What is Headless E-commerce? — A Definition

Garth Brantley

April 19, 2019
Headless E-commerce Architecture

Welcome to the first in a series of posts I will be publishing on the theme of “What is Headless E-commerce?”. I will start here with some basic definitions. As the series develops, I plan to elaborate on particular use cases and flavors of headless e-commerce. And to help shed some light on how the term is being used commercially in different circles.

I’m going to start at the very beginning and define e-commerce, to give us a solid foundation to build upon.


noun, often attributive

: commerce conducted via the Internet

You might notice that this definition, from the current Merriam-Webster dictionary, limits e-commerce to being conducted via the Internet. I will stick with this limit as I proceed. The vast majority of the world’s commercial transactions are actually conducted electronically at this point, so this is a good distinction.

I’m actually going to add a further qualifier to what I mean in these articles by e-commerce. These articles will just be focused on B2C (Business-to-Consumer) and B2B (Business-to-Business) purchases of goods and services.

So with e-commerce defined, I’m going to proceed to define our primary term as follows:

headless e-commerce


: an architectural pattern for software systems, specifically where the software component(s) responsible for executing commercial transactions do not provide a user interface (known as a head)

So what is the head?

And for the most, those using the term headless e-commerce are referring to this particular software architectural pattern. In the pattern the head refers to software that drives what a customer sees (for example in a web browser) or interacts with in some way (the voice interface of an Alexa device counts here). One or more back-end software components are considered headless if they provide data or services to the head, but don’t implement a head themselves.

And what is a headless e-commerce platform?

There are two basic variations of this. You have conventional e-commerce platforms which have been designed WITH heads, but are being used in implementations without the head. Platforms like Shopify, Magento, BigCommerce and even SAP Hybris are commonly being used in this way.

And then you have e-commerce platforms that have been designed from the ground up without heads. Some e-commerce platforms in this category include: Moltin, Commercetools and Commerce Layer.

A Solid Foundation

In this post, I think we have set a good foundation to build upon. Over the next month or so I will be following up with several more articles elaborating on the different flavors of headless e-commerce architecture which are being used in practice and digging into some concrete examples.

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