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Headless commerce and the tools that make it work

Headless commerce is a relatively recent, but important trend in eCommerce, wherein you decouple the front and back end of your eCommerce site.

In non-technical terms, that means using front-end page builders with your own back-end system, for example WordPress as a CMS.

Building headless offers numerous benefits for eCommerce sellers and, because it’s almost exclusively handled over API or “click and connect” connectors, nearly everyone has access to the technology. 

With digital experience platforms readily available, sellers often have everything they need to set up headless commerce quickly and take advantage of it.

For example, a tool like MuleSoft or Pipe17 natively delivers connections by importing and exporting data from platforms and tools over secure connections. That greatly lessens the need for a large IT team, as well as reduces reliance on a single eCommerce platform. 

Why decouple the front and back end of your website?

Headless commerce offers many benefits for most sellers. For example, if you can pull data from Shopify, Amazon, or a WordPress site and integrate that data into the same back-end system, you can simplify how you manage, set up, and move to new eCommerce platforms.

Scale across platforms

Normally, scaling to a new platform requires building a new back end in it. Setting up with WordPress means coupling WooCommerce or a similar WordPress-friendly shopping cart, mapping that data to analytics, and so on.

Headless commerce decouples your front and back end, so as long as you can create connections, you can use the same back end. That might entail using Shopify for carts and front-end inventory management on your Shogun site. It could mean using the integrated shopping carts and automatically exporting that data to a single ERP.

Whatever the specifics, scaling to a new platform for headless commerce only entails worrying about setting up the front end of the site. 

Greater access to technology

Headless commerce also has multiple advantages in terms of access to technology. For example, if you can link almost anything via API or a connection, you have more tooling for management, inventory, pick and pack, and more.

This increases options for technology, security, and functionality; you build the stack you want, connect everything in the back end, and link that via API to your front end.

This produces benefits like: 

  • Developers can work in the software and code they’re familiar with and have expertise in. 
  • You have full ownership of site architecture. If you’re suspended on a platform, you don’t lose work put into that platform’s back end.
  • Front end changes (e.g., platform updates, new shopping cart, etc.) don’t hurt the back end. You might have to reconnect an API, but you won’t have to redesign processes. 

Faster load times

Decoupling the back end from your front end means that the server providing data for shoppers doesn’t also handle data requests, process payments, or handle inventory management. Or, if it does, the requests no longer go through the same ports.

This decoupling can dramatically speed up your front end, giving shoppers a better experience, your SEO a boost, and (likely) your conversion rates an uptick. 

Setting up headless commerce

Setting up headless commerce requires choosing an integration or digital experience platform such as iPaaS to connect your tools across the front and back end. In most cases, that means pairing any front-end platform with your stack – so, in this case, we’ll focus on tooling for setup. 

IPaaS and connectors 

IPaaS and digital experience platforms are an alternative supplement to API connections, allowing teams to build connections without a full IT team in-house. While you’ll still likely benefit from one, you’ll rely less on what you can create. 

Consider iPaaS platforms as the “glue” that holds everything together. If your tooling operates in its own environment, it has to communicate with other software to ensure real-time data synchronization, orders match up on the front and back end, and customers receive shipping and payment notifications via the ordering platform.

Essentially, this is the most important part of your headless commerce stack. While tools like Zapier will always be favorites because they’re well known, they often don’t offer the full extent of integrations needed for completely headless commerce.

Instead, you want to look at the following:

  • API – If your integration platform doesn’t support an app, you’ll have to use an API to integrate it. Here, you can tap into GraphQL, Apollo, Fabric, Hasura, Kong, API management over AWS or Azure, and WSO2 API Manager.
  • Pipe17 – Pipe17 offers iPaaS with pre-built integrators for everything from shipping and logistics providers to back-end inventory management and bookkeeping. 
  • Mulesoft – Mulesoft is an integration platform offering API, connections, and API management, with solutions for Oracle, Salesforce, SAP, and dozens of other systems. 
  • commercetools – commercetools offers cloud and headless commerce tools, with API, commerce platforms, and product management. It also provides options across all three, including custom or bespoke solutions, making it one of the most popular headless solutions for big brands like Audi and Lego. 
  • Commerce Layer – Commerce Layer delivers custom interfaces, a market hub, and API microservices architecture, which you can use to build and launch websites and front-end shopping. 
  • Heroku – Heroku is a platform as a service tool delivering modular microservices architecture, which fully supports headless builds. 

The digital experience platform 

Digital experience platforms (DXP) take the role of content management systems (CMS) and web experience management (WEM) tooling. You could choose to select a single DXP tool or build functionality using CMS and WEM, depending on your needs.

  • CMS – Your content management system allows you to create and push content such as products to the front end. Some vendors use Shopify or Salesforce Commerce for this. Others rely on codeless CMS like Contentful, Prismic, or Sanity. CMS delivers localized control of a single site, unless coupled with API or an iPaaS to push data to a central platform. 
  • WEM – Web experience management is a largely enterprise tool designed to offer consistency and centralization across channels. 
  • DXP – DXP uses microservices architecture and API to combine web experience management and CMS on one platform. 
    • Kentico Kontent – Kentico Kontent is one of the largest headless content management systems, delivering product management, front-end landing pages, user gateways, and performance analytics across nearly any platform or stack. 
    • Shogun – Shogun is a front-end eCommerce website builder designed to construct headless front ends for platforms like Shopify, Magento, and BigCommerce. 
    • Crystallize – Crystallize delivers product information management with workflows, pipelines, and rich content management across platforms, with an open API for connection to (nearly) any platform. 

Back-end databases 

Your headless commerce will almost always include an ERP, however, it should likely be the one you’re familiar with. Whether that’s SAP,  Adobe Commerce, Crystallize, or Commerce Layer is really up to you.

These tie into (and often overlap with) digital experience and iPaaS platforms, as many vendors, like Commerce Layer attempt to provide an out-of-the-box solution for headless commerce. 

You need: 

  • Omnichannel inventory 
  • Omnichannel order management
  • Content management 

Here, eCommerce vendors have a wealth of choice, with Shopify, Salesforce Commerce, Commerce Layer, BigCommerce, Adobe Magento Commerce, and OroCommerce all offering “headless” options to their commerce platforms. 

Payment processing 

Most eCommerce sellers already decouple payments from their front end. Doing so frees you from numerous security and compliance regulations, such as PCI-DSS.

For this reason, you likely already rely on a payment processing solution that’s compatible with headless commerce. Some of the most popular include Stripe, PayPal, and AmazonPay.

Search

Aloglia and Contructor.io dominate headless commerce search, although Swiftype is a good competitor. You may also choose to index content with Google and simply serve it on your site using custom search.

Security

If your eCommerce stores allow user login, you need user management and security. Tools like Auth0, Cognito, and Akamai Identity allow you to manage users and logins across sites for a seamless account and purchase experience. 

Wrapping up — Using headless commerce for more conversions

Going headless allows you to separate infrastructure from the eCommerce platforms you sell on. Today, dozens of platforms support it, and you’ll likely find a wealth of options for nearly every tool you need.

Making the switch to headless allows you to scale quickly, move to new platforms, and retain ownership of the infrastructure, even as you move between front-end platforms. At the same time, it requires significant investment in infrastructure and services, choosing a stack, and building a solution that powers the back end of your platforms. 

Today, thousands of eCommerce stores are already headless. Familiar brands like Chubbies, Lego, Audi, Netflix, Best Buy, and Bosch Tools run headless commerce. While it’s not right for everyone, headless commerce allows for faster, more flexible scaling, greater access to tooling, and reduced reliance on a single platform, even when you largely use just one like Shogun or Pipe17 as your base. 

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