The Complete Guide to Headless Commerce
Violet's all-up guide to headless technology, its role in ecommerce, and why Violet chose to be a headless API
The internet today is a-buzz with the word “headless”– headless commerce, headless CMS, headless commerce platform. And yet it appears there’s a lack of clarity around what exactly headless means, and why it’s important.
As a Unified Headless Commerce API, we have a lot of conversations about what headless technology does, and why headless is so vital to our business and our industry.
In this article, we’ll go over:
- What is “headless”?
- What does headless mean in e-commerce?
- Why is headless commerce important?
- Why is Violet headless?
What is “headless”?
Quite broadly, headless refers to any application that has no front end. What that means has technical and functional implications. Let’s break it down.
Before the rise of headless, a modern application had a frontend and a backend. The backend consisted of a database combined with a microservice or services that then published to a frontend (like a website or mobile app), via internal APIs in the same infrastructure.
Most of us know what a database is, and we know what a website is. But what is a microservice? Glad you asked. (If you’re an engineer, you can skip this!)
A microservice in the simplest terms is a repository of code with its own API that performs specific functions within an application: it processes a set of inputs (either from the frontend or the application’s database) and delivers a set of outputs. The microservice is the juice of an application’s value for its customers: it’s the operation(s) the code performs in a clean and easily updatable bucket.
Before headless, an application delivered the output baked-in to a predetermined frontend via an internal API. The order of operations would be:
[ Database -> Microservice -> API -> Frontend ]
The main difference between a headless application and other applications is what happens to the output. With headless applications microservices take the inputs and make them available as outputs via an external API. This is why you’ll often hear companies like Stripe and others referred to as API-first or API-only. Instead of the frontend being the product, the product is the API. So the order of operations is instead:
[ Database -> Microservice -> API ]
While we won’t get into the nitty-gritty of API definitions here (see our blog for that), the important takeaway here is headless applications de-couple the backend from the frontend, and instead make the backend accessible to any number of frontends via API.
Why is the API orientation so significant? From a functional perspective, an API-first or API-only application is more flexible, modular, and customizable than a traditional application.
In the oft-used example of a headless content management system (CMS), instead of having all a customer’s content publish only to a single website (as with a traditional CMS), a headless CMS with an API can publish modules of content across multiple websites or applications via API. (Think of a publisher with both a website and a native mobile application where the layouts and design could be completely different and customized.) This API approach reduces duplicate work while expanding the reach and applicability of the company’s content.
More importantly, the real value of headless technology is it allows companies to specialize. Publishers are great at creating content and building audiences. They are not equipped to build a world class headless CMS suitable for different stacks that stays updated over time and infinitely scalable. A select few have spun homegrown systems into a product or acquired companies that do this.
However, decoupling backend infrastructure from the frontend user experience lets each service focus exclusively on the parts each group is best at. As they say, be the best in the world at one thing, instead of mediocre at several. Publishers can leverage innovative headless platforms for a small fraction of the cost of building in-house, while getting all of the updates available over time from a team focused on building these tools exclusively.
What does headless mean in ecommerce?
Headless applications are particularly powerful in ecommerce because of the range of both databases and microservices that are involved in a successful ecommerce business.
A run-of-the-mill ecommerce company usually has several distinct databases, including products, orders, customers, shipping rates, tax rates, etc. They also rely on a number of different functions to facilitate the ecommerce experience on both sides of the transaction, like checkout, product grids, payments, customer experience management, e-marketing, and delivery.
In recent years, all of these functions and all of these databases have been managed within a merchant’s ecommerce platform. Historically, platforms like Shopify and Magento offered a frontend store (website) for their merchants, coupled with all the databases and functionality in one place.
But today, more and more ecommerce platforms are building out modern APIs to support the various operations required in ecommerce, which allows outside developers to create apps that provide these services independently. This has given rise to a new economy of external app developers in ecommerce, which in turn has led to the decoupling of ecommerce platforms’ tools from any particular frontend. (For more on this development, see our blog about the history of ecommerce APIs).
The end result of this great decoupling is a new generation of headless ecommerce platforms. On these platforms online merchants have the flexibility to build their own tech stack and plug in compelling ecommerce applications built on top of external APIs. Platforms like this include Fabric, Swell, BigCommerce, and many others.
Why is headless commerce important?
This transition to a more API-first approach to the ecommerce tech stack is not happening in a vacuum. The ecommerce landscape will become more and more distributed as buyers discover and purchase products across an increasing number of surfaces and experiences.
Think of how we shop online today compared to even three years ago: instead of shopping exclusively via our favorite brand’s website or a mega marketplace like Amazon, people today are discovering products through social media, blogs, newsletters, influencers, and innovative experiences like Thingtesting or PopShop Live.
A recent survey of shoppers found that Gen Z are more likely to discover products and brands via influencers than any other generation, while 84% of them have made purchases in direct response to social media.
As product discovery experiences proliferate, ecommerce platforms can’t be expected to account for all the different kinds of media and futures that developers are creating. Headless technology provides a more distributed infrastructure that matches the way people are increasingly shopping. It both anticipates and helps catalyze a shift that is already underway: from discovering products everywhere but buying only on select sites, to shoppers buying whenever and wherever they discover products.
Why is Violet’s API headless?
At our core, Violet is a universal checkout company: we want to make it possible for shoppers to buy a product anywhere online.
Over the last several years companies have tried to solve this problem by tackling the frontend first. In our view, this approach fails the future needs of ecommerce innovators on two major fronts:
- Limits innovation. Coupling universal checkout with a particular frontend forecloses the kinds of experiences online channels can build by limiting them to a specific frontend or provider. It’s directly antithetical to the distributed, headless direction in which ecommerce platforms are heading. Our intent is precisely the opposite: we don’t want to presume or limit the experiences our customers can build. We want to provide the infrastructure required to power the next generation of commerce, without creating unnecessary restrictions.
- Ignores the hard part. The hardest part of turning on universal checkout inside of any experience is integrating the checkout process across all ecommerce platforms. Most companies have focused on trying to build a sexy frontend mobile app or media experience, with the infrastructure to support distributed checkout as an afterthought. This is the hardest part, and in our view, the most important. Ignore this at your own peril.
So while Violet calls itself a universal, headless commerce API, it’s most accurate to think of us as a headless API that provides universal checkout infrastructure for companies building product discovery experiences of all kinds. We are headless by design, because we see headless technology as the only way to advance truly universal checkout, and an actually distributed ecommerce ecosystem.
Our headless nature unleashes the creativity of app developers, publishers, creators, and innovators to build new ecommerce experiences. By providing crucial and costly infrastructure we aim to 10x the depth, breadth, and pace of innovation in the next phase of online shopping. This is the future of ecommerce. This future is headless.