Headless eCommerce vs Traditional eCommerce

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The world is rushing forward like a sports car that’s hard to catch or even to spot. What seemed impossible yesterday, it’s a standard today. And a world of eCommerce is changing, too – the competition is growing quickly and so are the requirements of customers.

It’s no longer just about offering the right product at the right price, and pretty much nothing else – people are considering many more factors before buying anything from anyone online. And great user experience is among the most important ones.

User experience consists of things like page load speed, navigation, intuitiveness, following battle-tested design practices, and so on. And these things are strictly connected with the approach to creating or building online stores.

For a long time, the traditional approach was the only choice, but luckily it changed with the arrival of headless. And today, let’s dive into a comparison between headless eCommerce versus traditional eCommerce.

What is headless eCommerce?

Headless is an entirely new concept of disconnecting the front-end layer from the back-end layer, so these two layers are separate but sync with each other. 

This approach can be used not only for corporate websites or blogs but also for more complicated solutions like eCommerce. In the latter case, which is the subject of this article, it’s possible to create a custom front-end (also called storefront) without the need to create the whole online store from scratch.

In other words, headless is a concept of separating the back-end from the user interface, while connecting them through API (Application Programming Interface). Because content and design are separated from the logic and functional layer, online store owners can focus on developing customer interactions without worrying about breaking the store foundations like payment processing or databases.

Headless eCommerce helps you with efficiently managing the content and gives you the possibility to distribute it to any channel, which wouldn’t be possible within the traditional eCommerce. Therefore it gives you full flexibility and control of content, custom code, interface and templates – all of that in a single environment.

The traditional CMS doesn’t support displaying content on various devices, so it created the need for more sophisticated CMS that won’t limit possibilities and options of displaying the content. In other words, any changes on the front-end layer shouldn’t affect the back-end layer because it costs store owners both time and money, and makes the whole process of making changes risky.

To make this possible, headless eCommerce uses API. Thanks to it, the content is available for any channel or device so you can build your website or mobile application using technologies of your choice, which makes it more scalable and flexible.

Headless eCommerce allows you to create and design custom customer touchpoints like forms, product pages, checkout pages or anything else that customers interact with.

Benefits

Possibility to integrate with any system (eg. Shopify, Saleor) without the need of building an online store from scratch.
Great improvement of user experience thanks to the flexibility of designing a front-end layer.
Minimal risk of breaking down store during technical changes?
Making changes (like fixing performance issues or implementing new features) is faster than in the case of traditional eCommerce because of the openness of headless architecture.
The headless approach can be applied to any online store, regardless of its content heaviness or the number of various integrations.
Easy to make daily changes, testing new solutions and functionalities, and optimising the store.

JAMstack in headless eCommerce

If you are looking for the best way to build a headless store, JAMstack may be your choice. It’s a technology stack that consists of:

  • JavaScript
  • APIs 
  • Markup

And that’s why it’s called JAMstack.

JavaScript is responsible for handling dynamic programming during the request/response cycle.

APIs are reusable and responsible for handling all server-side functions or database actions.

Markup is responsible for the presentation layer and is usually built with static site generators (like Gatsby, for example).

Examples of headless eCommerce platforms

BigCommerce

Magento Ecommerce 2

Saleor

Selz

Shopify Plus

Not sure if headless eCommerce is for you?

What is a traditional eCommerce?

On the contrary to headless eCommerce, in traditional eCommerce, the front-end and back-end layers aren’t separated from each other. Therefore, any change on the front-end requires considering back-end beforehand because both these layers are dependent on each other. Also, these changes can’t be made in real-time – any modification may require a short technical break.

Apart from intentional modifications, sometimes an online store requires maintenance due to errors or performance issues. Both also need technical breaks before the online store can become fully operational again.

Instead of custom designs as in the case of headless eCommerce, the traditional approach usually means using pre-made templates. Although setting them up and running is relatively easy, the customisation options are usually strictly limited. Therefore, most online stores look ordinary and likewise to each other, and it results in high bounce rates and a lot of abandoned carts.

It’s no surprise that this happens because customers and visitors are looking for more-than-satisfying experience from online shopping. Online stores that only pretend to be custom and one-of-kind are usually destined to fail in the long term. And that’s why customisation is the biggest challenge of the traditional approach to eCommerce.

Another issue is that the risk of store slowdown or something getting broken grows together with the online store itself. The bigger the database or the number of products, the harder and more demanding it is to maintain and optimise the whole platform.

Add to this quite long time-to-market and high development costs, and you get a reason why brands started to look for other solutions to build their online stores and better shape online experiences for their customers.

However, traditional eCommerce has its benefits.

Benefits 

Adding content through an intuitive admin dashboard is relatively easy and time-efficient.
Built-in themes, standard templates and helpful plugins.
Changing basic settings like theme colours or typography doesn’t require programming skills.
One technology/solution to maintain instead of two.

Examples of traditional eCommerce platforms

Magento Open Source

OpenCart

PrestaShop

Shopify

WooCommerce

Headless eCommerce vs traditional eCommerce: Differences

After getting familiar with both headless and traditional eCommerce, their non-dictionary definitions and benefits, it’s time to look at main differences. It will help you to make a more informed decision about choosing one of them.

Adaptability and flexibility

Headless eCommerce

Front-end developers love freedom given by headless eCommerce – possibilities to make changes are limitless. Whether it’s building a new form and styling it or creating a fully custom product page – a front-end developer can make it happen. Want to rebuild the entire front-end without touching or affecting the back-end? It’s also possible.

Traditional eCommerce

The options for making traditional online stores actually custom are limited. And if something is possible, it’s not possible to make changes to the front-end layer without editing code on the back-end layer.

Front-end development

Headless eCommerce

Thanks to decoupling the front-end layer from back-end one, headless eCommerce empowers front-end developers with a freedom to create a user experience from scratch, depending on the business goals of the particular online store. It’s possible because instead of taking care of databases as well as front-end modifications, all they need is to maintain API connection. It’s a huge distinction in comparison to traditional eCommerce.

However, it comes at a price. Front-end developers, and other people responsible for designing product pages or landing pages – like marketers – have to build these designs from scratch. And for every eCommerce project, making the great connection between design and user experience is quite a challenge.

Traditional eCommerce

Since online stores created with the traditional approach are monolithic, and both front-end and back-end parts depend on each other. Therefore, front-end developers encounter some limitations. Making any changes to the visual aspect of the store requires modification of code, database, and front-end platform as well.

There is almost no freedom – going too far with customisations may lead, among other things, to losing warranty from the eCommerce solution provider.

Personalisation and customisation

Headless eCommerce

Online store owners who decided to go with a headless approach aren’t forced to use pre-made themes to create a unique user experience. It’s because there is no front-end layer to customise – it must be built from scratch. It gives you the online store owner, total freedom to personalise your webshop and customise it when needed.

Traditional eCommerce

Deciding for traditional eCommerce means having limited possibilities of personalisation and customisation. However, basic settings like colour palette or typography are relatively easy to change, even without programming skills

Sure, you can build a custom WooCommerce or Shopify theme with the hands of developers. But it’s not like it will make everything possible – your options of customisation will be still limited.

Is it possible to make traditional eCommerce headless?

The answer is yes, but under one primary condition – the eCommerce platform you are using must be providing API. 

This way, later you can connect created custom storefront with the back-end responsible for your online store’s functioning. 

However, you will also need to choose a technology to build a custom storefront on top of your traditional platform. Lately, Static Site Generators like Gatsby or Next are gaining popularity so you may want to consider choosing one of them.

What’s next?

You can either read our case study of headless eCommerce store we created for Otakuchan or schedule a free consultancy call to discuss your future or ongoing project.

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