Table of Content

Shopify Headless Commerce Guide

Shopify Headless Commerce

Shopify and other platforms believe headless commerce architecture is the future of eCommerce, so they have been heavily investing in headless capabilities. In a 2020 survey of online retail companies by Wunderman Thompson, said they were planning to go headless within 12 months. Indeed, there are more and more fascinating headless stores going live.

The thing is, headless commerce works wonders when it comes to delivering true omnichannel customer experience, fast-tracking design and technical changes, and scaling without obstacles. But how does it work, who does need it, how can a store become headless, and what shortcomings does the approach have? We'll discuss all these matters and take a look at some headless Shopify examples.

1. What Is Headless Commerce?

Headless architecture is getting increasingly popular among online retailers, taking over a traditional one, often called monolithic. First off, let's compare how they're built and operate.

1.1 Headless vs. Monolithic Architecture

Most store websites are, up to now, monoliths. Their backend, which is in charge of the data storing, request processing, and various calculations, also powers the frontend, or presentation layer, or "head" users actually interact with. In other words, these two major parts of the website are tightly coupled. Everything people see when shopping in an online store is generated at the backend.

Monolithic_ Shopify

It has its advantages, especially for small and medium-sized businesses: the system is straightforward and relatively easy to run. The problems arise if the store team wants to heavily customize the interface, scale significantly, or develop several touchpoints (not only desktop, but also a progressive web app (PWA) for smartphones, an interface for a smart mirror or other IoT devices, and so forth).

In this sense, monoliths are quite rigid. With a monolithic system, any of the aforementioned undertakings requires coming up with numerous workarounds, tons of extra code, and likely subpar results because performance might be hurt as a side effect.

When the capabilities of monolithic architecture max out, a headless one comes to the rescue. Headless architecture implies the decoupling of the backend and frontend. As the two parts become quite independent, the overall system's flexibility increases drastically. But how do they communicate?

Front and center of any headless build is an API (application programming interface). API is a software intermediary allowing the backend and frontend/multiple frontends to connect. So, APIs act as middlemen, basically transferring data back and forth.

Headless Shopify

1.2 How Does Headless Shopify Work?

Going headless with Shopify is possible on all plans: Basic, Shopify, Advanced, and Plus. Companies can keep Shopify's commerce capabilities while ditching its limiting frontend and developing a new store theme (or themes) utilizing third-party solutions.

However, for the last several years, Shopify has been actively developing its own headless commerce infrastructure to cater to ambitious online retail brands wanting more freedom while evolving their businesses. In 2021, Hydrogen and Oxygen were introduced as the headless commerce development stack by Shopify.

Hydrogen is built on a React-based Remix framework promising to significantly streamline the custom storefront development process. Oxygen, in turn, is a hosting solution designed to work seamlessly with Hydrogen and facilitate development, deployment, and scaling. Many brands are now choosing Shopify Hydrogen and Oxygen and remain fully in the Shopify ecosystem, which is quite handy.

Finally, we have Shopify Storefront API, a headless API layer written in GraphQL. It connects a headless Shopify backend that handles crucial eCommerce tasks (managing inventory, collections, customers, carts, search, and processing payments) with any frontends and other platforms.

2. Seven Major Benefits of Shopify Headless Commerce

Making a Shopify store headless brings a wealth of advantages to your business. Some of them are immediate, while others will prove effective in the long term. Some are beneficial for the store team and developers, while others are clear win-win for both the brand and its customers.

Limitless Customization Possibilities

With monolithic Shopify, stores need to choose a design from the platform's Theme Store or seek compatible third-party providers. While these themes are customizable to a certain extent, they offer rather cosmetic changes like managing colors, fonts, and block sequences. For many brands, that suffices, at least for the time being.

But only headless enables complete creative control, allowing us to build truly custom storefronts without trade-offs. We can develop unique logic, create sophisticated layouts, and design genuinely personalized customer experiences.

Omnichannel Shopping Experience

Omnichannel is all about seamless, consistent, and unified customer-store interactions regardless of the touchpoints people choose and change when moving down the sales funnel. In practice, buyers can start on the website, proceed in a PWA or mobile app, then go to a store and use a smart mirror or POS there, and end up returning to the website again. If each of these steps is comfy for a person, then you win them.

Delivering customers a real omnichannel experience is no mean feat! With monolithic platforms, it's challenging to plug in even one extra channel (= frontend, or "head"), let alone a few at once. Headless is a huge helper here because it facilitates creating, connecting, and managing several frontends under one roof. Running all storefronts in a centralized way, from one headless backend, is way more streamlined than having several platforms to manage.

Faster Loading Speed

Sluggish performance is a top dealbreaker for online shoppers, which was proven in many studies and surveys. People simply do not like to wait for beautiful templates to load and to see response delays when they press a button or choose an option.

In monoliths, loading speed issues are often associated with adding extra apps/extensions. The problem is that it's either the only or the easiest way to expand store functionality. As a result, a website needs to process more and more code that naturally slows everything down.

Headless architecture is designed to perform faster. First off, the platform's flexibility allows developers to expand the feature set in a more optimized manner. Secondly, APIs handle data in a more efficient way, transferring just what's needed and in a lightweight format.

Thirdly, splitting the front and back parts allows for building more modern frontends using top-notch frameworks (Hydrogen, React, Vue, Angular, etc.). In headless builds, developers can leverage asynchronous data loading, dynamic content rendering, and blend server-side with client-side rendering, contributing to higher page load speed.

Flawless User Experience

The main reason for and the most valuable result of building a Headless Shopify store is boosting the UX. One of the main issues with ready-made Shopify themes is their versatility: they're designed for everyone, and, in marketing, it basically means for no one. Another huge problem is the insufficient mobile-friendliness of web themes.

When a user flow is tailored for unique customer segments and key mobile UX principles are considered, a store has every chance to deliver an engaging customer experience. For instance, with a headless solution, you're able to transform your store's website into a , providing an app-like experience on smartphones.

A headless store done by a professional team boasts well-thought-out mobile and desktop navigation, perfect visual and informational hierarchy as well as convenient and modern UI elements. Visitors attest to the rightness of investing in the UX by placing more orders.

Any Tech Stack

Headless Shopify is quite easily compatible with pretty much any third-party frontend and backend products you ever want to use for a store. That's because of GraphQL Storefront API, which is agnostic to programming languages, frameworks, or external platforms. Hence, your dev team can create the modification perfectly fitting the business objectives with the most handy and modern tools.

Need to create a frontend? Choose Hydrogen, React, Next.js, Vue.js, Angular, Ruby, PHP, etc. Want to try a headless CMS other than Shopify? Go for it. Worried whether your CRM, ERP, PIM, or other system will go well with a headless commerce solution? Don't fret, headless commerce API helps seamlessly integrate other services. Wonder whether you need this or that AI-powered chatbot or analytical tool? It's become so simple to just give it a try, so why not?

Faster Development Process

Separated frontend and backend can be developed independently from one another, which gives Headless Shopify stores a few advantages. First, engineers can work on both parts simultaneously, implementing new features faster. Second, design and marketing ideas can be embodied faster, too: unlike with monoliths, in a headless eCommerce platform, there's no need to make changes both on the front- and backend.

Third, headless Shopify guarantees a better scalability potential. Dev teams can add new storefronts, expand operations to new regions, and scale separate parts of a Shopify store according to changing needs with far more ease.

Future-Proof Architecture

Headless commerce projects will definitely have a head start over competitors as the online retail industry develops. Let's imagine it's not a big deal to connect a new custom frontend to your eCommerce site today. Tomorrow, when more devices, interfaces, and approaches to online shopping emerge, you'll be well-prepared to adopt and monetize them.

Explore a Headless Shopify Migration Guide

Find out how to start a transformation by following our guide to headless Shopify migration.

3. Drawbacks of a Headless Ecommerce Shopify Platform

Frankly, implementing such a disruptive technology as headless Shopify is quite a time-consuming and laborious process requiring serious investment. These are peculiarities worth taking into consideration.

High Architecture Complexity

Going headless means setting up a platform that is a far cry from one you ran before. We embed a new Shopify Storefront API layer to the system, create new frontends from the ground up, and write custom code to make all parts communicate seamlessly. A traditional Shopify store can be managed even by people with little to no tech knowledge. When it comes to headless Shopify, it's all about expertise.

Besides, if you opt for a fully custom headless build, there'll be no user-friendly drag-and-drop theme editor to make and preview design changes. Some extra coding might be required so as not to lose valuable Shopify apps or third-party extensions that may stop working after migrating to headless commerce.

Choosing a Dev Team

Building a headless Shopify store implies involving seasoned developers, UX/UI designers, and QA pros. There are a few options: finding a FEaaS (frontend-as-a-service) provider, gathering an in-house team, or outsourcing the task to an agency like ours.

Choosing a tech partner is a challenge in itself. Approach the task with much caution to avoid unrealistic promises, downtime, and missed deadlines. A good rule of thumb is to opt for a team with at least several under its belt.

Project Budget

The total cost of going headless with Shopify depends on multiple factors: store size, current Shopify plan, number of needed frontends, level of customization, tech stack, team in charge, and so forth. Roughly, we're talking about $100-500k budget range.

Sounds not so exciting, but let's keep things in perspective. Introducing headless eCommerce architecture is a considerable yet pretty much one-off investment that will start to pay off shortly after deployment. And in the long term, other businesses will start to feel squeezed out because of postponing evolution, but you'll be all right.

4. Is Headless Right for Your Business?

Now let's take a closer look at cases when creating a headless Shopify platform is reasonable. In most of the cases described below, businesses still can make do without headless. But why stay with the legacy architecture when a newer, more potent one is already widely available?

If something from the list matches your business objectives + you have enough financial resources, we do recommend you go headless.

  • Make the UX a key differentiator. E-commerce companies fight for shoppers' attention using all the means possible, starting from lower prices and countless discounting options. But if you can afford to level up the UX, do so because it's a more worthwhile and sustainable strategy. Headless is matchless when designing unique and personalized user flows and interfaces.
  • Tackle performance issues. Accelerating website loading speed, particularly on mobile, is always on the agenda for eCommerce brands, and going headless helps tremendously.
  • Boost mobile conversions. Even if you have iOS/Android mobile apps, let alone you don't, consider turning your store's site into a headless PWA (progressive web app). The core PWA's aim is to give users an app-like look and feel on smartphones. Smooth UX leads to more sales.
  • Expand the audience reach. Adding new touchpoints like apps, kiosks, smart mirrors, and other storefronts helps a lot. Headless Shopify gives an opportunity to develop the best interfaces for those channels and connect them to the backend of your Shopify store.
  • Change faster than competitors. Being able to implement new features, designs, and even take over new markets faster is critical, and headless lets store teams do exactly this.

On the other hand, there are many cases when a more shrewd decision is to either postpone or not go headless at all. Small businesses simply don't need this level of platform customizability. Medium-sized ones are unlikely to benefit from going headless, too, unless they're planning to scale up.

5. How to Go Headless with Shopify

E-commerce businesses have three major options when adopting headless architecture: build it themselves with an in-house IT department, choose a FEaaS (frontend as a service) provider, or hire a web development agency. Each path has its own pros and cons, and we'll briefly describe them.

5.1 In-house Dev Team

Creating a Shopify headless eCommerce solution on your own has one obvious advantage: you have complete control over the processes and results. You can fully gear any storefront to the target audience's pain points and needs using either Shopify's Hydrogen or third-party frameworks and libraries.

However, this approach requires having a strong development team; it has to be more than acquainted with frontend frameworks and Shopify's Storefront API. Plus, you need UX/UI talent for a large chunk of work on designing customer journeys and new "heads" in line with all mobile and desktop usability principles.

Most likely, it means the need to gather a crew with corresponding specialties for the project. In-house staff might not be familiar with how websites powered by headless commerce work, and the learning curve will be quite steep. To find the right people, the store team needs to know what exactly it wants tech stack-wise since there are heaps of options on each level.

Another possible issue is achieving well-coordinated teamwork in a freshly formed group. The hiring process and reaching this coherence takes time, which leads to one more problem: extended time to market.

5.2 Frontend as a Service (FEaaS)

Roughly, you just replace the Shopify store's frontend with one from another SaaS vendor. The thing is, these providers are focused exactly on frontend development and theme design, so they make more up-to-date and flexible products. It's a convenient option for many organizations that prefer handing over complex development, design, support, maintenance, and hosting tasks to cloud providers.

There are various FaaS solutions compatible with headless Shopify: Shogun Frontend, Builder.io, and Nacelle, to name a few. FEaaS platforms offer ready-made yet customizable and user-friendly headless storefronts to fast-track the store's transformation and lower its cost.

At the same time, it's by and large playing by the same rules as with Shopify's own themes: having the ability to change some aspects, you're restricted in modifying others. So, the result won't be a 100% match with your vision of a Shopify headless storefront.

5.3 Partnering with an Agency

With companies specializing in headless website dev, you get the best of two worlds: full-fledged creative freedom and high-quality assistance at each stage of developing a headless platform. But creating bespoke eCommerce headless solutions with an agency isn't the cheapest option.

In return, an online business can count on extracting all the benefits of headless Shopify: customizing a headless CMS in all possible ways, developing and connecting multiple channels, building an app-like PWA Shopify, fixing site speed, and designing unique UX for truly personalized customer experience.

As a , we have a deep understanding of this state-of-the-art architecture, gather all the needed pros, pick best-in-class tools for each individual case, and excel in troubleshooting as the transition to headless on Shopify goes.

6. Shopify Headless Examples

Finally, from talking about headless commerce benefits to seeing them live. E-commerce brands willingly embrace the headless approach, with more and more stylish, unique, and blazing-fast Shopify stores appearing.

Peloton

It's speedy and easy to navigate for both smartphone and desktop users. These are crucial factors for Peloton, which is a 2-in-1 fitness platform and online store. Under the hood, all touchpoints (the website and app) are beautifully synchronized, simplifying maintenance and accelerating updates.

Victoria Beckham Beauty

It's another renowned brand that opted for the Shopify engine + the headless approach. For Victoria Beckham Beauty, it's all about expressing its core aesthetic in the interface without compromises. The second boon is having the ability to scale and serve new markets over time without technical obstacles.

Kinsley Armelle

This accessories brand went the extra mile to engage customers and make online shopping handier: based on headless Shopify, they built a PWA. This move helps to bring web UX closer to that of mobile apps, from quicker and smoother page loading to the options to add the app icon to the phone's home screen and set up sending push notifications.

Allbirds

The famous sustainable shoe brand decided to go headless for the same reasons as other online stores from our selection. First is delivering a better UX via increased loading speed, intuitive navigation, and better interaction logic. And second, is having all the resources for continuous growth as a global brand.

Nomad

This brand fully leveraged flexible content management and design capabilities headless opens for eCommerce businesses. Now, the look and feel of the storefront perfectly match its concept of making high-quality accessories. Nomad specifically chose to build a PWA to further boost site performance and user experience.

Shopify Headless Architecture: Final Word

Headless Shopify development is definitely a trend that is here to stay. Shopify is proving to be a robust headless CMS, giving businesses a host of new customization and scalability opportunities. Moreover, experts reckon it's about time, especially for large eCommerce players, to jump on the bandwagon.

The task of implementing a headless solution like PWA is far from trivial, but Onilab's will help take your eCommerce platform to a new level.

FAQ on Headless Shopify Sites

What is headless Shopify?

Headless commerce architecture implies Shopify's backend is separated from a frontend, and all communication between parts happens via API calls (Storefront API), speeding up the store and leveling up its flexibility dev-wise.

Businesses can continue using Shopify as a headless CMS (content management system) or remove the whole frontend side and build a new custom one. For that matter, developers can utilize Shopify headless Hydrogen framework or any third-party frontend tools.

Often, stores aren't happy with the theme (UX/UI design), so they focus dev efforts on this part while keeping the commerce-specific functionality of Shopify headless CMS untouched.

Does every eCommerce store need a headless solution?

While Shopify offers to create headless architecture on all plans, going headless commerce with Shopify Plus is more reasonable than with Basic, Shopify, or Advanced. At the Shopify Plus level, brands often need to push the boundaries further, and headless Shopify Plus is the sure way to achieve that.

For SMBs, headless is way too complex in building and maintenance (let alone expensive) to be an efficient solution.

What are the benefits of headless commerce for customer experience?

For shoppers, headless online stores are faster, more intuitive to navigate, better at personalization, and aesthetically pleasing. Moreover, such stores are consistent in delivering a seamless UX across touchpoints: on smartphones (native apps and PWAs), laptops/PCs, IoT devices, and in-store equipment like POS, smart mirrors, or kiosks.

Let’s stay in touch

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive the latest news and updates.