‘Headless’ Commerce has become a fashionable word to throw around. There’s a huge amount of noise telling the world it’s the ‘next big thing’ - tweets, LinkedIn posts, conferences and agencies, all discussing the benefits of losing your head.
So, what is it? How is it being used? Can you do it with Shopify Plus? And should you care?
What does it mean to go headless?
Firstly, going headless isn’t new. In fact, it’s based on a usage of technology that’s been going on for years. It’s based on some (relatively) simple engineering processes.
Headless eCommerce refers to decoupling the front-end (or the head) of your online store from the back-end technology. You end up with independent systems communicating to each other, and if exploited in the right way, it can have a dramatic effect.
Software engineers have always been keen on “separation of concerns” and “MVC” models. To keep it simple, engineers like having distinct parts of a software platform concentrating solely on one thing. Think of a database to store data, some logic and then a presentation of the result. It’s how lots of websites work. And each ‘layer’ has only one job - store and retrieve data, work out what to do with the data, and present the results to the user.
Can you go headless with Shopify?
Shopify Plus presents itself as ‘coupled’ - it does all of the above for retailers that use Shopify Plus (store data, make logical decisions and present to the shopper) under one platform. (Sidenote: the reality is that under the covers, Shopify is built with separate concerns, then packaged up for retailers.)
Still reading? It gets less technical from here, we promise.
Headless commerce works by using Shopify Plus (or another eCommerce platform for that matter) as only one part of three layers, rather than allowing Shopify Plus to do them all.
Why is it growing in popularity?
There are lots of reasons why retailers are exploring the headless model:
Easier-to-expand digital touchpoints
Nowadays, customers expect to interact digitally with your business. And by that, we don’t just mean you need a pretty website. There are many other digital touchpoints to consider. Mobile apps. Billboards. Marketplaces. Wearables. Voice-powered home devices. Smart appliances. The list goes on.
Rather than storing content, business logic and presentation all in one platform, it can make sense to store independently (“separating the concerns”) and then depending on needs, use the right technology to present those elements back to the customer. Multiple ‘heads’ are possible.
Given we’re talking about headless eCommerce specifically, for the transactional part of all your ‘heads’, you’d need an ecommerce engine (such as Shopify Plus).
Increased flexibility and development speed
The monolithic structure of traditional commerce platforms can sometimes lack the flexibility needed to keep up with the latest technologies.
The good news is that going headless allows you to take new levels of control. By working in tandem, development teams can dictate how your digital storefront looks and behaves, without needing to reconfigure back-end technology. After all, you’ll only be re-doing one part of the system and not the whole thing.
Not only will it be easier to test new features, remove old ones, and experiment with changes, it can speed up your development cycle and allow you to more quickly adapt to new market trends.
Fast. Really fast.
The performance of each layer can be blisteringly fast. It makes sense - rather than having multiple things to do, a specific layer only has one thing to do. That allows for optimisation beyond what can be achieved with a monolithic structure.
A headless front-end on an eCommerce store can be unbelievably quick to respond. And when conversion rates are directly impacted by site speed, the benefits here are obvious.
What about the trade-offs?
We’re certain that all sounds great. In fact, it sounds like an easy decision. However, Shopify Plus being used in the traditional structure still makes sense for most.
It’s more complicated to go headless…
And that means finding engineers and getting the right ones can be hard. They need to excel in how to build high-performing, quality systems and understand the approach fully.
They cost more to hire, too.
Not only financial but the technical costs are higher too. You’ll no longer be able to use the Shopify app store in the traditional manner, having to implement things in a way which simply takes longer to deliver and test. It takes longer and as we all know, time equals money.
Increased technical costs (servers, hosting etc), increased developer costs, increased timescales.
So it takes more time and more budget — we think it’s for a retailer that’s hit a good level of volume and is ready to invest. The upsides of headless commerce are big, but so is the likely investment to pull it off properly.
(As an aside on timescales, like anything, we predict the timescales will shorten as the trend continues growing).
Headless eCommerce with Shopify Plus
Shopify Plus can be the engine that drives the transactions of your headless systems. In fact, Shopify themselves have some content on their website on this very topic (go take a look — but finish reading this first!)
The Shopify Plus API and SDK are available today - but Shopify is committed to changes in the future that will make the work around going headless faster and easier. Their GraphQL changes will make things easier for engineers to deliver some of the things we’ve been discussing above.
Is it right for me?
We hope this has answered some of your questions as you research what going headless means for you.
Our answer to if it’s right for you?
Yes. No. Maybe.
It’s almost impossible for us to know without talking to you. We work with merchants who, regardless of whether it’s headless or not, want the benefits of Shopify Plus.
Get in touch and we’ll gladly talk you through it.