Between 2021 and 2025, the eCommerce market is expected to grow to $11 trillion.
The competition in the eCommerce sector is fierce and online stores are relentlessly looking for solutions that would help them gain a competitive edge.
This situation is caused by the rising cost of acquiring customers, which forces brands to not only attract them but build their loyalty by providing a fully personalized, customized, and omnichannel experience.
One of the quite new, but revolutionary, approaches is headless commerce, which provides retailers with a chance to reach a whole new level of platform performance and offer absolutely unique and tailored customer experiences. Among the most popular headless eCommerce platforms right now, you’ll find headless Shopify. Its features – as well as the overall approach – can bring profits to any company operating in the eCommerce market.
In this article, we’ll cover:
- What is Headless Commerce?
- What is headless Shopify?
- Headless Shopify Features and Benefits
- Headless Shopify Disadvantages
- When to Choose a headless Shopify Store
- How to Prepare for Creating a Headless eCommerce Platform
- Exemplary Headless Shopify Costs
Okay, let’s go!
What is headless eCommerce?
Headless approach in short
In simple words, headless e-commerce is a solution where the front-end layer – namely what the user sees and interacts with, or the “head” – is separated or decoupled from the back-end part of the platform, the “body”.
This approach is more and more widely chosen by big e-commerce brands that rely on a heavy load of content and want to provide users with a smoother and richer omnichannel experience.
Let’s dive a little deeper: the difference between headless and monolithic
What are the differences between traditional and headless commerce? The first one is usually monolithic and based on a long and hard to maintain source code with a fixed framework. The sites are large and hard to change.
This means that options of customization are relatively sparse, and innovation delayed. The list of available channels is usually also limited to a website and a mobile app.
On the other hand, in the headless approach, we have a fully customizable and multi-layered environment with endless possibilities for further development.
Headless commerce is growing
This approach is gaining momentum as headless solutions, according to Forbes, managed to raise over $1,6 billion in funding in a span of two years (2020–21).
According to research conducted among the decision makers in enterprises that have heard about headless, 64% of them admitted that headless commerce is already being used in their organization, which constitutes an increase from 25% from 2019.
A whopping 92% of respondents feel that headless technologies make it easier to deliver a consistent content approach and are key to organizational success.
It seems that headless is the next big thing in the online retail universe that also covers the growing expectations of end customers.
How does headless ecommerce work?
The real secret behind headless commerce is the API, which stands for Application Program Interface. It connects the back end with the front end, sending information between them in real time. When you create a website using a headless solution, you can divide it into two stages, which are content preparation and design customization.
Because the presentation layer isn’t monolithically connected to the database, it finally allows for the almost unlimited creation of any type of layout and UI, which wasn’t possible with previously utilized types of architecture – the only limitation is now the designer’s imagination.
Other headless advantages
Other implications include features such as:
- improved reliability and scalability
- reduced complexity
- higher speed
- easy content management
- better SEO performance
- enhanced extendibility and flexibility
- faster time-to-market
- refined developer experience
Headless commerce doesn’t impose any particular technology, so you can apply the solutions of your choice for both website development and management. You can connect different tools to online stores, so you can select one for payments, and another one for analytics, for example.
Are there any disadvantages of the headless approach?
We can mention some – such as the loss of some platform functions (like page building or previewing changes, with the latter being succesfully more available, with headless CMS like Storyblok). Others? The necessity of maintaining two separate systems, more content to manage, and a lack of integration capacity with some tools.
Finally, you’d want to take a look at estimated costs of setting up a headless storefront, as they can be different from what you are used to. Going headless requires higher technical skills, and lots of initial work in regards to customization and personalization, may be needed. However, the costs of going headless shouldn’t be assessed only at the start of the project, with many future savings waiting for you (e.g. hosting).
Both headless Shopify costs and its scope of work during the implementation phase are important issues while deciding whether to go headless. Thus, we will discuss it in more detail nearer the end of this article.
What is headless Shopify?
But did you know that you can connect the Shopify platform with the headless approach?
Shopify itself is highly functional but adopting it to headless enhances its possibilities while keeping the advantages. A perfect combination, isn’t it?
Completely customized e-commerce experience
Headless Shopify will allow you to build exactly what you need as, in the headless approach, using all of Shopify’s integrated backend solutions at the same time.
You are, however, no longer confined to big modules that have been designed to please everyone and may contain features you might not need at all.
With headless, you can build a layout with a look and feel that will significantly differ from standard template-based Shopify designs (even the custom ones offered by Shopify Plus).
With headless Shopify, you can customize and test the way people browse, search, and buy, creating unique landing, product, category, checkout and cart pages.
Amazing headless Shopify features
There are many great features that headless ecommerce platforms can offer, both specific and more general. Let’s summarize the most prominent ones and tell a few words about each one of them.
Changing the URL structure
The problem with expanding your Shopify business to international markets is often connected with URLs. Each of the multi-language sites gets indexed individually – the website isn’t treated as a whole by search engines.
Headless architecture helps solve this problem straight away, because it allows you to customize and add breadcrumbs to the URL structure.
It has a massive impact on your whole international SEO strategy and enables you to more easily build a global business.
Better performance of the store
Thanks to a decoupled front end, you have total control over the customer’s experience and site performance. You can update it in real-time and dynamically add new features without having to rebuild the whole site. What’s more, the speed of the site doesn’t affect its performance.
All of this provides a whole new perspective to customer-focused innovation.
Enhanced omnichannel experience
Having full control over the site’s look, functions, and UX, you can easily produce not only multichannel, but omnichannel experiences.
You can integrate any third-party system into your platform, like Product Information Management tools that let you create a custom storefront for all the channels, and devices, such as smartphones, smartwatches, laptops, and tablets.
It is also possible to easily sell on eBay, Amazon, Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest – you can add buy buttons there with HTML.
You can freely add new channels in the future, because you modify only the front end, while the back end remains untouched. You are also able to customize information according to the activity history or localization of certain customers and their groups.
Introducing an omnichannel experience lets your shop rise to a new level and multiply revenue, reaching new customers and answering unmet needs of the existing ones.
Use of PWAs
Each year, more and more e-commerce sales are happening on mobile devices. With PWAs (Progressive Web Apps) Shopify stores can have fast mobile sites that act as standalone apps – although they are neither native mobile apps, nor standalone sites.
Once the PWA is designed, the Shopify storefront can be used on any device. This solution helps reduce bounce rates and keeps users engaged.
Headless Shopify means better marketing results
All those features of headless Shopify websites lead to more marketing possibilities.
The introduction of third-party tools and new solutions as they hit the market, full customization, enhanced performance and SEO effectiveness, personalization of the experience, and simplification of the sales process – these are the main marketing possibilities.
They all translate into access to new customers, better conversion rates and more trust and loyalty to brands, which in the end leads to higher sales numbers that can rise dramatically once you go headless.
Disadvantages of Shopify headless commerce
It is fair to say that there are also some disadvantages of going headless in Shopify, so you should be prepared. These include:
- no theme customizer – which also means no theme previewing and no version control (but of course you’ll receive a design project from the visual designer if you decide to go with it)
- loss of some of Shopify’s functions, such as rich text editor, some front-end applications and plugins, certain fonts and styling (but you’ll have yours)
- being ready to build the whole platform from scratch, which requires time and skills (although there are some platforms that already have headless architecture available)
- the deactivation of customer accounts
When should you choose a headless Shopify store?
Shopify, although a very versatile platform, perfect for budding businesses, has its limitations. If your users expect more in terms of performance and experience, and those restrictions start to sabotage your ability to attract them, communicate your business value and reliably measure results, it’s time to think about switching to a headless solution.
What size of businesses are we talking about? Well, if your shop grows year-over-year by double digits and has annual revenue exceeding 8 million dollars, it generally means you’re ready. But don’t worry – it’s not a condition you are obliged to meet!
Of course, you can consider this solution also at an earlier stage of development, especially when:
- you find it difficult to include new tools into your existing technology
- you think you are moving too slow because you can’t make simultaneous changes to both the back end and front end
- you want to have more control over site performance and speed
- you want to have an extremely user-friendly mobile app
- you need to build specific elements of the e-commerce experience on your platform (such as smart mirrors, wearable tech, vending machines)
- you want to conform to the specific needs of your customers, being able to process and utilize advanced information about their preferences and history
- you need to use another CMS (you have quite an impressive choice of headless CMS, like Contentful, Storyblok, Sanity, Strapi and Amplience, to name a few)
How custom should your headless architecture Shopify be?
If you go headless with your site, you are no longer confined to Shopify’s tools and philosophy. You have the whole world of tools and services, like product information management (PIM) solutions for more seamless omnichannel experience or CMS to manage and update all your content more easily than with in-built Shopify tools.
There are also optimization tools, thanks to which you can make small changes and refine your website constantly, alongside a plethora of other options you can explore.
How to prepare for creating a headless eCommerce platform
There are a few possibilities – you can do it yourself, with freelancers, or build it with an agency. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each approach.
Building on one’s own
In this case, you maintain complete control over the whole process, which of course gives you more flexibility and independence, but on the other hand, you have to possess very advanced development and coding competences.
The direct financial costs are the lowest in this case, but this is the most time-consuming approach and can be applied only with smaller shops.
Building with freelancers
Hiring freelancers can be relatively cheap compared to other options, but you as the business owner must possess quite developed managerial skills and know everything about the process.
Cooperation with freelancers may also be difficult to coordinate and rather unmanageable in the case of bigger projects.
Building with an agency
For most complex and advanced projects, especially for big shops, we recommend cooperation with an agency that has a wealth of experience in introducing headless Shopify projects. They will know the potential pitfalls and will guide you through a path to avoid them.
The agency also has a team of developers, designers, business analysts, and other specialists with overlapping competences, as well as project managers that will get the process going.
The co-operation will be less time-consuming than with previous options, but you will have to deal with the ready system and be prepared to bear a significant cost for the implementation.
What questions should you ask your agency?
Before signing the contract, you should ask your agency a few questions that will help examine their expertise and attitude.
Some of them concern the technical side, like what kind of maintenance support is required for a headless website, how the agency manages different environments, or how they approach source control and measurement.
You, as the shop owner, or one of your employees, should get at least general knowledge about these subjects.
Other questions concern the cooperation process, its stages and the exact scope of works. Let’s break it down by showing you exemplary project’s scope and costs, so you’ll se what questions can be about.
How much does it cost to create a headless Shopify site?
Building a working website on modern tools, with the best headless Shopify development practices, takes a team of experienced experts – usually developers, engineers, project managers, architects, designers, business analysts, and testers.
For a project lasting from 2 to 5 months, the cost may amount from ten thousand to a few hundred thousand dollars. There are also maintenance costs afterwards, which may be a few thousand dollars per month, and additional costs like monthly subscriptions to a headless CMS platform.
Exemplary headless Shopify costs
To make it more understandable, we want to show you a cost scenario of a custom headless Shopify implementation that we made for a company from the medical sector.
The total cost amounted to about 60 thousand dollars and the components of the price estimate were, among others:
- preparing the navigation structure, footer, customized homepage and product pages, collection pages with all the features such as link structure, navigation, graphic design, and functions
- implementing the user accounts, shopping cart and checkout
- implementing a blog with homepage, posts, and author pages
- making store overview pages with localization and the sitemap
- implementing the headless CMS and all the Shopify backend functions
- internationalization and translation
- integration with external tools, such as Hotjar and Google Tag Manager
- preparation of design guidelines, and responsive web design
How long does it take to launch a headless Shopify solution?
Going headless means rebuilding and customizing certain parts of your eCommerce store to increase the user experience and comfort of your customers. Depending on the complexity of the front-end visuals and additional functionalities required, it will definitely take longer than implementing a traditional Shopify store.
The timeline may be from 2 to 5 months, depending on your existing assets (well-structured data in Shopify, well-defined process of generating images and content, and so on), the complexity of the project and the readiness of your team when it comes to changes.
You should also remember about the testing phase. A good idea is to create a minimum viable project (MVP) or show the new layout first to a chosen group of customers, before making it accessible to a wider audience.
Work with us!
At Naturaily, we prepare each cost estimate based on the specific scope of work. Having implemented numerous headless Shopify sites, we can thoroughly advise you on what should be done in your project before we come up with the final pricing.
If you would like to try out our comprehensive approach, send us a brief and let’s talk about the great things that we can do together to make your e-commerce thrive!