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What is headless commerce with Shopify?

Last updated: 14 June 2022

Headless commerce with Shopify is one of the most popular headless commerce architectures. What is headless commerce exactly? And what does it mean for Shopify?

Headless commerce definition

The term headless commerce might sound a bit abstract. Luckily it’s a lot simpler than it sounds. An eCommerce website consists of two sides, the ‘frontend’ and the ‘backend’.

The front end is your storefront, what your customers interact with. The backend consists of the underlying systems and engines that drive your business.

Traditionally eCommerce sites use one system, that runs the frontend and backend at the same time, also referred to as monolithic commerce.

Headless commerce is the separation of the frontend from the backend. Put differently, you are separating your storefront from the underlying systems and engines that drive your business. This way the frontend of your store solely functions as the presentation layer, which can be easily edited and changed without affecting the backend.

Headless commerce offers a solution to the many limitations of monolithic commerce. While it may seem more complicated than monolithic commerce, this approach is actually a streamlined way of handling an online store.

monolithic and headless architecture example

How does headless commerce work?

The backend is the source of truth for an eCommerce brand. It fulfills orders, manages inventory, stores credit card information, and updates product details. The frontend is what your customers see and interact with.

Since the frontend and backend are decoupled you are able to connect best-in-class tools. For example, headless content management systems (CMS) like Storyblok, Contentful, and Contentstack or a customer relationship management (CRM) like Salesforce, and other tools such as Algolia.

The backend and the frontend communicate with each other through APIs. An application programming interface (API) is a set of code that enables data transmission between one software product and another. For example your Shopify backend and the frontend.

Customers only interact with the frontend and nothing that happens in the backend is visible to them. Let’s take a look at how this works in the real world:

Step 1: A customer visits your eCommerce website. The frontend is loaded in the user’s web browser and the product details are retrieved from the Shopify backend by an API.

Step 2: The customer makes a purchase, which results in the frontend sending a request to the backend via an API.

Step 3: The backend does all of the processing and then responds to the frontend and tells it the purchase was accomplished.

Headless commerce architecture explained

What does headless commerce mean for Shopify?

You’ve probably spent years building your brand with Shopify. And while you may have outgrown the platform's native capabilities you don’t want to lose the powerful functions Shopify provides and leave the platform you understand and trust.

Luckily, it's possible to use headless commerce with your existing Shopify store and seamlessly transition to a headless architecture.

Shopify enables merchants to build headless commerce webshops with their Storefront API. This API has been built by Shopify with the purpose of making third-party providers compatible with their eCommerce platform.

This way you can still utilize Shopify as your eCommerce backend engine to manage inventory, payments processing, and more. And for the frontend, the customer-facing side of your webshop, you can use a variety of technologies that fit your needs.

By decoupling the frontend from your Shopify backend you can create a unique shopping experience and eliminate any restrictions that might affect your desired look and feel, and functionality.

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