The difference between headless and composable commerce

Consumer trends are what drives commerce innovation. So keeping up with the latest is crucial. But it's also very hard - especially if your eCommerce platform is slow to shift. 

Traditionally, eCommerce platforms are built with an integrated front-end and back-end. Meaning the functionality and customer-facing parts are tightly connected. This worked well from a performance and maintenance perspective but less so if you wanted to keep up with emerging trends. 

To solve this, merchants started to find ways to separate the front-end from the underlying services. The idea was to enable more flexibility in the customer-facing experience, becoming known as headless commerce. 

The headless approach allows merchants to build better customer experiences while retaining the same essential functions in their commerce operation. So adding a new Content Management System or constantly updating the UI suddenly becomes easy. 

Pain point resolved. Or was it?

Unless you have a truly headless setup, the underlying system still limits a decoupled front-end; you can change a lot but not everything. More fundamental changes, like changes in the business model, require more extensive work for the underlying system to support it. For example, same-day delivery and in-store returns are innovations that need platform support. With a tethered (but still headless) setup, you still rely on your platform partner to make the necessary changes - whenever they get around to it.

Here's where Composable Commerce comes in. If you think about it, it's the same basic idea as headless, but for the entire ecosystem—the need to constantly iterate and innovate drives the change to a fully decoupled setup, even at the system level. As a result, all components such as ERP, WMS, and loyalty systems are separated, and you can pick (or switch) the one that suits your needs.

So what is the difference?

Headless and Composabla Commerce are often used to describe the same principle, but this is not strictly correct. Here's an illustration:

Headless vs Composable Commerce

Headless vs Composable Commerce - what's the difference?

As you can see above, a headless commerce setup is normally an integral part of a Composable Commerce ecosystem. Not the way around. It's the best of both worlds, enabling true flexibility.

A decoupled headless system is

  1. When the front-end (usually a website) is decoupled from the back-end

  2. A method for merchants to constantly improve the customer experience

  3. Still reliant on the underlying back-end system

A Composable Commerce ecosystem is

  1. A system where every component, not just the front-end, is independent of others

  2. An approach that allows merchants to innovate at their own pace, independent of platform suppliers

  3. A way for merchants to adapt to changing trends by using best-of-breed components

Headless can (and definitely should) be part of a Composable Commerce ecosystem, but as you can see, it's not the same as Composable Commerce.

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