August 30th, 2021 | 6 MIN READ

Headless eCommerce vs traditional eCommerce platforms

Written by Anonymous

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published [January 1st, 2019] and has been updated for relevancy on August 30th, 2020

Author: Elastic Path Team. Updated 8/29.

Those who are looking to continuously innovate and improve their customer’s commerce experiences are probably already familiar with the term “headless”. But what is Headless Commerce? How does it differ from a traditional monolith platform? And, which approach is right for your business?

This post will help to answer those questions so that you can decide what type of commerce solution is right for your business.

What is Headless Commerce?

To put it simply, headless is a term used to describe a software architecture pattern where the frontend code / UI layer (the head) is separated from the backend logic engine (the body), hence “decoupling”.

What is a Traditional Approach?

A traditional approach to designing complex software involves a monogamous system based on huge libraries that create internal dependencies to allow their components to work with each other. Typically, the components associated with a traditional model must run in a specific order for the entire system to work as expected.

Understanding the Differences Between Traditional eCommerce Platforms and Headless Commerce Solutions

Before exploring which solution is best suited for your business, you need to be very clear on your current digital strategy, the challenges you may be facing, and your goal outcomes.It could be that you have outgrown your existing eCommerce solution. Or perhaps you want to refresh your storefront with something more eye-catching than every other copycat out-of-the-box solution?

A headless solution can offer you the flexibility based on a modular architecture that you need to innovate where it really matters for your customers.Maybe you need to launch a relatively simple business (small to medium product catalog, with one to two routes to market) online ASAP? In which case a monolith solution might be best for you. A traditional monolith approach is a proven way to stand up an eCommerce website for individual sellers & some enterprises.

Leveraging the ‘out-of-box’ components from Shopify or Magento is a good option if they suit your business needs.

At this point, you might be thinking, ‘If they have everything I need, what is wrong with a traditional approach?’ Let us break down the ideal use cases of a monolith platform and some of the scenarios where this antiquated approach starts to show signs of crumbling.

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Strengths and Weaknesses of a Traditional Monolith Platform

Once a monolithic system is in place, it can be difficult to update such systems without breaking existing integrations. Usually that would require dedicated highly trained specialists to implement and extensively test each part of the system to ensure an update to one part has not adversely affected any of the existing integrations. Therefore, if you intend to continuously optimize your commerce experiences to meet customer needs, you should consider the long-run TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) implications of a monolith when aligning your business-centric goals to the choice of an eCommerce platform.

To learn more about the TCO of a headless solution, check out our guide here.

Moreover, some monolithic software is distributed as packaged applications that are deployed on-premise and customized to meet individual business needs. Due to the heavy data handling, a full onboarding process with these platforms generally takes, at minimum, 6months and involves delegating a trained field engineer to work full-time on a single task.

Why Do Some Brands Still Use Rigid Platforms Like Magento?

For some, the main problem with Headless Commerce is the perceived complexity that comes along with unlimited flexibility, the thing that also makes them so powerful. It opens the door of innumerable possibilities to imposes a creative approach to creating commerce experiences that both delight your customers and allow you to achieve your business goals.

This may be a problem for all those who are used to templates and pre-packaged software that dictates the user experience and takes away the decision-making process. Therefore, headless probably isn't the right choice for you if you're after a more out-of-the-box store where all architectural decisions have been made for you.

In general, businesses that choose headless eCommerce solutions, are those that are after a highly customized platform that could be easily integrated with other third-party services.

To learn more about Magento vs. a headless solution, like Elastic Path, check out our in-depth post.

When is Headless a Good Choice?

Decoupling the frontend removes any constraining dependencies with the backend and opens a free pathway to innovate the frontend without any restrictions. What that means for your company’s frontend developers is they can solely focus on providing highly innovative content without the need to worry about the backend.

In contrast to a monolith platform, every time an update is needed, or you wish to implement a new feature, all of this can be developed in isolation. In other words, with a headless approach, there’s never going to be any site timeout due to development work.

Headless, therefore, gives your teams the flexibility to innovate at an unprecedented pace, reducing your TCO in the long run. Developers love headless, but what about the business side of it? Is it a good idea to invest in headless, and burden customers with potential site timeouts?

Due to a separate display logic, any headless application tends to work faster, is more responsive, and is easier to maintain or update. In some cases, an update to a Headless Commerce platform may not need a dedicated developer to make these changes, saving the potential resource cost and thereby bringing down the long-run TCO. A headless approach is also better prepared for localization and translation to reach the global audience if this is important to you. It is also better equipped to add in new Omnichannel experiences like mobile self-checkout or any other experiment your brand wants to explore.

Such a flexible approach is ideal for brands that aspire to evolve and grow in the future or all those who need a very specific and consistent frontend.

The Path Toward Headless Commerce

Already have a Monolith platform in place? Does that mean you are destined to be constrained by what is already on the platform? Thankfully, the answer is no.

Headless will allow you to add already existing business-critical functions or modules into this new approach if you wish. While moving from one monolith to another usually would incur significant down-time and cost, which might be why you are here evaluating your options. Thankfully, switching away from a monolithic platform to a Headless Commerce solution flexible options.

One that has been popular in this case is a staggered approach to any headless solution where pieces are shifted over to the headless solution in stages, allowing your business to continue to function while you prepare for the future. On the other hand, with Elastic Path’s Pre-Composed Solutions™, you can launch a headless environment in a matter of weeks! Talk to one of our experts to see if Elastic Path is right for you, and how you can get started on your headless future.

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