A traditional e-commerce website has an interdependent relationship between the site’s front and back-ends. This makes it fast to set up and launch but limits customization. So it affects the customer experience and your website’s operations.
A popular alternative, headless e-commerce, has much more flexibility, but it costs more and takes longer to implement.
This article explores the pros and cons of headless and traditional e-commerce products so you can make the best choice for your small business.
- Headless e-commerce uncouples the front and back-ends to allow for more customization and flexibility in the design.
- Headless e-commerce allows your small business to provide a dynamic customer experience and keep up with technology and marketing trends.
- Traditional e-commerce can’t integrate with new software easily, but its low startup cost still makes it an appealing option for small businesses on a tight budget.
What’s the Difference Between Traditional and Headless E-Commerce?
Every website has two sides. There’s the customer-facing side (the front-end) and the side used to design and manage the website (the back-end).
Traditional and headless e-commerce refers to how these two sides work together to create the design and functionality of an e-commerce store.
I’ll explain how each option works below, but to give you a quick visualization of the differences between traditional and headless e-commerce, think about them in terms of houses:
- Traditional e-commerce is like buying a home and then making changes to suit your tastes.
- Headless e-commerce is like designing and building a house with every feature the way you want it.
What is traditional e-commerce?
In traditional e-commerce software, the site’s front and back-end programming logic is linked. Any changes made to one side impacts the other — sometimes in unexpected ways.
For example, you might tweak a design element on the digital storefront and unintentionally break a back-end function, such as payment processing.
To prevent these issues, traditional e-commerce platforms create pre-determined front-end solutions that work harmoniously with the back-end. This limits customization, but it ensures a site runs smoothly.
It also enables you to make minor modifications, such as changing font size or background colors, without knowing any coding skills or getting a developer’s help.
What is headless e-commerce?
Headless e-commerce provides nearly endless options for customization because it decouples the front and back-end of the site. It was created to adapt to customers’ ever-growing demands for an exceptional experience, especially one that provides personalized content.
Updates to the site code are relayed through an application programming interface (API) rather than impacting the front-end. This means developers can focus on the front-end modifications without worrying about breaking the logic and function layers of the whole website.
There are no templated storefronts in headless e-commerce. The site pages are built from scratch.
This is a more time-consuming approach than traditional e-commerce, but it allows developers to design a digital storefront that looks and functions exactly how you want it.
Traditional vs. Headless E-Commerce: Pros and Cons
There’s no clear winner regarding the best e-commerce option. It all depends on the needs of your business and the resources available to you.
Traditional e-commerce pros
- It’s easy to create your digital storefront on your own: This is a big draw for small businesses that don’t have developers on staff — or the budget to hire them. For many traditional e-commerce platforms, you can create your site with a user-friendly drag-and-drop approach that doesn’t require any coding skills.
- You can launch your store quickly: A templated front-end design means that your site is prebuilt. You add the final changes, such as product photos, brand colors, and site copy. You can have your e-commerce site up and running within a couple of hours.
- You don’t have to know web design best practices: Traditional e-commerce providers create storefront themes using long-standing web design practices, so you don’t have to understand the subtleties of how design choices impact the customer experience. The plug-and-play storefronts are created to provide the online shopping experience customers are familiar with. It’s static — not personalized — but has all the basics customers need to shop your site.
Traditional e-commerce cons
- Customization is limited and can be expensive to add:Forcing customization into a traditional e-commerce website requires time-consuming workarounds and extensive site testing to ensure nothing breaks. If you decide you want to make changes that your template doesn’t support, you’ll need to hire a professional to do the work. What seems like a simple change can end up being quite costly.
- You can’t create a rich user experience: Content personalization is becoming increasingly important to consumers. It provides an experience that makes customers feel catered to and more connected to your brand. Traditional e-commerce can’t accommodate this or other innovative features due to the limitations imposed by the front-end themes. This can put your brand at a disadvantage if your competitors provide a more dynamic experience.
- You can’t adopt new software integrations easily, if at all: Tech companies release impressive new software at an astounding pace, but you’ll have trouble benefiting from these new integrations if you use traditional e-commerce. Depending on the technology, a developer may have to design workarounds for your site, which may be difficult for them and expensive for you.
- The site doesn’t always display correctly on different devices: The rigidity of traditional e-commerce means it’s difficult to fully optimize a site for all devices. Distorted page displays, missing buttons, and truncated drop-down menus are a few of the things customers might experience depending on their devices. Many customers have no patience for such issues and will often leave your site.
Headless e-commerce pros
- You can adopt new technologies as they come out: The flexibility of a headless e-commerce solution means you can incorporate new technologies without any trouble. This is a significant advantage considering how often improved software hits the market.
- You have many options for customization: There’s no predefined front-end experience, so you can build one that’s tailored to the needs of your business. Want to add a countdown timer to customer shopping carts? No problem. How about translating your site to another language? Can do. The options for headless customization are only limited by your imagination.
- You can provide a better customer experience: Building the front-end from scratch gives you the potential to develop an experience that delights customers and makes your business stand out. You can offer product personalization based on purchase history, customize your site to a visitor’s geography, or make it easy for customers to switch between shopping on their computer and their phone.
- It’s easy to make changes to the site: Once the site’s framework is built, you can control it using a content management system (CMS). A CMS allows updates to the site’s design or functionality with an easy-to-use interface that requires little to no coding in most cases.
- It works well with any device: Whether your customers are using a laptop or a smartphone, your headless e-commerce site works without issues such as buttons disappearing or features not displaying properly.
Headless e-commerce cons
- The initial cost can be prohibitive for small businesses: A headless e-commerce solution doesn’t come prebuilt like a traditional one, so you have to create it from scratch. This takes time and skill, making it a more expensive upfront investment.
- It takes longer to launch your e-commerce store: Traditional e-commerce is a plug-and-play option that you can launch in a few hours. A headless approach requires more time to plan out and implement.
- You’ll likely need a developer to build the site: Once the infrastructure is in place, you and your team can update and manage it using a custom CMS, but it’s best to leave the initial build to an expert.
Examples of Headless E-Commerce
Amazon, the e-commerce giant, drives industry trends and shows us the value of using a headless approach. But you can’t achieve an Amazon Prime-like service the old way — you need to switch to headless e-commerce. Here’s some inspiration from brands that have gone headless.
Business-to-business (B2B) brand Bosch wanted to create a tailored digital experience for its Bosch Power Tools global sites. Its key challenge was creating unique experiences at the country level and promoting and aligning holistic user experiences globally. But the brand struggled to scale and manage features and updates at the regional level with multiple infrastructures and CMS platforms.
In the past, the company took a local-level approach to meet the varied needs of its customers and users. However, that didn’t scale, proving costly and inefficient to manage. Bosch had to find a solution to eliminate the disconnect between local, regional, and global experiences and create business efficiencies.
Bosch implemented headless e-commerce, and here’s what it gained:
- A quicker way to move forward without waiting to change things in the back-end
- Easier creation and customization of blog features and functionalities for different locations
- Faster to replace the front-end system without bringing operations to a halt, maximizing efficiencies
- More value from development, cost, and scale perspectives
Today, Bosch can build features on a global scale to speed up its initiatives while delivering personalized experiences across locations.
Babylist’s site has two customer experiences: Expectant parents who create and share wish lists and gift-givers who buy the gifts on those lists.
So, it would almost be impossible to recreate it on a traditional e-commerce platform. The online store went headless and incorporated an order management system, content management system (CMS), and checkout, among other platforms. The results:
- Increased order volumes
- More iOS app checkouts after the first month
- Gifts given through the site grew 102% year-on-year
Is Traditional or Headless E-commerce Right for Your Small Business?
Every small business is different. What’s right for one company, or even most companies, may not be suitable for yours.
The best way to determine the right e-commerce solution is to understand your business and the resources available:
- What’s your budget?
- Do you have a developer on staff?
- What’s your timeline for launching the site?
- How important is it that your business adopt the latest technology or innovate the customer experience?
Once you have answers, you can compare traditional and headless e-commerce platforms to find the most appropriate one for your company’s unique needs.
From there, our guide to the best e-commerce platforms can help you find the ideal place to launch your digital store.