Headless E-commerce vs. Monolithic E-commerce Suites - A Comparison

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Ecommerce suites such as Shopify and Adobe Commerce (which gobbled up Magento) are popular − but they are not the ideal choice for every ecommerce business. A headless ecommerce solution can be a better fit for your business. If you’re curious to learn more, we’re going to outline the major differences between monolithic ecommerce suites and headless ecommerce solutions.

What is “Headless” Anyway?

The term “headless” is commonly associated with other terms such as microservices-based, API-first, cloud-native, SaaS, and - more recently - with the term “composable”. Most headless solutions are hosted in the cloud. They are typically easy to integrate while being developed, marketed, and maintained independently from each other. Each of them addresses a specific business problem and communicates with other headless applications via APIs (application programming interfaces).

What Are the Common Characteristics of Monolithic Ecommerce Suites?

All ecommerce suites claim to have all the functions needed to build and run an online shop. You install the suite once, get acquainted with it, and you are all set to start. However, there are many major drawbacks:

  • You as a user are dependent on very few or even single vendors and their development roadmap for their monolithic software suites.

  • They are designed to address the most common use cases.

  • You are very limited (if at all in some directions) in customizing the solution to your needs.

  • If you are operating in a fast-paced environment with ever-changing requirements, adapting a monolithic suite is often slow and expensive. And in some cases, this is simply impossible.

  • The various system components (for example, product information and inventory or delivery options) are entangled. You will have a hard time replacing or heavily customizing them to address your specific use cases.

  • The integration of third-party solutions- if needed- can often be an expensive, hard, or simply impossible endeavor.

  • You are limited in scaling the solution. One of the problems arising from this is when you have periods with high sales (such as the holiday season) which cause traffic spikes. Even a cloud-hosted suite does not guarantee that it can scale perfectly and automatically with your business. Many vendors that have moved their previously on-premise ecommerce software into the cloud face this problem.

  • For initial use cases and simple implementations, a suite may be cheaper for you than buying and implementing each component separately, but adapting it later to your changing business needs can quickly become very expensive and eat up all of your initial savings.  

That is why most large companies want to have a modular system architecture that allows them to replace components and functions, with the ability to scale the system according to business needs. Headless solutions are ideal in this regard.

What Are the Benefits of Headless Solutions for Ecommerce?

  • When the headless solution is hosted in the cloud, you do not need to handle installing, hosting, maintaining, and securing it. The application typically will scale automatically according to your business demand.

  • The vendors of headless ecommerce applications are specialists in specific business problems, so they usually have more knowledge and resources in their fields than a generalist software vendor, or an internal team with limited resources in your company.

  • The frontend (the presentation layer/user interface of software) is decoupled from the backend (the databases and application logic). This allows you to more easily add and customize functionalities.

  • It is substantially less effort to serve your clients (with a unified customer experience) across all digital channels, including those which are unique to your business.

  • Thanks to its flexibility and adaptability, a headless software architecture is much more future-proof compared to traditional architectures.

  • Each part of a headless system architecture is typically designed to scale independently from each other.

  • You can always integrate third-party systems through fully-featured integrated APIs. 

  • You can completely adapt the digital customer experience to your brand and needs – and you can address various target groups individually with highly customized experiences.

  • Headless solutions are built from the ground up with APIs in mind, which makes things easier than trying to add an API to an already existing monolithic software solution. This “API-First” principle guarantees that each system function is available in the API. In more traditional software, that is often not the case, and APIs - if available - are limited in scope and functionality.

Conclusion

A monolithic ecommerce suite is often inflexible, hard to extend or scale, and may not be future-proof. This can make it a more costly option in the long term, especially if your business needs to customize the system to specific needs. The vendors of these suites know this and often try to add “headless capabilities” to their platforms - but does this make them truly composable commerce platforms with full customization options for the users? 

Even if you have a small budget and you are comfortable with the limits imposed by traditional software, you might only save money in the short run. The future is hard to predict, and the headaches and hassles saved by going headless may be cheaper in the long run.

With headless commerce solutions, you can tackle many of these challenges independently. The solutions can be built to scale with your business, and with the integrated APIs, you can expand your ecommerce platform in all directions. That gives you complete freedom in building your ecommerce architecture which perfectly fits your business model.