 and 2020, with the spending of shoppers on mobile also increasing by a massive 68%. Additionally, mobile purchases in 2021 are projected to account for 53.9% of sales.

headless commerce in online shopping

Source: Pew Research Center

This demonstrates the huge importance for eCommerce merchants to create optimal mobile shopping experiences. Headless commerce makes this possible as platforms, such as Nacelle, can easily be integrated to produce enhanced mobile storefronts which make mobile shopping a breeze thereby increasing conversion rates and average order values. Merchants can also implement a progressive web app solution to create more efficient and accessible mobile browsing experiences.

Easier to achieve omni channel presence

In addition to enabling great mobile browsing experiences for customers, headless commerce can also more easily create new touch points and opportunities for purchasing for consumers. With the average adult spending almost 6 hours per day on their phones, and 29% of surveyed consumers stating that most of their new purchases came as a result of social media discoveries, being present on various mobile platforms is of high value. With headless commerce, merchants have the power to choose the right platforms that will help them tap into this gold mine of consumers.

Improved customer experience

Not only does headless commerce make it easier for merchants to achieve omni channel presence, but it can also greatly improve the customer experience. Having a personalized experience whilst shopping is something that consumers have grown to expect, in fact, 80% of adults want personalization from retailers.

The headless approach makes customer shopping data easily accessible and communicable between different channels as it is all handled by an API. This means that merchants can quickly make personalized recommendations based on individual customers’ purchase history, for example, feeding into the appropriate channels. Amazon is the king of this technique, with their headless solution allowing them to make updates to recommendations and products shown to individual customers every 11.7 seconds.

The customer experience can be further improved through headless commerce, as merchants can choose the best technical solutions for handling areas such as payments, shipping, logistics, and site speed. Solutions which create a smoother process throughout the customer journey are sure to lead to higher conversion rates. This is of particular importance during the checkout process as 75% of shoppers abandon their cart. So by incorporating technology which is safe, secure, mobile compatible, simple to use, and appropriate for your customers, you can stop those consumers in their tracks and secure that sale.

headless commerce emarketer chart

eMarketer found the online experience, the time required to complete the payment process, and payment options as key reasons for cart abandonment. This demonstrates the need for merchants to implement smooth and simple payment processes.

Quicker to make changes

Headless commerce offers a great deal of flexibility and customization options. Improvements and changes to your website can be made hassle-free as the decoupling of the front and back-end means any changes made do not need to be compatible with the back-end. This means that merchants can go to market faster with new customer experience ideas. On top of this, headless commerce allows you to have an omni channel presence without channel conflict. This is because you can use one back-end platform for all of your customer-facing channels.

How are businesses using headless commerce?

With all the benefits headless commerce brings, we’re sure you are wondering just how retailers are taking advantage of this new approach to eCommerce. Look no further as we have gathered some of the best examples of companies implementing headless commerce to give you some inspiration.

Highsnobiety x Prada

highsnobiety headless commerce example

With 500 million social media impressions and a strategy of dropping limited products on a regular basis, headless commerce enables the brand to bring products to markets on social platforms quickly whilst maintaining a consistent shopping experience. (Source: Highsnobiety Instagram)

In the spring of 2019, streetwear media brand Highsnobiety paired up with Prada’s own streetwear brand, Linea Rossa, for Highsnobiety’s first product drop. The venture saw the brand adopt a headless approach in order to capture potential customers on various mobile platforms. Their headless API system allowed their product to appear with an online store module on platforms such as WhatsApp, Snapchat, and within articles. This high visibility and purchasability across platforms popular amongst their audience saw them sell out of their product range in less than a week.

Michael Kors

michael kors headless ecommerce example

Creating a seamless experience for their global customer base who often shop via mobile devices was the leading reason for Michael Kors to adopt a headless architecture. (Source: Sparked)

In 2016, the luxury fashion and lifestyle brand, Michael Kors, made the switch to headless with the goal of more easily aligning their global digital efforts. Operating under multiple channels in 35 countries, the retailer found that making even the simplest of updates required a large amount of time and coordination.

Additionally, the current structure they were using meant making mobile changes were inefficient and also left them with the inability to effectively coordinate creating a fully responsive website. Michael Kors also wanted to improve and streamline their customers’ experiences regardless of the device they are using or their location. By adopting a headless approach, the brand was able to achieve standardization in all regions and all devices, something which was of great importance to them as 65% of their web traffic came from mobile.

Harry Rosen

harry rosen headless commerce example

Harry Rosen used headless commerce to carry over the personalized shopping experience into their online portal. This approach meant that the online experience matched the sales team’s workflow and that customers could connect with a personal shopper easily. (Source: Retail Touch Points)

In the wake of COVID-19 - a bid to maintain the highly personalized service they are renowned for, the high-end Canadian menswear brand, Harry Rosen, went headless to connect their customers with one of their 450 clothing advisors. Shoppers can now communicate with their favorite stylists through online chats and video calls. Items are selected by the stylist who then adds them to a virtual shopping cart for the customer to review.

Utilizing headless commerce for this purpose meant that Harry Rosen was able to combat the effects COVID has had on shopping. With people less inclined to spend much time in stores, the headless approach allowed customers to complete their shopping journey online; a customer can come in store to provide their preferences and sizes, and then review the selections at home online later.

Harry Rosen has also been able to efficiently implement changes to improve the customer experience thanks to headless architecture. This includes one-click checkout, additional payment options, and a simpler return process.

How Shopify Plus enables merchants to create headless commerce

Now you’ve seen the great ways various retail companies have used headless commerce to enhance the shopping experience, we bet you are wondering how you can take advantage of headless commerce for yourself. Fortunately, Shopify Plus has the tools to have you on your way.

shopify plus headless commerce

Shopify provides eCommerce merchants with a variety of APIs needed to quickly adopt a headless strategy, turning any device into a storefront. (Source: Shopify Plus)

With plug-and-play headless features sitting alongside tailor-made eCommerce systems, merchants can easily adopt a headless strategy by choosing how and where to present their products.

Merchants can have full control over online experiences through fully customizable storefronts, progressive web apps, and mobile apps, which will operate via Shopify’s back-end system. Shopify’s Storefront API also gives merchants the power to use Shopify outside of the standard channels.

The API and software development kits provide you with the opportunity to publish to and from any platform, turning any screen and device into a display and checkout for your products. There is truly no limit to the systems you can integrate, from CMS to CRM and of course, design framework.

Headless capabilities also work offline through smart mirrors, live streaming, voice shopping, and vending machines allowing for a much wider reach and touch points to potential customers.

When building a headless commerce store with Shopify Plus, there are a few things eCommerce merchants need to consider:

  • Technology - to ensure that you choose the perfect technology for your storefront it is important to think about the skill set your development team has. The majority of Shopify storefront templates are coded in React.js and Ember, so make sure your team is familiar with them. Also, consider how all of the technology will match up to the technical requirements needed for your store and storefront design.
  • Shopify Storefront API - as this is what is going to power your headless capabilities, it is of course key for your development team to understand how it operates and become comfortable with using it. Luckily, Shopify has created a comprehensive guide to get your team familiar with the API and how it functions.
  • Accessibility - you will need to create an access token in order to use the Storefront API. Simply do this by going to your Shopify admin page, from there go to the apps section and Manage private apps to create a new private app. In this section, check Allow this app to access your storefront data using Storefront API, and hey presto, you are now ready to set up your headless storefront! More information on customizing your storefront can be found here.

Final Thoughts

Headless commerce is proving to be a valuable technique for merchants to adopt in order to widen the reach of their products and tend to the ever-evolving demands of the modern consumer with ease. With the help of Shopify Plus, eCommerce merchants of any size, of any skill level, with a variety of needs, can capitalize on these technological advances and watch their sales soar.

Ellie Ho
Content Marketing Specialist
June 25, 2024
6 min read