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Why do fashion brands replatform to headless back ends?

Headless ecommerce back ends are server-side systems that power the front-end, customer-facing elements of an online store. This blog post explores how headless back ends can help fashion brands grow, offer personalized shopping experiences, and maintain efficiency.

Michal Wlosik

16 minutes

Table of contents

  1. 1. Why fashion brands replatform to headless back ends
  2. 2. Why do fashion stores need headless back ends the most?
  3. 3. What are the must-have features of a headless back end?
  4. 4. Popular headless-capable ecommerce back ends for fashion brands
  5. 5. Are headless back ends the best for every brand?
  6. 6. The wrap up

In a headless approach, the back end is decoupled from the front end, allowing it to be used with any number of different front ends. From a fashion brand’s perspective, this provides a significant value.

Headless back ends allow ecommerce stores greater scalability and flexibility to experiment with different ways of presenting their products. They also make it easier to localize the offering, and scale to operate across multiple markets.

Why fashion brands replatform to headless back ends

Many fashion brands launch their first store on an entry‑level solution. But once the business starts growing, they inevitably start kicking the wheels of different headless ecommerce platforms. This is natural – monolithic ecommerce platforms don't scale well. Their development involves using a rigid, all-in-one set of features that are often cumbersome, and costly to customize and manage.

Unlike a monolithic SaaS system, a headless back end gives brands the flexibility to integrate any microservice they need and design beautiful, on-brand sites that surpass the competition. Headless back ends also enable greater website and application development agility by separating the store's front and back end.

Due to a simplified architecture, a headless back end enables better performance and scalability. It also makes it easier to try new ways of presenting products.

In summary, headless back ends enable:

  • Brand-centric shopping experiences: When using a headless back end, brands can offer a seamless, visually coherent shopping experience. The front end can be built according to the brand’s unique requirements. No more templates or extensions that don’t match the store's design.

  • Reduced time-to-market: With a headless back end, the development cycle of new functionalities is significantly shorter. Brands can improve or launch features independently of the ecommerce platform’s capabilities or third-party plugin providers. This allows more time to focus on the core business and expand to new markets.

  • A best-of-breed approach: Headless systems allow brands to build their ecommerce stacks using the best available technologies. By decoupling the back end from the front end, these systems allow for greater flexibility and scalability. Brands can design their ecommerce stacks using tools that let them meet their specific goals – from conveniently managing complex fashion and lifestyle products to shipping products to their customers.

  • Modularity: Headless back ends allow brands to connect with any third-party systems, including PSP, CMS, order management and ERP platforms.

  • Future-proofing of the technology stack: With cloud-based headless architecture and the extensibility it offers, the store can easily be upgraded. Integrations can be freely replaced to better fit current trends and market requirements. Then, getting the store to work with integrations as expected does not require hacky acrobatics or excessive development.

Why do fashion stores need headless back ends the most?

There is always a business case for using a headless ecommerce back end – no matter what products you're selling, it can boost your bottom line. But this is especially true for fashion and lifestyle products. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Fashion and lifestyle products are very complex to handle in the ecommerce back end. Just think of all the descriptions and translated size charts for different markets and audiences. Don't forget the product variants and sizes (and the relations between them). Also, there are categories, collections, and drops. Granted, such product data can be managed by a product information management system integrated with the ecommerce back end. But most off-the-shelf platforms don't offer a way to easily map such data to pricing and campaigning data. This is not only untapped potential – it also generates lots of manual labor and unnecessary cost for the store.

  2. Fashion shoppers expect fast, personal experiences. They will likely click through many category pages, product pages, variants, size charts and sizing guides before they make a purchase, so the experience must generally be fast and smooth. We've got other blog posts that explore merchandising, personalization, and product photography in fashion ecommerce.

  3. Great visuals inspire fashion shoppers, drive brand engagement, and show how a product fits their lifestyle. They may not even bother to browse a store that doesn't look attractive and well-designed. A headless back end may not come with many themes out of the box, but it allows more flexibility to design pixel-perfect websites that are true to the brand's personality.

A headless back end (for fashion brands, ideally an industry-specific platform) centrally manages data such as inventory and orders, and makes that data accessible across all parts of the ecommerce stack. 

Now, let’s dive deeper into some of the general benefits of using a headless back end:

Lower total cost of ownership

Legacy ecommerce solutions are usually custom-built and installed locally on a company's hardware. They are heavily managed by an IT staff and involve large upfront investments in infrastructure and software licenses. Custom ecommerce solution costs include software maintenance, data cleansing, security and software upgrades.

SaaS systems (both monolithic and headless) are typically much more affordable since there is no software to download or maintain. They are also much more scalable, as they are cloud-based – you can easily add more users or increase your capacity as needed. Finally, SaaS platforms tend to be much more user-friendly, making it easy for even non-technical users to manage their stores.

SaaS ecommerce platforms host and manage the software and customers’ associated data in the cloud – maintaining the IT infrastructure and taking responsibility for data security, distributing upgrades, bug fixes, and developing new features and enhancements. For the customer, initial costs are typically much lower, because you simply implement the software to your requirements, and users access it through a web browser interface over the internet. Payment is a predictable, pay-as-you-go subscription model.

For a more detailed breakdown of the total cost of ownership of different types of ecommerce platforms, read another post on our blog: Total cost of ownership of different types of ecommerce platforms.

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Legacy monolithic platformsMonolithic SaaS platformsHeadless SaaS platformsHeadless industry-specific platform Centra
Back end developmentExpensive.Not required.Not required.Not required.
Front end developmentRequired, price depends on the chosen development partner. Required, price depends on the chosen development partner. Required, price depends on the chosen development partner, but it’s generally cheaper for headless platforms, because their structure provides developers with the best environment to work with. Required, price depends on the chosen development partner, but it’s generally cheaper for headless technology, because their structure provides developers with the best environment to work with.
DesignFree themes, expensive themes or dedicated design.Free themes, expensive themes or dedicated design.Free themes, expensive themes or dedicated design.Dedicated design only.
Plugin/App developmentPoor set of generic features drives the expenses. The cost of developing a few additional, but crucial plugins or apps can easily go up to tens of thousands of dollars. Most enterprises would need from 20-60 plugins. Additional features can be added by buying new plugins or apps from the platform’s library. Mostly in the subscription model. It is an affordable option for a small store, but with more revenue the monthly payment grows, because it is often transaction-based. It's an unsustainable option for enterprises, which require from 20-60 apps and pay for them multiple times (initially and then monthly transaction-based fee.). Dedicated plugins/apps for headless platforms tend to be expensive.Choosing an industry-specific technology from the get-go is cost-effective, because you’re paying only for features that you need and usually you don’t need additional development.

More control over methods to increase the fashion store's AOV

The main draw of advanced headless back ends is the freedom to deploy and experiment with multiple revenue drivers that are usually missing in popular monolithic SaaS platforms:  

  • Better SEO: personalized feeds for different markets, and better support for influencer collaborations and marketing campaigns.

  • Better tools for converting visitors to buyers: segmented and personalized pricing and campaigns, advanced bundles, and upselling and cross-selling options.

  • Stronger support for localization: headless back ends make it easier to translate and localize the store. For an in-depth take on the importance of localization for fashion brands, read this post on our blog.

  • Better delivery experience tools to support presence in new markets.

Higher efficiency, stability and scalability

A headless back end can provide significant efficiency and scalability boost for fashion brands. Decoupling the front end and back end of a website or application can allow for greater flexibility and agility in development due to its simplified architecture.

API-first architecture

Headless ecommerce back ends are API-first. In this approach, APIs are considered as discrete products, rather than integrations within other systems. A headless back end exposes APIs to allow front-end developers to easily access data and freely develop new functionalities. This development trend is becoming increasingly popular, as it offers many benefits. 

  1. API-first architecture allows for greater flexibility regarding how data is presented to the user. Developers can build custom interfaces on top of the data that is exposed through the APIs. This means that users can have a much more customized experience when a company is using a headless back end.

  2. API-first back ends make it easier to scale the store. Since all of the data is accessed through APIs, adding new functionality or data sources is as simple as adding new endpoints to the API. This makes adding new features or scaling an existing application much easier without changing the back-end code.

  3. API-first back ends provide greater flexibility for future development. This means removing vendor lock-in – if an ecommerce store decides to move away from a headless back end, it can make its APIs private and continue using them in its own applications. Alternatively, they can open up their APIs to third-party developers and allow others to build on top of their data and functionality.

We discuss the benefits of API-first approach and benefits of composable ecommerce in a detailed blog post here.

Out-of-the-box PBCs and microservices

The components of a headless back end are known as PBCs (Packaged Business Capabilities). A PBC is usually composed of a number of microservices, each of which solve a specific problem. Microservices are small, independent services that can be used to build larger applications.

In the context of a headless back end, microservices can be used to build individual features or functionality that can be deployed independently of the rest of the back end. For example, you could use a microservice to build a product search feature that could be deployed without affecting the rest of the back-end system.

Best-of-breed PBCs are used to build composable commerce stacks, allowing for flexibility and connectivity. This approach allows fashion brands to manage their product data in a centralized way, while microservices provide a way to decouple and scale different parts of the back end. Microservices are a powerful and flexible way to build a fully featured headless back end for fashion brands. 

PBCs can be vendor-built, custom-built, or native to the ecommerce platform. The demand for headless ecommerce solutions that solve industry-specific problems is on the rise, as is the number of headless ecommerce solutions available.

For a deep dive on composable commerce and integrations, head over to another post on our blog.

What are the must-have features of a headless back end?

With a headless back end, all of the focus can be placed on the back-end infrastructure and functionality without having to worry about designing and developing a front-end user interface. This allows fashion brands to optimize their back-end systems for their specific needs and requirements.

Product information management for fashion products

Fashion products are unique in many ways, but most importantly, they are usually offered in multiple variations – sizes, colors, etc. That’s one reason managing product information for fashion brands can be a challenge.

Product information management (PIM) is a system that helps manage product data. PIM systems help brands keep track of product details like colors, sizes, pricing and descriptions. They also help keep inventory levels up to date, so that customers can always find the products they’re looking for.

PIM systems make it easy for fashion brands to keep their product data organized and accurate. They can also help brands save time and money by automating some tasks associated with managing product information.

Centra is an example of an ecommerce platform that comes with a PIM built specifically to handle complex fashion and lifestyle products.

Order management system

An order management system (OMS) is software that helps businesses manage customer orders. It streamlines the entire ordering process, from taking customer orders to tracking inventory levels and managing supplier relationships.

An OMS can be a standalone software application or integrated with other business applications, such as third-party enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. An OMS typically includes features such as order taking, order tracking, inventory management and customer relationship management (CRM).

Order management systems are essential for businesses that sell products or services online. An OMS can also help businesses manage returns.

Multiple language support

Modern ecommerce brands struggle with going global, because many monolithic ecommerce platforms need more flexibility that enables it. Stronger, a fashionable activewear brand, wanted a flexible platform that would let them customize and localize each store based on visitors’ local preferences. Launching on a headless back end, Centra, helped them achieve it.

Localization

An adaptation to a specific market is known as localization. This process usually involves translating the content into the local language and sometimes also making sure that the pricing and shipping options are adapted to the specific market.

With fashion brands, localization can be especially important for catering to customers in different parts of the world. In addition to translating content, it may also be necessary to adjust sizes and measurements to fit local standards. For example, European sizes are generally smaller than US sizes, so a brand that wants to sell its products in both markets would need to offer both size options.

Localization can make all the difference when expanding your business globally. By taking the time to cater to your local market, you can ensure that you’re providing the best possible experience for your customers – no matter where they are in the world.

For a more detailed breakdown of localization techniques in ecommerce, read an in-depth post on our blog.

Analytics

To visualize and analyze the store’s business KPIs, performance, visitors and transactions, ecommerce stores need reports that provide insight into recent activity.

The Centra back end dashboard with all important ecommerce KPIs

A headless back end should have an intuitive dashboard giving an instant overview of sales, trends, and stock levels. Users can select from a number of dimensions and analyze them over a specified period of time.  

Report generation capabilities can also come in handy. For example, the ability to export reports as .csv or .xlsx files, or get automatically generated reports at regular intervals, will save you a lot of time.

Support for omnichannel commerce

Omnichannel commerce is the new standard for fashion brands. A headless back end lets brands easily support multiple sales channels and gives them the flexibility to innovate quickly.

Fashion brands are under pressure to keep up with ever-changing consumer demands. They need to be able to sell through multiple channels, including brick-and-mortar stores, ecommerce websites, mobile apps and social media platforms. At the same time, they need to be able to move quickly to take advantage of new opportunities and respond to changing market conditions.

By decoupling the front end from the back end, stores running on a headless back end can easily support multiple sales channels without rebuilding their entire infrastructure whenever they want to add a new channel. They can also innovate quickly, without being held back by legacy systems.

Support for wholesale

For original fashion brands, wholesale is just as important as direct-to-consumer sales – it helps them eliminate middlemen when selling their products and allows quicker scaling. 

Unfortunately, few back-end solutions offer wholesale support out of the box. If a back-end module is not available natively, a headless platform should make it possible to integrate a third-party solution or make it easy to integrate one built from scratch.

Third-party integrations vs native features

Many fashion brands are migrating to headless back ends to gain more flexibility and control with any number of third-party integrations and services. 

When it comes to adding functionality to your ecommerce platform, plugins and extensions are a great way to do it, but there are four problems with the app-based approach:

  1. Apps and plugins are not equal to native functionality.

There are things that apps can’t do, as they can’t access certain data. When using apps (or plugins), interconnected business logic is siloed, for example the product catalog app won't be able to exchange data with the inventory app. 

With a headless back end, fashion brands get a highly integrated feature set that covers all core needs.

  1. Apps raise security and stability concerns

Using multiple apps puts you at the whim of many third-party developers to keep their services up and running. This is a risk not every brand is ready to take – both in terms of security and stability of the platform.

  1. Apps make extra cost for the store

With all the necessary apps, fees for payments, FX markups and storefront costs, the cons can quickly get out of hand. Compared to third-party integrations, native integrations are just cheaper over time.

  1. Using apps may make it harder to deliver an on-brand shopping experience

Due to the fact that the apps are siloed and non-native extensions, they are managed from different parts of the user interface. 

Platforms like Shopify or Salesforce offer extensibility through apps sold in their marketplaces (Shopify App Store and Salesforce AppExchange, respectively).

However, maintaining a myriad of apps and add-ons (and making sure they work) ultimately leads to a fragmented, less efficient workflow. It may lead to an inability to iterate fast.

Headless commerce back ends can integrate with best-of-breed PBCs offered by third-party vendors. This approach allows for flexibility to implement specific store functions such as checkout or search using the best existing solution - and switch when needed. 

Examples of such integrations include:

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Vendors
CMS• Storyblok • Contentful • Contentstack • Ghost
Search and recommendation services• Algolia • Syte • Constructor.io • Findify
Payment services• Klarna • Checkout.com • Payone • Adyen • Stripe • Paypal
Shipping services• Shipstation • ShipperHQ • Ingrid • nShift
Promotions and loyalty services• Voyado • Yotpo
Order management systems• Fluentcommerce
Helpdesk• Zendesk
Reviews• Yotpo
PIM systems• Spryker • Binder
Tax management services• Avalara • Vertex
Marketplaces• Channable
Transactional emails• Sendgrid • Klaviyo • Rule • Mailchimp
Inventory management systems (IMSs)• ShipBob • ShipHero • Shopventory • Stocky • Katana • Orderhive • NetSuiteERP
Enterprise resource management systems (ERPs)• Microsoft Dynamics • Microsoft Dynamics 365 Business Central • Oracle Netsuite • SAP
Returns management systems• ReBOUND • nShift • Reclaimit • Turnr • Easycom

Cross-border capabilities

To keep up with the competition, fashion brands need to be able to move quickly and efficiently. Headless back ends allow brands to reach new customers in new markets and discover untapped revenue streams.

Traditional monolithic ecommerce back ends weren’t designed to efficiently administer logistics, currencies, taxes and languages for multiple stores. This led to hours of manual work – and headaches for ecommerce teams.

Legacy and monolithic platforms don’t cater to the needs of today's ecommerce, which has evolved rapidly with the rise of direct-to-consumer trends.

Multi-brand stores are on the decline as digital DTC brands use modern composable ecommerce platforms to snag their long-tail potential, protect their brand equity, and increase their profits by selling directly to their consumers globally.

For a deep dive on the opportunities and challenges of cross-border ecommerce, read another post on our blog: Solving challenges of cross-border ecommerce with a headless platform.

Design freedom

Modern brands aim for design freedom to create unique storefronts. They look for native features, so they don’t have to install multiple apps, but rather can build a setup that is simple to integrate with other tools, whenever necessary. 

Scalability

Finally, brands demand scalability and flexibility to reach their customers across borders. Only then can they localize content, deliver products to any destination, and let consumers choose the currencies and payment options.

There are many ways to set up an ecommerce back end for a fashion brand. Usually, a simple off-the-shelf solution like Shopify may be the best option for smaller brands. However, when a brand scales and wants to capture new markets, a more flexible solution may be necessary. Several ecommerce platforms can be deployed in a headless way, but in many cases, it may not be the most efficient or economical solution. Also, not every headless ecommerce back end is geared to handle fashion and lifestyle products well out of the box.

Let’s now have a look at some of the headless ecommerce solutions that are commonly used as back ends of fashion products.

Adobe Commerce (Magento)

Magento (because that's what everyone's still calling it) is one of the most popular ecommerce platforms. It offers many built-in features and customization options. 

Magento can be used in a headless manner. In this setup, the ecommerce back end serves just as a Content Management System for the front end layer.

Magento is currently available in two flavors: 

  • Magento Open Source, which is the free Magento offering. 

  • Adobe Commerce, which is the premium version of Magento Open Source, built for enterprise-level businesses. Adobe Commerce can be used in a headless manner.

Example Adobe Commerce site: Helly Hansen

Shopify Plus

Shopify is an ecommerce platform commonly used by smaller merchants. Shopify Plus is a premium Shopify offering with advanced features and built-in automation tools. 

Shopify is the top-of-mind platform for many fashion brands mainly because it is a full-package deal. It is a whole ecosystem with many apps, built-in CMS, and a theming engine. It all works well out of the box.

An ambitious fashion brand may want more flexibility over how your content is organized and managed in the CMS. To address this need, Shopify Plus can be used only as a headless back end, allowing to use any CMS and front end technology. This may fix issues like site speed, and offers more design flexibility.

Still, many arguments exist against doing so in terms of Shopify Plus:

  1. Going headless with Shopify Plus as the back end will nullify the advantages that made you choose Shopify in the first place: all‑in‑one tooling and theming.

  2. Going headless with Shopify Plus is just expensive and unsustainable. On top of Shopify Plus fees, you will still need the support of developers or technical staff. The platform development cost may end up being just as expensive as a real headless ecommerce setup – and still not offer oll the benefits of headless. 

Example Shopify Plus site: Allbirds

BigCommerce Enterprise

BigCommerce is another popular ecommerce platform. It’s packed with all-in-one top commerce features and is commonly used by enterprise-level brands.

BigCommerce can be used in a headless manner, which enables the store to use a variety of third-party integrations, such as front-end frameworks, CMS’s and digital experience platforms.  

Example BigCommerce store: Gildan

commercetools

commercetools is one of the world’s leading headless ecommerce platforms. It supports building and customizing the ecommerce solution to tailor experiences to the exact needs of your business and customers. 

commercetools comes with ready-made commerce building blocks to let you create or supplement your own infrastructure at scale. The API-first approach allows stores to connect commercetools’ back end to all front ends and third-party applications.      

Example commercetools site: Promod

Salesforce Commerce Cloud

Originally known as Demandware, the platform was acquired by Salesforce in 2016. Commerce Cloud is a highly scalable, cloud-based SaaS ecommerce solution that provides best-in-class features and functionality for enterprise-level businesses. 

Commerce Cloud’s API-focused approach lets you build excellent front-end experiences while staying flexible with all the back-end functionality.   

Example Salesforce Commerce Cloud site: Adidas

Centra

While Centra may not be the most popular kid on the block just yet, the platform is currently the only one that's built from the ground up to support fashion brands.

The Centra back end: Product Information Management

Pros:

  • Native support for simple and configurable products, bundled products, gift certificates, promotions and discounts

  • Advanced pricing (volume pricing, rule-based sale pricing, customer group pricing, etc.) and support for different price lists

  • Ability to manage product data globally or locally across different stores

  • Ability to merchandise ordering of products at category-level

  • Rule-based category management

  • Many pre-built integrations (e.g. Algolia, Adyen, Yotpo and NOSTO)

  • Possible integrations with additional third-party services via APIs

  • Advanced size guide management (e.g., different size guides for different groups of products)

  • Native support for pre-ordering

Cons:

  • The initial build of a store on Centra may be quite expensive (i.e. project lead time and setup are usually more expensive compared to platforms with pre-built theming systems). In the long term, however, the TCO is much lower than for competitive plaforms.

  • Requires some know-how to bring the platform to its maximum potential


Example Centra site: Craft Sportswear

For more detailed comparisons of Centra and leading ecommerce platforms like Magento, Shopify, Shopify Plus, Salesforce Commerce Cloud and WooCommerce, head over to the Comparisons section of our website.

Are headless back ends the best for every brand?

Composable architecture has plenty of advantages, but it may not be the best way forward for every fashion brand.

Using a headless back end entails working with integrations coming from multiple technology vendors. In some cases, it could potentially mean developing microservices to support brand-specific business logic. This typically entails working with an agency or hiring an in-house dev team. That's a cost that not every small fashion brand can afford.

Who are headless back ends really for?

There is no rule really, but many of the stores running on headless back ends are really big brands. In pursuit of complete flexibility and control over every detail of the store, they just find the advantage (e.g. scalability, flexibility, stability, performance) worth the cost.

Who are headless back ends not for?

A small store with just a few products doesn't really need a headless ecommerce setup, and likely wouldn't feel the advantage anyway. Also, it would take them ages to recoup the development cost. A monolithic SaaS ecommerce platform would be just fine for their needs.

So, deciding on a headless back end, choosing its components, and then building the front end is usually a balancing act between cost, time-to-market, and long-term profit.

The wrap up

Combining best-in-class services into a complete, business-ready solution, composable commerce helps business and tech teams realize brands' unique digital visions.

The trend for headless is on the rise. By enabling the use of best-in-class services into a complete, business-ready solution, headless commerce beck ends help businesses and tech teams realize brands' unique digital visions. By going headless, stores gain the agility and the design freedom to make their stores true to the brand and future proof.