Headless Commerce Guide

Approaches to Running Headless Commerce

There are three leading headless commerce frameworks and each provides a distinct set of advantages depending on your technical capabilities and future growth plans.

Overview of Headless Commerce Development Options

Headless CMS architecture is front-end agnostic by definition, but the way that you integrate your frontend varies based on the type of headless architecture that you’re using. The three leading frameworks are (1) headless only, (2) exclusive eCommerce integration, and (3) hybrid. Each of these frameworks provides a set of advantages that may present a better fit or option for your organization based on your technical capability and future growth plans.

1. Headless Only

With a basic headless-only architecture, all front-end development is done entirely in the CMS and called via API. This approach integrates all the advantages of headless architecture, allowing customization and flexibility in integrating multiple channels. However, there is no “default theme” or “template” to work from, making it more or less inaccessible to your marketing department. Because your developers perform the setup entirely in the CMS and deliver it via API, there’s a degree of technical proficiency required to modify or deliver front-end content.

Who benefits most from a “Headless Only” integration?

  • CMS Invested: If your company is heavily invested in an existing content management system.
  • Fast integration: If you need to go live quickly, headless only may be the best option. But keep in mind that the speed of deployment may depend on the team you use and the level of customization required.
  • Early Adoption: When you want to test eCommerce integrations before making a larger investment in a full enterprise platform.
  • Limited Product OfferingIf you want to launch eCommerce but are selling very limited products, ideal for companies that don’t need advanced eCommerce product features; product filtering, search or customized checkout experience, etc.

2. Specific CMS Plugin

A second integration alternative involves connecting an eCommerce plugin built specifically for the content management system you’re using. The eCommerce plugin is directly integrated into the CMS administration area and typically offers a more connected approach, but lacks in the overall eCommerce feature set.

All content publication, management and user administration is done through the CMS platform (WordPress, Drupal, etc.) and the eCommerce platform is built on top of that system. The plugin architecture can be easier to work with and manage for your marketing staff and content staff, but the drawback is that these plugins typically work only within the scope of a single CMS system, decreasing the level of flexibility at your disposal.

Common downsides are that any of the inherent security flaws in the CMS will cascade into the eCommerce platform and any potential eCommerce upgrades are solely dependent on the CMS system. Frequently, eCommerce plugins will fail if the main CMS platform is upgraded and any marketing team can be held back due to the loss of compatibility between updated versions of the CMS or plugin.

Who benefits most from a “Specific CMS Plugin”?

  • Fully CMS Invested: If your team is fully invested in a specific CMS (due to experience, breadth of implementation, technical support, etc.), finding a complimentary headless plugin may be the best decision.
  • Experience: Your marketing and eCommerce teams may have previous experience with another CMS system. Losing that experience to select a platform that requires a specific content platform would be limiting.
  • Integration Strength: Depending on the CMS platform and the eCommerce plugin you’re using, you may be able to leverage functionality from the plugin to tap into some solid functionality. But keep in mind, the plugin doesn’t exist on it own, so there’s no extra functionality outside of the CMS.

3. Hybrid

Hybrid combines the flexibility of headless architecture with the accessibility of a traditional eCommerce platform’s CMS system. The hybrid system often includes a limited CMS option alongside a robust API critical for the headless connection.

In other words, a hybrid eCommerce platform includes traditional CMS capability and assets such as layout templates, themes, and front end content delivery tools. As a result, the platform can be used to deliver a customer-facing experience before connecting via the headless toolset.

For the organization, the hybrid combination allows some sales channels to be delivered via the platform CMS while other channels are built using the headless capability. For example, the main website might be built using an external CMS, while a new wholesale portal is built using the included CMS templating system. Both sites connect (for orders, accounts, products, etc.) to the eCommerce platform and rely on its data – they simply use different means to display the interface to the customer.

Who benefits most from a “Hybrid” integration?

  • Long-Term Compatible: eCommerce is always evolving, and hybrid options support flexible growth across subsites, landing pages, additional stores, and channels (online, retail point of sale and more).
  • Best support for future CMS migrations: Hybrid solutions offer the best framework for integrating new upgrades, changes, or updates to your CMS without the need for significant investment.
  • Full-Featured: A hybrid solution will have the best enterprise support and feature set for a complete headless eCommerce experience.