Headless commerce explained

Headless commerce is here to stay. Let's take a look at the key terms, the benefits, critical characteristics of headless commerce architecture, and more.
February 21, 2024


This is it! This is the year! 63% of retail companies plan to migrate to headless commerce platforms in 2024, while over 20% are already using them. 

Headless commerce represents a revolutionary shift in ecommerce, empowering businesses to break free from arbitrary constraints and embrace a more flexible and dynamic approach to selling goods and services online.

With an API-first approach and microservices architecture, headless commerce platforms provide the foundation for seamless integration with third-party services, IoT devices, mobile applications, and other emerging technologies.

This extensibility brings fresh possibilities for delivering personalized experiences to any audience, destination, or channel. Organizations are now empowered to innovate and adapt swiftly to ever-changing customer expectations and market demands.

In this post, we'll explore definitions of headless commerce, then cover some of the benefits, the critical characteristics of headless commerce architecture, and more.

What is headless commerce?

Headless commerce is a modern approach to ecommerce architecture that decouples the frontend presentation layer (the "head") from the backend ecommerce functionality. In traditional ecommerce, the frontend and backend are tightly integrated, meaning the user interface and the underlying ecommerce functionality are inseparable.

Even though the frontend and backend are separate in headless commerce architecture, they can still communicate through APIs (application programming interfaces). This framework enables businesses to have greater flexibility and agility in delivering ecommerce experiences across various digital touchpoints, such as websites, mobile apps, IoT devices, voice assistants, and more.

While it's essential to recognize that the choice between headless commerce and traditional commerce architectures depends on specific business needs and goals, many businesses consider headless commerce superior for several reasons.

Benefits of adopting a headless commerce solution

Flexibility and customization

Headless commerce's decoupled architecture allows businesses to customize the frontend independently without being constrained by the backend. This flexibility empowers companies to create unique and tailored user experiences and storefronts, ensuring a solid brand identity and enhancing customer engagement.

Omnichannel capabilities

Today, consumers interact with businesses across multiple channels and devices. With its API-driven approach, headless commerce delivers a seamless omnichannel experience. Businesses can quickly expand their presence across various platforms while providing consistent and personalized interactions. 

CASE STUDY: High-fidelity audio specialists Bang & Olufsen use a decoupled front- and backend to ship digital experiences to web browsers, mobile devices and in-store digital signage.

Faster time to market

The independent development of frontend and backend components in headless commerce enables parallel workstreams. This results in faster deployment of new features, updates, and improvements, allowing businesses to respond quickly to market trends and customer demands.

CASE STUDY: Eyewear retailer Ace & Tate relies on Contentful to rapidly deploy captivating campaigns and collaborations, much to the delight of their customers.

Scalability and performance

The modular nature of headless commerce facilitates the efficient scaling of specific components based on demand. Modularity ensures optimal performance even during high-traffic or business-growth periods without affecting other system parts.

CASE STUDY: The Saadia Group is home to multiple brands in fashion, with a universal content model that empowers them to speed up “digital refreshes” tied to new acquisitions. 


Within a headless solution in place, businesses can leverage customer data to create tailored experiences that cater to each customer's unique needs and preferences. This level of personalization can lead to increased customer loyalty and higher engagement rates, ultimately driving sales and revenue growth for the business. 

CASE STUDY: Interior design retailer Ruggable uses A/B testing to ensure content resonates and converts specific customer segments, achieving KPIs without adding additional headcount. 


Headless commerce is better equipped to adapt to emerging technologies and devices. As new digital touchpoints and technologies emerge, businesses can seamlessly integrate them into their ecommerce strategy through APIs without requiring a complete system overhaul.

CASE STUDY: Cycling and apparel retailer Rapha has shifted gears to a tech stack that unites customers from the comfort of their own homes.

More developer productivity

The separation of frontend and backend development in headless commerce fosters collaboration between specialized development teams. Frontend developers can focus on creating innovative user interfaces. In contrast, backend developers can concentrate on building robust ecommerce functionality. This division of labor often leads to enhanced productivity and code maintainability.

Security and stability

The decoupled nature of headless commerce can improve security by limiting the attack surface. A vulnerability in the frontend does not necessarily compromise the backend, reducing the overall risk. Additionally, updates and changes can be implemented without disruption, ensuring system stability.

CASE STUDY: Office supplies specialist Staples Canada has an ecommerce platform built on a stack of best-in-class technologies that are purpose-built for individual functions. 

Headless commerce vs. traditional commerce

As ecommerce has grown to an industry worth nearly six trillion US dollars, the market revenue from ecommerce software has also grown proportionately. 

Traditional commerce is a widely adopted approach for ecommerce. It's been around for a long time as an established template for buying and selling goods and services online. However, it has multiple drawbacks in contrast to headless architectures. Let's go through the main limitations.

As we explained earlier, traditional commerce solutions often come packaged as monolithic systems where the front- and backends are closely intertwined. This integration can limit the flexibility to customize the user interface and overall user experience. Making changes or introducing new features may require modifying the entire system, leading to longer development cycles and increased costs.

Next, providing a consistent shopping experience across multiple channels and devices can be challenging in traditional commerce. Integrating various channels may require significant development effort and coordination between different teams, leading to potential inconsistencies and inefficiencies.

Do you find yourself needing more time to market? A lack of agility might be due to the interdependencies between the front- and backends in traditional commerce systems, where implementing changes and deploying updates can take time and effort. Businesses may need help to respond quickly to market trends and changing customer demands, which can put them at a disadvantage in the fast-paced ecommerce landscape.

Understanding the architecture of headless commerce

Let's dive a little deeper into the architecture of headless commerce and the concepts involved.

Frontend and backend decoupling

With frontend and backend decoupling, the frontend (user interface) and backend (business logic, data processing) are independent components. This separation allows for greater scalability, flexibility, and more accessible updates. Frontend developers can work separately from backend developers, and each component can use different technologies, programming languages, or frameworks as long as they communicate through APIs.

API-first approach

An API-first approach involves designing the application's APIs before any other part of the development process. This approach emphasizes the importance of clean, well-documented, and efficient APIs as the foundation for building the rest of the application.

APIs are the communication layer between various components in a headless commerce architecture. The API-first approach ensures that these APIs are well-designed, robust, and future-proof, allowing for easier integration with third-party services and other systems (e.g., mobile applications).

Role of microservices

Microservices architecture is a design approach that structures an application as a collection of loosely coupled services, each responsible for specific business functionalities. In a headless commerce architecture, microservices are crucial in managing different aspects of ecommerce operations, such as product catalog, order processing, payments, and user management.

The microservices architecture enables developers to build, deploy, and scale each service independently, providing better flexibility, fault isolation, and improved maintainability. This architecture allows for rapid development, easy updates, and better utilization of resources, making it suitable for complex and scalable ecommerce solutions.

Headless CMS and its importance

A headless CMS (content management system) focuses solely on content creation, storage, and management. In contrast, separate applications (frontends) handle content presentation and delivery. 

The paradigm shift is more or less the same as with traditional ecommerce systems; in a traditional CMS, the front- and backends are tightly enmeshed, limiting the flexibility of content presentation and restricting developers from using specific technologies. A headless CMS, by comparison, offers greater flexibility because it exposes your content through APIs, allowing developers to present content in various ways on different devices and platforms.

A headless CMS is important because of its ability to streamline content management, ensure content consistency across various touchpoints (websites, mobile apps, IoT devices), and facilitate omnichannel experiences. It empowers marketers and creators to focus on content creation and modifications without being constrained by frontend design or development limitations.

Critical components of headless commerce architecture

Headless ecommerce platforms

Headless ecommerce platforms serve as the backbone of a headless commerce architecture. These platforms provide the core functionalities needed to run an online store, such as product catalog management, pricing, customer management, and shopping carts. The essential characteristic of a headless ecommerce platform is its API-centric approach, which allows frontend applications to interact with the platform through APIs, enabling the decoupling of frontend and backend systems.

Headless payment systems

A headless payment system handles the processing of payments in a headless commerce environment. It integrates with the headless ecommerce platform through APIs to facilitate secure and seamless payment transactions.

Headless payment systems enable merchants to connect with various payment gateways, processors, and alternative payment methods, providing customers with multiple payment options. This flexibility is essential to accommodate the diverse preferences of customers across different regions and ensure a smooth checkout experience.

Product inventory management

Product inventory management (PIM) systems are responsible for monitoring and controlling the stock levels of products in an online store. These systems keep track of available quantities, handle backorders, and provide real-time inventory updates.

A headless approach to PIM allows efficient integration with the ecommerce platform and other systems. It ensures that product availability information is accurate and consistent across all sales channels, preventing overselling and stockouts.

Order management

Order management systems manage, process, and track customer orders from placement to fulfillment. These systems ensure efficient order processing, shipping, and customer communication.

In a headless architecture, the order management system operates independently. Yet, it can seamlessly communicate with the ecommerce platform, inventory management, and shipping providers through APIs. This decoupled setup allows for greater agility, scalability, and customizability in handling complex order workflows.

Implementing headless commerce

Transitioning to a headless commerce model represents a significant shift towards more agile and personalized ecommerce experiences. However, this requires meticulous planning and an in-depth understanding of the business's needs and the technological landscape. Businesses must evaluate their current technology stack, understand their objectives for moving to headless commerce, and assess their team's readiness in terms of skills and resources.

Contentful Technology Partners like commercetools, Commerce Layer, SAP Commerce Cloud and BigCommerce (to name only a handful) have the professional expertise to guide you on this journey. Please browse through our partner directory as a first port of call. 

However, sketched out in brief, the process begins with a clear strategy that outlines what the business aims to achieve through headless commerce, such as enhancing customer experience, achieving faster market responsiveness, or leveraging flexibility to innovate. Choosing the right headless commerce platform and complementary tools should align with the company's long-term growth plans and technological requirements.

Implementing the transition in phases allows for manageable steps, starting with components that pose the least operational risk and provides valuable learning opportunities for adjusting strategies moving forward.

Best practices for a smooth transition include a strong focus on API design and management, as APIs are crucial for the seamless interaction between the frontend and backend systems. Businesses should also take advantage of the opportunity to innovate on the frontend, continuously testing and refining customer interactions.

Ensuring close collaboration across teams — merging technical expertise with business vision — is essential for aligning the headless commerce implementation with broader company goals. Through careful planning, selection of the right tools, and a phased adoption approach, businesses can successfully navigate the transition to headless commerce, unlocking new opportunities for growth and customer engagement.

Empower your business with headless commerce

Headless commerce empowers businesses to stay relevant in an era where customer expectations tend to evolve and shift rapidly. It provides the freedom to experiment, the ability to scale efficiently, and the tools to deliver unparalleled customer experiences.

Headless commerce is not limited to any specific industry, making it an ideal solution for various businesses. Whether it's ecommerce ventures seeking to differentiate themselves with unique user experiences, retail giants looking to unify online and offline channels, D2C brands striving to build brand loyalty, or B2B companies streamlining complex procurement processes, headless commerce offers the scalability and agility required for success.

Embracing a headless CMS complements the headless commerce architecture, allowing content creators and marketers to exert their creativity and deliver consistent, engaging content across diverse channels without being restricted by frontend design limitations.

The digital landscape continues to evolve in leaps and bounds, and headless commerce stands as a pillar of innovation, propelling businesses toward a more dynamic and customer-centric future. By harnessing the power of headless commerce, businesses can meet the demands of today's consumers while staying prepared for tomorrow's challenges and opportunities.

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