Is it time to go headless?

eStar chief technology officer, Matt Neale discusses is headless commerce a fit for you?

There's a growing trend of businesses looking to adopt headless commerce. So, what does headless commerce mean and what should you consider determining if it's a fit for you?

First, what is headless?

Breaking through the surrounding hype, quite simply, it’s a software architecture. It’s one of many ways to approach building applications for the web, including eCommerce sites.

Specifically – it’s a service-oriented architecture, centred around web-accessible API’s, with a preference for microservices, delivered without a graphical user interface.

It’s just a lot easier to call it ‘headless.’

Second, what’s the motivation?

There are two primary drivers that are driving headless adoption, one being commonality of backend services between different customer channels – think web, mobile apps etc. giving a more consistent customer experience, and two – that it gives you control over the customer experience.

To date, most retailers have opted to use a commercial eCommerce platform, rather than build their own. This usually comes with a built-in content management system, and a set of functions and features – such as wishlists, blogs or interactive catalogues – for instance.

And it’s through these features that you engage with your customers, providing them information, products, and services.

Now the ease of use and cost benefits of using a commercial platform comes with a cost of control. You are generally limited by the features and interactions that have been built either by the platform vendors, or by the availability of plugins and services in a marketplace. Some of the high-end platforms do allow virtually infinite customisation or tailoring.

Headless changes this. You gain control of the user experience, you can build new features, automations, or integrate to other solutions at your own speed, and create a highly tailored experience that to date, has only been accessible by those businesses who have either ‘rolled their own,’ or have access to the premium technologies (that facilitate extensive front-end customisation).

Whilst all the above sounds great, as with anything, and to steal a quote – “with great power comes great responsibility,” and this truism holds some weight here.

Typically, a headless architecture will involve a business taking much greater control and responsibility for the front-end operations of their online presence. This includes maintenance, hosting, development and compliance (e.g. PCI).

Now in many cases, businesses – retailers, in the case of eCommerce, don’t have this expertise in-house, and often don’t want this responsibility. Most retail businesses will contract this out to third party implementers, much as they do now.

With headless granting control, and requiring responsibility in return, businesses will be asking more of their implementation partner.

There is also some clarification required here: headless architecture is a not a new technology, it uses existing technologies such as REST API’s, JavaScript and the browser. All current commercial eCommerce platforms power parts of their offering using a headless architecture in selectively chosen areas to provide an enhanced experience, or a simpler solution.

There's generally an expectation of rapid change and fast implementation, remember – this is in comparison to a vendor implementing their roadmap – it is not in comparison to building the software itself.

Operational complexity is often not assessed and as with any distributed architecture, this increases with headless. If you've ever experienced being caught inside a multi-vendor incident, you will know that this typically results in slower incident response and longer outages.

As with any technology decision there are pros and cons:


  • Flexibility and independence in choice of vendors
  • Shared backend services across channels (web, apps, other) for a consistent, unified experience
  • Customisation becomes the new normal
  • Automation and integration functions become more accessible
  • Suitable for organisations with specialist web technology teams


  • Expensive to implement and maintain
  • Higher overall complexity
  • Requires a higher level of operational management
  • Potential regulatory exposure
  • Challenging for organisations who do not have specialist web technology teams, or rely on 3rd party implementers

There will be some businesses where this is a game changer – the true winners from ‘going headless’ will be businesses with significant technical investment available to build their own front-ends, who have been constrained by existing technology, and who have the ability to deploy their own software development teams to innovate and tailor their own solutions. The growth of headless support across technology vendors will give those same businesses the flexibility and control to innovate on their own terms, without being beholden to the roadmap of any single vendor, and to take responsibility for their sites and services.

Is it time to go headless?

Posted inAbout eStareCommerce