Headless Commerce: What is it & How to Get Started on Shopify Plus


Published by Charlotte Davies


Headless commerce is no longer just a buzzword. Instead, it’s becoming an increasingly popular setup for many global brands. 

With rising customer acquisition costs, the death of third-party cookies and a record-breaking number of new ecommerce stores opening every day, merchants need to harness creative, omnichannel experiences in order to reach customers on the channels they use the most, convert them and keep them coming back. 

This is where headless commerce can help. Headless gives merchants the freedom to create incredible shopping experiences for their customers by unlocking developer experiences.

At first glance, headless commerce seems complex, but it doesn’t have to be. In addition, just because a lot of merchants are going headless doesn’t mean you should, too. In fact, headless commerce isn’t for everyone and comes with additional responsibilities. 

Here we talk about what exactly headless commerce is, its benefits and how to get started on Shopify Plus. 

What is headless commerce?

Headless commerce is an ecommerce store where the customer-facing part of the store (front-end or the “head”) is separate from the systems and tools used to run the business in the background (back-end). In simple terms, headless commerce is where the front-end and back-end are independent of each other. It’s this that gives merchants more flexibility when creating customer experiences. 

How does headless commerce work?

The secret to headless commerce is the API (application program interface). An API is what connects the front-end and back-end, sending information back and forth in real-time.

With headless storefronts, you can leverage multiple back-end systems depending on your business needs. These systems include:

  • Content management system (CMS)
  • Progressive web app (PWA)
  • Customer relationship management (CRM)
  • Digital experience platform (DXP)

What’s more, any additional tools you use to run your business act as customer touchpoints, including POS, mobile apps, marketplaces, voice search, etc. So whenever a customer interacts with a touchpoint on your store, the API will send that information to the back-end.

What are the benefits of headless commerce?

Headless commerce offers merchants lots of great opportunities and it comes with a lot of significant benefits over more traditional ecommerce setups, such as…

1. Faster to market

With headless, customer-facing (front-end) work can be done separately without having to wait for back-end work, and vice versa. For example, this means your marketing team is able to create and execute marketing campaigns faster, amending content layout and product placement without affecting back-end processes, which means less time from concept to execution.

2. Increased speed

It’s no secret that page speed is one of the highest factors affecting bounce rate, but with headless, site speed isn’t a problem. Boasting sub-second load times even on mobile, headless commerce is one way you can tackle the problem of speed directly without having to compromise on design.

3. More control

With headless’ powerful APIs, you can integrate all your existing systems: ERP, PIM, IMS, etc, to design and build customer experiences using the programming language of your choice. This helps futureproof your store, allowing you to adapt quickly to the latest trends and changes in the world of ecommerce.

4. Even more personalisation

Headless gives you the ability to split test what you want to build so you can create customer experiences that are more likely to convert. Also, headless commerce allows you to collect and share data across multiple customer touchpoints. For example, if a customer creates an account on your ecommerce store and then continues their shopping journey on their smartwatch, the headless architecture lets you sync their data across the two devices and provides a personalised, seamless shopping experience. With 80% of consumers admitting they are more likely to make a purchase when brands offer personalised experiences, going headless gives you the tools you need to keep up with ever-changing customer acquisition trends.

5. Makes expansion easier

Another benefit of headless is that its open architecture makes it easier to add expansion stores, which come in handy for brands looking to expand into new international markets. If you have a lot of reusable data in the back-end, such as a large product catalogue, content, etc, but want to change pricing and language for different regions, you can configure front-ends for each.

6. Customisable URLs for improved SEO

The way your URLs are structured on your website plays a significant role in your ranking position in search engines like Google. The higher you rank, the more eyes on your store. 

In order to signal to Google that your product page is relevant to a customer’s search, you need your product page URLs to be flexible enough to accommodate detailed product descriptions. This is where headless comes in really handy. When you build site pages within a headless architecture, it gives you more control over your URL structure, so you get more out of your SEO returns.

Is headless commerce for every ecommerce business?

In short, no, headless is not a good fit for every ecommerce business. If you’re doing well using traditional ecommerce architecture, then it might not be worth the money to invest in headless. It depends on your long-term goals and the current challenges your business is facing. 

If you’re unsure, we suggest you think about‌:

  • Project costs: Headless commerce can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000, plus other annual fees, depending on the functionality, tools, and level of customisation you require. Keep in mind headless is an enormous project, so if you want to keep costs low, headless probably isn’t for you.
  • Ownership costs: Maintaining a headless site requires a deep developer skillset, which means you’ll need to hire an external agency. 
  • Shopify app ecosystem: With headless, you still have access to Shopify’s app store, but it’s not as simple as ‘plug-and-play’ when it comes to installation. These apps need to have APIs for the features you want to use, which again requires development work at an additional cost.  
  • Shopify theme: If you’re happy with your Shopify theme or template and aren’t looking for further customisation, again, headless probably isn’t worth it.

Headless Vs Traditional

Headless commerce ultimately provides merchants with more tools to deliver a better customer experience than traditional solutions. The separation of your front-end and back-end saves you time since changes to one can be made without disrupting the other. This independence allows you to test what works best to convert more customers. Most commonly you can push content to the front-end through an existing CMS instead of the commerce platform itself. That way, you can alter on-site content without having to go through the back-end.

So, you’ve decided headless is for you? Here’s what you need to do next if you’re on Shopify Plus:

  1. Make a list of the apps your ecommerce business relies on that have APIs and can communicate with Shopify Storefront API. Then, determine which apps you absolutely need on your headless site (be scrupulous with your selection, get rid of the nice-to-haves). 
  2. Then do some thorough research and testing on your Shopify Plus store, e.g. what your initial Lighthouse score is and what might affect it. This provides you with a benchmark to help quantify the benefits of headless and evaluate its success once launched. 
  3. Finally, decide the route to headless you’d like to go down. Option 1: do it yourself, option 2: build it with an agency or option 3: use a frontend-as-a-service provider.

Brands who have gone headless on Shopify

Here’s a list of direct-to-consumer brands that have switched their Shopify stores to headless.


2. Allbirds


4. Seedlip

5. Chilly’s


7. One Blade

8. Bamford

9. The Feed


Ready to go headless?

If you’re a scaling brand on Shopify Plus, but want more flexibility to customise the user experience, it might be time to go headless. If you’d like to find out more about whether headless commerce is the right fit for your business, or you need help to get started, reach out to our team of ecommerce experts today.

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