Choosing a Headless approach for your online store is not the right choice for everyone.
Shopify and the Shopify ecosystem, with its vast supply of apps and themes, does a tremendous job making E-Commerce easy and is therefore great for the most common E-Commerce scenarios.
Especially if you just want to get your shop up and running quickly and only sell a handful of simple products with a standard user experience, Shopify will be able to provide you with everything you need.
When is Headless right for you?
However, there are definitely brands and merchants who can greatly benefit from the added customization opportunities that headless commerce offers. Usually, a real need for headless commerce is rooted in the desire to sell products with the best user experience possible. Here are some of the most common reasons to go headless with Shopify:
Reason 1: You want the best User Experience possible
Shopify's Theme- and URL-structure are catered toward a very standard online store experience. You will have a home page, category pages and product pages, as well as some basic content pages and maybe a simple blog around it.
If you want to stand out with your user experience – e.g., by changing the standard experience, or building a more complex content experience – headless will offer you the freedom to do so.
Reason 2: You want the best performance possible
While Shopify stores can certainly be quick to load, you can find yourself in situations where performance is limited by what the Shopify infrastructure can provide.
With headless, you can freely choose your front-end tech stack and have full control over all components that influence performance and loading times, allowing you to continuously improve in order to have the fastest store possible.
Reason 3: You need multiple storefronts
Modern E-Commerce means being available wherever your customers are willing to interact with you (also known as omnichannel). This entails having additional sales channels on top of your typical online storefront – like marketplaces, apps, in-store interfaces and all other kinds of digital sales experiences.
With headless, you can set up and manage various channels through one back-end, so you’re always at your customer's fingertips when they need you.
Reason 4: SEO is essential for you
Being found on search engines is crucial for most E-Commerce businesses. Shopify provides good SEO tools, but due to their SaaS (Software as a service) Infrastructure, you can’t drill down too much.
Headless allows you to squeeze the last bit out of your on-page SEO, which might be the edge you need to propel you to the pole position on search engine results.
Reason 5: You want to heavily utilize content like videos & articles
Shopify may offer certain CMS (content management system) capabilities, but you’ll quickly run into limitations, if you want to heavily utilize content. It’s a shop platform, after all.
If you want to do more than run a simple blog or set up a few landing pages, you will probably run into limitations. With headless, you can implement a flexible headless CMS to deliver your content just as you want it.
Reason 6: You wish to sell customizable products or services
Selling highly customizable products or services through the standard Shopify platform can quickly get tricky. Products only offer three variant dimensions and 100 options in total, as well as a rather rigid structure to product prices. With headless, you have the freedom to sell even the most complex products and let Shopify handle the checkout and orders.
Reason 7: You prefer not to use dozens of apps & themes
Shopify stores tend to get crowded with many apps, adding dependencies and costs in the process. In most cases, it’s really tricky to untangle these setups later on.
With headless, you usually do not need as many third-party apps, as you can build a lot of functionality into the frontend directly. Thus, you have more control over the interactions while also saving on app subscriptions.
Reason 8: You want your front-end to be independent and future-proof
Maybe you feel it would be better not to rely on Shopify as your go-to E-Commerce platform forever.
Of course, Shopify grows dynamically and adds features as they go, but you can’t be sure that they will always be the best platform for your unique needs. Yet replatforming is never easy.
Wouldn’t it be nice, if you didn’t have to start from scratch? With headless, you can take your front-end with you when you switch platforms, making the transition easier for your business and your customers.
This portability of your Frontend also means that improvements are truly an investment, and you don’t need to reinvent your customer experience every time you switch to another platform.
Reason 9: You want to build innovative or creative sales channels
Commerce is everywhere today. With Headless, you can reach your customers everywhere and offer excitingly unique buying experiences rather than the run-off-the-mill online store – like interactive VR (virtual reality) or AR (augmented reality) shopping experiences.
Reason 10: You have an existing team of developers
Many developers struggle to adapt to working with Shopify themes and apps. With headless, you can choose a tech stack your team likes and has experience with, so you do not have to educate your developers on how to work with Shopify.
Reason 11: You need a sophisticated B2B sales channel
B2B E-Commerce is a growing trend which provides a lot of value, but it’s also more complex than the B2C equivalent. Oftentimes, there are existing processes and pricing structures that need to be covered by a B2B E-Commerce solution.
Headless offers the freedom needed to build B2B stores around existing requirements, so you do not need to change and simplify your processes to make it work.
Reason 12: You plan to launch your shop with a custom design
Shopify's themes are not for everyone. If you want to stand out and not look generic, you will want a custom design, which will have to be built from scratch.
In this case, you should at least think about going headless, as it might not really be more expensive. In fact, it can even be faster (and therefore cheaper) to build a headless front-end instead of a Shopify theme in certain cases.
When should you steer clear?
There are many reasons for large or very creative business owners to go headless, but there are also some strong reasons to avoid headless because the advantages might not be worth the additional complexity. It’s business specific, really.
Here are some common examples why we might recommend you avoid going headless. Each case is different, so you should decide if these examples apply to you.
Reason 1: You want to utilize the Shopify app ecosystem as much as possible
Having hundreds of apps at your fingertips allows you to add and test features on your online store with little cost incurred and almost no technical expertise needed. With a headless approach, you will not be able to use any front-end apps from the Shopify app store anymore.
Reason 2: You have a tight budget and no tech expertise
It is relatively cheap, easy to set up, simple to maintain a standard Shopify store with a theme and apps, and best of all, very little IT knowledge is required.
If you don’t have an appropriate budget to hire external help or great tech expertise on your in-house team, you will not be able to set up a headless front-end and reap the benefits of the freedom you gain from doing so.
Reason 3: You just want to test the waters
If you just want to set up a basic store as fast as possible to see if you can generate sales, it probably makes sense to start out with a standard Shopify store. You can still think about going headless, when you actually see success.
Reason 4: Your current digital agency has no software engineering capabilities
Many digital marketing agencies and Shopify partners specialize in supporting no-code or low-code software. That means that they usually provide help around the setup and customization of existing themes and install apps, while trying to avoid touching any code.
In contrast, headless commerce needs more sophisticated web development and software engineering skills, which your current digital agency might not be able to provide.
Reason 5: You are willing to stick to standard processes as much as possible
Shopify and the apps on the Shopify app store will dictate the customer experience and how store owners have to handle certain processes. If you are flexible and willing to adjust your processes to how Shopify and its apps work, you will benefit from the simplicity they provide.
Reason 6: You don’t plan to optimize the performance of your sales channels
Shopify’s stores and themes offer decent out-of-the-box performance. If you just want to set up a basic store as fast as possible and there is no need or value in greatly improving its performance over time, there is no need for a headless setup.
Reason 7: Your products are basic, and you just want to have a simple sales funnel to convert your social media or ad traffic
If you have the expertise and skills to direct a lot of traffic, which you want to convert into buyers, setting up a simple Shopify store will give you a sales funnel to do so. That way, you can put your efforts into improving your marketing approach, instead of thinking about your E-Commerce platform.
Reason 8: You prefer themes from the theme store over custom design
Themes from the Shopify theme store offer certain flexibility and some free updates, which are really helpful if you cannot or do not want to spend time and resources on a custom design.
They might tend to make your store look somewhat generic, yet they come at little cost and cover all the sections you need to set up a basic online store. If you enjoy these benefits, we recommend you keep using themes instead of going headless.
Reason 9: You’re certain that you’ll never want to leave the Shopify ecosystem
The Shopify ecosystem consists of many helpful resources, like the theme and app store, a large community of users that help each other, tons of content on how to set up and start selling and an international network of Shopify experts to help you.
All these resources can be really helpful to solve many common challenges rather quickly and with only as much involvement of an actual developer as needed. Most of these will not be able to help you with a headless setup, though. If you rely on these resources and enjoy using them, going headless is probably not right for you.
Shopify is a great platform, able to support both fully integrated online stores and the headless approach. Choosing the right option for your business isn’t easy and depends on numerous factors, which you will need to weigh against each other.
Overall, it comes down to your plans and ambitions for your online store.
If you’re just starting out with E-commerce, the online store is just a small sales channel for you, and you don’t really want to invest into it, you’re better off avoiding headless.
But if you want to be unique, actively manage and improve your store to reach peak performance in all measurable categories, you will benefit from the headless approach.
Need help determining which path is the right one for you? We have a lot of experience with both “standard” Shopify builds, and headless Shopify set-ups, so we know the ins and outs and can help you decide. So don't hesitate to write us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us through our website.
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Malte DietrichDigital Strategist & Co-Owner
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