Skip to Main Content

Dec 9, 2022 | 7 minute read

Headless Commerce vs. Traditional Commerce Platforms

written by Kirsten Aebersold

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 commerce” 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 Commerce 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: Headless Commerce vs. Traditional 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 commerce solution can offer you flexibility based on a modular architecture to innovate and customize where it really matters for your customers. On the other hand, maybe you need to launch a relatively simple business (small to medium product catalog, with one to two routes to market) ASAP. In this  case, a monolith solution might be best for you. 

A traditional monolith commerce approach is a proven way to stand up a website for individual sellers and smaller enterprises. Leveraging the ‘out-of-box’ components from Shopify or Magento, for example,  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.

Cut Your eCommerce Solution Research in Half

Take Our 2-Minute Assessment and Get Access to a Unique Recommendation Based On Your Answers

Take the Survey

Strengths of a Traditional Monolith Commerce Platform

A core strength of traditional software is that it was built for a single deliverable: an all-in-one, tightly coupled system that is fairly easy to deploy and test. This can be an advantage for smaller organizations without an in-house development team, and without complexities within their product offering or business model. 

However, change is inevitable and imminent. When critical updates are needed, it becomes a challenge for the tightly bound front and back ends of a monolith commerce platform. When a change is made to one end, you risk adversely affecting the other and facing shutdown. Changes are costly and time-consuming. 

Weaknesses of a Traditional Monolith Commerce Platform

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.

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, six months and involves delegating a trained field engineer to work full-time on a single task

Why Do Some Brands Still Use Rigid Commerce Platforms?

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 to  innumerable possibilities for taking 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 commerce 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.

When is Headless a Good Choice?

Here are a few scenarios where headless commerce makes the best sense for your business compared to a monolith: 

  • You have growing and complex business requirements, such as multiple brands. 
  • You want a customized solution that can be integrated with existing systems. 
  • You want more opportunities to personalize the experience to customer demands and create increased conversion rates. 
  • You are looking for a solution that is both developer- and admin-friendly. 

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 or legacy 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 commerce approach, there is never going to be any site timeout due to development work.

Headless commerce, therefore, gives your teams the flexibility to innovate at an unprecedented pace, reducing your TCO in the long run. Developers love headless commerce, 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 commerce 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 a global audience. It is also better equipped to add in new Omnichannel experiences like mobile self-checkout or any other experiment your brand wants to explore.

headless commerce architecture

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 commerce 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. Switching away from a monolithic platform to a headless commerce solution provides more flexibility. 

With the flexibility of headless commerce, you are able to take a staggered approach to any headless commerce solution where pieces are shifted over in stages, allowing you to slowly migrate to a fully headless solution. 

If you’re looking to launch quickly with a best-of-breed approach, we’ve designed Pre-Composed Solutions. These are business-ready solutions that are built on top of Elastic Path Commerce Cloud and pre-integrate core commerce capabilities, 3rd party solutions, and any customizations so brands can quickly deploy headless commerce experiences. 

Security & Compliance Issues

Security is at the forefront of any organization, big or small. Your customers trust you with personal information that, if in the wrong hands, leads to disaster. In the U.S. alone, someone becomes the victim of identity theft every 14 seconds. Cybercrime is on the rise as more personal details are stored and shared across devices and systems. 

When choosing a headless commerce platform from Elastic Path, you are backed by rigorous security standards you won’t find with other providers. No other competitor has both SOC 2 Type II and HIPPA-enabled compliance. You can rest easier knowing that your customers’ information is safeguarded at all times to the highest established standards. 

Consider Talking to an Expert Who Has Been in Your Shoes 

Choosing the right commerce platform can be a daunting decision. We know what is at stake when you make changes to an existing solution.  But the good news is you are not alone. Our experts are ready to talk with you about what is next and makes the most sense for your eCommerce business today and into the future. 

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published January 1st, 2019 and has been updated for relevancy on December 9, 2022.