What is headless Shopify?

By Ikius Team

October 1st, 2022

Shopify powers 20% of the world’s online stores, according to Statista. It provides a virtual storefront, and everything merchants and brands need to run their business. As you scale, you may outgrow its native capabilities and need more flexibility. 

Enter headless: By separating the back from the frontend, headless commerce provides merchants with greater flexibility and scalability. Headless Shopify is a solid option for brands and merchants already using Shopify to take their online stores to the next level.

With an online store built on headless Shopify, you have total control over your eCommerce design, technology stack, user experience, and features. All while keeping everything that makes Shopify great, like its payment processing options, inventory management, and PCI compliance. 

In this blog post, we will explore what headless Shopify is and how it can benefit your business. We will also discuss some of the pros and cons of using this platform so that you can make an informed decision about whether or not it is right for you. So, let's get started.

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What is headless commerce?

Headless commerce architecture decouples the presentation layer –your storefront, composed of templates and themes– from your database or eCommerce platform. This gives businesses more flexibility and control over their checkout process, product pages, SEO, user experience, and overall branding. 

In a headless model, your commerce platform isn’t in charge of every aspect of your online store. Instead, you use it as a hub to connect third-party software and tools like ERPs, OMS, and PIMs using APIs. Rather than centralizing everything like a monolithic platform would, a headless one serves as the connective tissue that enables the interaction of different, separated tools.

Because of its independent architecture, you can update every part of your eCommerce infrastructure without compromising your storefront and vice versa, enabling you to easily swap components.

Leveraging a headless commerce platform gives mid-size brands and online stores the tools they need to go to the big leagues, grow faster, and build feature-packed digital experiences tailored for their customers.

We wrote a comprehensive article about what is a headless CMS; if you want a deep dive into the headless architecture, take a look. 

Read more: What is composable commerce?

What is headless Shopify?

Headless Shopify separates the frontend from your backend, enabling developers to use frontend frameworks like Gatsby and Next.js to build storefronts. Pulling data from Shopify can be easily done using the storefront API.

Shopify is built on a Rails monolith that handles every aspect of your eCommerce store, from back-office operations to product management and commerce capabilities. Headless Shopify rests on a Shopify Plus backend that integrates commerce services like product management, shopping carts, and content management. All of these integrations are connected via APIs, and the Shopify storefront API connects it with your frontend. 

While traditional Shopify is a great commerce platform, as you scale, your Shopify store may become unwieldy in a similar way to what happens with WordPress. A headless Shopify store, on the contrary, can scale almost infinitely without needing a costly overhaul. 

To go headless, you need a Shopify Plus account. Shopify Plus gives you access to Shopify API, a connective layer that enables developers to extend Shopify, unlocking higher performance and deeper integrations with third-party software.

Shopify’s storefront API is device-agnostic and enables developers to build custom storefronts using pretty much any frontend framework or libraries like Next.js and Gatsby. Thanks to Shopify’s API, you can create all kinds of commerce experiences, such as mobile apps, web apps, and deliver content to IoT apps and smart mirrors. 

Decoupling Shopify is a great idea when you need more than what WordPress offers through its templates but still want to sell through Shopify. However, bear in mind that going headless with Shopify is a rather technical process. You should note that it requires help from experienced developers or a headless commerce agency, especially if you want to launch your store soon.

What’s the difference between headless Shopify and traditional?

Headless Shopify Traditional Shopify
FlexibilityNo need to modify the backend to make changesDevelopers face a ton of constraints when designing something
CustomizabilityEntirely customizable. You got complete control over the look and feel of your store.Little room for customization. Predefined experiences for customers and admin.
AdaptabilityDecoupled architecture that makes it easier to build from scratch.Tightly coupled front and backend.
Time to marketFaster time to marketSlow time to market
Headless Shopify No need to modify the backend to make changes
Traditional ShopifyDevelopers face a ton of constraints when designing something
Headless Shopify Entirely customizable. You got complete control over the look and feel of your store.
Traditional ShopifyLittle room for customization. Predefined experiences for customers and admin.
Headless Shopify Decoupled architecture that makes it easier to build from scratch.
Traditional ShopifyTightly coupled front and backend.
Time to market
Headless Shopify Faster time to market
Traditional ShopifySlow time to market

Things to know before going headless

  • You can go headless gradually: Headless architecture allows you to build your store brick by brick. You can slowly migrate your content and assets to a headless setup and switch from one architecture to another without customers even feeling it. They will only feel the difference in speed and the better user experience, that’s for sure. 

  • You will need development muscle: If you don’t have knowledgeable developers, going headless can strain your resources and may require you to hire additional help. But you can offset that by hiring a headless eCommerce agency. A partner can help you get a working headless Shopify eCommerce in no time. 

  • You won’t break the bank: Building a headless commerce solution isn’t as expensive as most people think, and the benefits in performance and conversion will quickly offset the development costs of a headless store. 

  • You need to be familiar with web development languages and frameworks: Headless Shopify requires you to use a frontend framework such as Gatsby or Next.js to build your storefront. You will need to have a good understanding of web development languages such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript and know how to work with these frameworks.

  • You need experience working with APIs: Headless Shopify relies on APIs to connect the frontend and backend of your store. You will need to understand how APIs work and how to pull data from your Shopify backend and send it to it.

  • You have to understand core eCommerce concepts: To effectively manage a headless Shopify store, you will need to have a good understanding of eCommerce concepts such as product management, inventory management, and customer data.

  • You need experience with hosting and deployment platforms: When you are ready to go live with your headless Shopify store, you will need to deploy it to a hosting platform. You should understand how to set up and manage a hosting environment and deploy your store to it.

  • You must have technical problem-solving skills: As with any technical project, you may encounter problems or challenges when working with headless Shopify. You will need strong problem-solving skills and the ability to troubleshoot issues as they arise.

Cost considerations of going headless

The costs and resources needed for a headless Shopify store compared to a traditional Shopify store may vary depending on several factors.

Still, in general, a headless Shopify store may offer some advantages in terms of cost and resources. However, most objections about going headless focus on two aspects:

  • Upfront development costs: Building a headless Shopify store may require more upfront development costs than a traditional Shopify store, as it requires more technical expertise and custom development. 

However, a headless store may be more flexible and scalable in the long run, saving you money on costly overhauls or upgrades as your store grows. Additionally, a headless store may allow you to integrate more easily with third-party tools and services, which can help you streamline your operations and save money on things like fulfillment and customer service.

  • Ongoing maintenance costs: A headless Shopify store may also require more ongoing maintenance than a traditional Shopify store, as it requires more technical expertise to manage and update. 

However, a headless store may offer more stability and reliability over time. It's easier to handle traffic spikes and high sales volumes without the risk of downtime or other issues. Additionally, a headless store may offer more flexibility in design and functionality, allowing you to tailor the user experience to your customers' needs easily.

Overall, while a headless Shopify store may require more upfront development costs and ongoing maintenance compared to a traditional Shopify store, it may offer some cost benefits in the long run due to its scalability, flexibility, and ability to integrate with third-party tools and services.

Pros of headless Shopify

More control over your commerce experiences

With traditional Shopify, you’re constrained by plugins and themes. Headless commerce lets you control what you build and where to deliver your content. Headless architecture unlocks new channels and devices, allowing your brand to go omnichannel and deliver a better customer experience to consumers in emerging channels. 

Faster time to market

By decoupling the frontend from the backend, a headless setup separates concerns. That means developers can focus on building the UI while marketers and content editors can create content and update product information independently, resulting in faster time to market and less time spent on updates.

Increased speed 

When used in conjunction with frameworks like Gatsby and Next.js, a Shopify store can reach a sub-three-second speed, no matter how many products you have. Modern frontend frameworks are optimized for speed and aren’t constrained by plugins or themes, which makes them faster than a custom storefront. 

Better SEO

While Shopify is great for SEO, the headless approach gives you greater flexibility on choosing SEO-friendly tools and frameworks to give you even more granular control over how to optimize your websites. Plus, most of the Shopify headless sites score high in the Google Core Vitals score, giving you an edge over your competitors.

Seamless integration with third-party software

Let’s not forget that Shopify is the biggest eCommerce platform in the market. That means everyone wants to partner with it. 

Cons of headless Shopify

Can’t use themes

Themes are awesome to use if you want to get started quickly. With that said, they dictate how your store should look. A headless storefront can use website starters to get things going quickly while not using traditional Shopify themes. You can also edit from there, almost like a theme but with all the flexibility to change every pixel of your Shopify store.

More complex than traditional Shopify

Granted, all the new pieces of your headless build will introduce some complexities to your store, but they will give you freedom of choice. A headless store can scale up and down with you and will always be ready to meet your customers’ demands, whereas a traditional store that’s relatively easier to set up can fall short and become unwieldy. 

How to overcome these challenges?

  1. Hire a skilled developer or development team: If you do not have the technical expertise in-house, consider hiring a developer or development team with experience in headless Shopify to help you build and manage your store.

  2. Plan carefully: Carefully plan and scope your headless Shopify project to ensure you have the necessary resources and budget to complete it successfully. This may involve working with a developer or project manager to identify potential challenges or issues and develop mitigation strategies.

  3. Stay up to date: Keep up to date with the latest best practices and technologies in headless Shopify to ensure your store runs smoothly and efficiently. This may involve staying in touch with your developer or development team and monitoring industry trends and updates.

How to get started with headless Shopify?

While we believe it’s a good idea you hire a headless commerce development agency to help you do this, you could also try it yourself to dip your toes before calling us. So, to set up and manage a headless Shopify store, you will need to follow these steps:

  1. Sign up for a Shopify Plus account: To use headless Shopify, you must have a Shopify Plus account. This will give you access to the Shopify API and other tools for building a headless store.

  2. Choose a frontend framework: Headless Shopify allows you to use a frontend framework such as Gatsby or Next.js to build your storefront. Choose the framework that best fits your needs and has your desired features.

  3. Connect to the Shopify API: Once you have chosen your frontend framework, you will need to use the Shopify storefront API to connect it to your Shopify backend and pull in product information, cart information, and customer data.

  4. Build and design your storefront: Use your chosen frontend framework to build and design the storefront of your store. You have total control over the look and feel of your store and the features and functionality you want to include.

  5. Test and deploy your store: Once your storefront is built, test it thoroughly to ensure everything is working correctly. When you are ready to go live, deploy your store to a hosting platform such as Netlify, Vercel, or AWS.

  6. Manage your store: To manage your headless Shopify store, you will need to use the Shopify backend to handle tasks such as adding and updating products, processing orders, and managing customer data. You can also use third-party tools and integrations to help manage and optimize your store.

  7. Keep your store up to date: As with any eCommerce store, it is important to keep your headless Shopify store up to date with the latest features, security updates, and performance improvements. This may involve updating your frontend framework, connecting to new APIs, or integrating with new tools.

Examples of headless commerce

Varcroft and Bianco

In this experience, we worked closely with Varcroft & Bianco's tech team to create a seamless integration between their 3D product configurator and Shopify. We designed the UI with Figma and built it in React.

Users can design their own drawer inserts in the progressive web app and order them directly with Shopify, which has been integrated into the app through the Shopify API.

Hotel Radio

We built a complete system for hosting and delivering massive online live streaming experiences on Hotel Radio

In addition, to live streams, Hotel Radio offers e-commerce through Shopify, fully integrated into the site. Headless Shopify enables seamless shopping experiences on-site and during the streams.

Is a headless Shopify store right for you? 

Undoubtedly, headless commerce has many benefits. Most notable is complete control over customization, flexibility, and speed. The most important of these depends on your specific needs and how much scaling you anticipate. 

In addition, if you already use Shopify, Shopify headless is definitely worth considering.  if With a little bit of set-up work up front or the help of a trusted partner, you can future-proof your eCommerce business and avoid costly overhauls as your consumer base grows.

Ultimately, going headless is the right move if you:

  • Sell through many different channels

  • Want a checkout solution that’s not Shopify checkout

  • Wish to create an entirely customized shopping experience

  • Aim to reduce the workload on your marketing and development teams

  • Need to add an eCommerce layer to an existing headless CMS implementation

If you meet at least three of those five requirements, a headless Shopify solution can be the catalyst for your brand’s growth. Likewise, partnering with a headless commerce development agency like Ikius could fuel that fire. 

Contact us and let us help you take your brand to the next level.

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