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Headless vs. Composable Commerce: Which is Right for Your Business?

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Ash McGrath

Sr. Copywriter

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As the digital age evolves businesses across the globe are leveraging commerce technology to optimize their operations and be more responsive to market demands. Two buzzwords that have recently come to the forefront are headless commerce and composable commerce. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, headless and composable commerce have distinct use cases depending on the needs of your business.

We sat down with Thomas Mulreid, Head of Sales at Orium in a recent Own Your Commerce episode to explore the composable/headless commerce ecosystem and the impact it has on the future of digital retail. This article unpacks the relationship (and differences) between the two so that businesses can make informed decisions about selecting headless and/or composable commerce solutions to drive their business growth.

What is Headless Commerce?

The concept of headless commerce emerged as a necessary response to an evolving retail landscape and a change in the way people want to shop. The term “headless” refers to the separation of the front-end customer-facing presentation of a website from its back-end commerce functionality.

This model became more prevalent with the use of mobile devices, IoT, and the need for businesses to have an omnichannel retail presence. Traditional monolith commerce platforms offered an all-in-one solution that tied the front-end and back-end together, which provided a uniform experience but came with limited flexibility to tailor the customer experience.

As businesses sought to innovate their customer experience and capitalize on emerging market trends headless commerce became a viable solution to help brands move beyond the constraints of monolithic commerce platforms.

Mulreid says “where the headless commerce use case kicks in is when you separate the content that reaches your customers from the operational tools on the back end and the thing which separates those is the API itself”. Headless commerce gives brands the power to create a fully customized front-end customer experience without changing or refactoring all of the back-end technologies that their merchandising teams,  marketing teams, ecommerce teams, and developers use on a day-to-day basis.

What is Composable Commerce?

Just as headless commerce emerged as a response to legacy platform constraints, composable commerce took the principles of headless commerce and expanded upon them to provide even more flexibility and customization. It’s helpful to think of composable commerce as a build-your-own approach that allows businesses to assemble various commerce components like Lego blocks, choosing the most suitable pieces to create a solution that aligns with their unique business needs.

While headless commerce decouples the front-end and back-end systems, composable goes a step further by breaking down the back-end functionality into individual, interchangeable components, or “microservices”. This allows businesses to “compose” their commerce architecture by choosing best-in-breed solutions for their specific needs, whether the focus is on inventory management, payment processing, customer relationship management, or anything in between.

The modular approach of composable commerce maintains the benefits of headless commerce, such as the ability to create unique customer experiences across multiple touchpoints, while also enhancing the adaptability and scalability of the system as a whole, allowing businesses to innovate, test, and iterate rapidly in response to market changes.

Key Differences: Finding the Perfect Fit for Your Business

Let's delve into the critical differences between headless and composable commerce to guide your business towards its best fit.

1. Customization: Both solutions offer customization, but they differ in their approach. Headless commerce focuses on customizing the frontend experience without impacting backend operations. On the contrary, composable commerce allows for customization of both frontend and backend via selection and integration of diverse modules.

2. Flexibility: Headless commerce offers the flexibility to design and modify frontend interfaces without impacting backend systems. Composable commerce, however, extends this flexibility across the entire system, enabling interchange of tech stack components without compromising the overall system.

3. Scalability: Both frameworks offer scalability, but composable commerce provides greater latitude in scaling. Its modular approach lets businesses scale components individually, based on specific needs.

Which Solution is Right for Your Business?

Choosing the right commerce solution for your business can be a daunting task. However, the choice between headless or composable solutions largely depends on your businesses unique needs, scalability, customization requirements and resources.

Mulreid urges businesses to consider what their roadmap looks like not just in the next 12 months, but over the next three years and to consider  “how mature are your teams, how complex is your use case? How much more growth do you have in the organization and are you already seeing signs of your technology holding you back from achieving any of the above”?

Choosing Headless Commerce

When searching for the ideal commerce solution, a headless approach might tick all of your boxes. Specifically, if your business is focused on bespoke front-end design, the ability to swiftly adapt to changes in user behavior, or the necessity to distribute content across a variety of channels and platforms.

The beauty of headless commerce solutions lie in their ability to provide an exclusive, brand-aligned experience across an array of customer touchpoints, ranging from mobile apps to smart devices, and anything in between.

Mulreid emphasizes, “with headless commerce you’re essentially creating your own front end, which requires a robust ream of developers. This makes headless a great approach for business with a strong development team or those ready to invest in one.

So, what makes a business an ideal candidate for headless commerce?

  • You prioritize customized front-end design
  • Your business needs to adapt rapidly to user behavior changes
  • You need to distribute content across diverse channels and platforms
  • You already have a strong development team or are ready to invest in one
  • Your business strategy is focused on creating unique experience across various customer touch points

Things to consider:

It’s important to note that headless is still not a one-size-fits-all solution. While it provides a high level of flexibility and control over the front end, it may not extend the same leniency towards backend operations. Headless commerce systems are typically provided by a single vendor, which means you’re somewhat committed to a vendor’s way of doing things. This may not always coincide with your business's unique needs or growth path, so take your time to weigh your options thoroughly.

Choosing Composable Commerce

If your business wants to take advantage of the customization that comes with headless commerce while also demanding higher flexibility in your backend operations, then composable commerce could be a great choice for you. With composable commerce you’re taking the headless concept a step further. Not only are you separating the front end from the back end, you’re also detaching backend components from each other. Composable commerce is a great fit for businesses with complex or fast-paced evolving needs. It provides the flexibility to select best-in-class solutions for every operational area. For example, businesses that want to integrate robust analytics tools, CRM software, or inventory management across numerous locations. These use cases greatly benefit from the modular approach that composable offers.

Composable also offers a significant competitive advantage in the ease and quickness at which businesses can switch components to meet evolving market needs – without revamping their entire commerce system. For businesses that lack a sizable in-house development team, or that want to lessen their dependence on developers for making system changes, the ‘plug-and-play’ nature of composable is an attractive draw.

So, what makes a business an ideal candidate for composable commerce?

  • Your business wants front end customization AND back-end operational flexibility
  • Your business has complex or rapidly changing needs and wants the flexibility to choose optimal solutions for each area of operation
  • Your goal is to integrate advanced tools like analytics, CRM, or inventory management software
  • You want to remain agile in a swiftly evolving market
  • You don’t have a large in-house development team or want to reduce reliance on developers
  • Future-proofing your business is a high priority for your business

Things to consider:

Selecting the right partner can make or break your experience with a composable solution, so be sure to weigh your options carefully. The right partner not only provides a robust, scalable solution to meet your business needs but also offers expertise and support during the integration and implementation stages, easing the pressure placed on internal team members. Choosing the right partner also ensures continuous updates and improvements, further contributing to your business's agility in a competitive market.

Let Your Business Goals Determine Your Commerce Solution

Ultimately, the choice between headless or composable commerce should center around your distinct business requirements. As we’ve explored, each has unique strengths – headless excels for those wanting front-end customization. While composable offers extensive system-wide adaptability.

The optimal solution should address your immediate business needs, and pave the way for future business growth.

Curious about the journey to composable commerce for your own business?

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About the author
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Ash McGrath

Sr. Copywriter

Ash McGrath is a Sr. Copywriter at Bold Commerce.

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