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Why go headless when selling fashion?

You don’t need a headless setup to run a fashion store – but for some reason, many leading fashion brands do, and here's why.

Michal Wlosik

13 minutes

The fashion industry, known for its dynamic, ever-evolving trends, demands equally flexible and innovative digital solutions. A headless ecommerce platform, one that separates the front (the visual part of the website that users interact with) from the backend (the core of the website where all the data is processed), offers a range of benefits for fashion brands looking to enhance their online presence and customer experience. 

What is a “headless ecommerce platform”?

Headless architecture advocates a separation of the front-end interface from the back-end logic. For example, a headless CMS uses an API to attach to the front end. Various microservices allow engineers to update the UI or microservices without impacting other components of the stack. 

Unlike stores built on monolithic ecommerce platforms, composable stores use an API-first approach, allowing easier integration with other tools and existing company systems. As a result, it's easier to extend the platform's capabilities and proactively respond to customers' growing needs and the push for omnichannel e-commerce. 

headless e-commerce diagram

What are the differences between traditional and headless ecommerce?

There are specific differences between traditional, monolithic ecommerce platforms and headless modern ecommerce platforms:

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Headless ecommerceMonolithic ecommerce
Front-end/Back-end IntegrationDecoupled; front-end and back-end communicate via APIs.Coupled; integrated front-end and back-end.
Flexibility & CustomizationHigh flexibility; allows for unique, tailor-made designs.Limited; mostly confined to provided templates.
Development & Technical RequirementRequires more technical expertise for development and maintenance.Easier to set up and manage with less technical need.
User Experience (UX) DesignCustomizable UX, adaptable to various channels and devices.Consistent, but limited in customization.
CostPotentially higher due to custom development and maintenance.Generally lower with predictable costs.
Speed and PerformanceCan be optimized independently for better performance.Dependent on the platform's inherent capabilities.
Omnichannel ExperienceEasier integration with various touchpoints (mobile, social media, etc.).Limited to the channels supported by the platform.
Agility in DevelopmentSeparate development of the front end and the back end can speed up processes.Integrated development; changes may affect both the front and back end.
Ease of UseRequires more technical involvement and understanding.Generally more user-friendly and straightforward.

What are the benefits of running on a headless platform?

Now, let’s look at some of the most obvious advantages of running headless:

Easier localization

Everyone knows localization is key to driving sales internationally – in some markets more than in others. Different markets accept different price points, prefer different languages, follow different influencers, and are in different climate zones. Local payment methods can often increase conversion in checkout by over 10%, and the best local shipping options can often add another 10% to that figure. 

With Shopify Plus, you get one Storefront per localized market, with a maximum of 50 markets (this limitation only applies to markets created within your Shopify admin). However, for a mid-sized brand with global ambitions, this approach might be somewhat limiting, potentially leading to lost revenue. Localizing with Shopify can be cumbersome, detrimental to SEO, and may lock you into the US-centric feature set of Shopify.

Furthermore, it is siloed – you end up with one Shopify per market, which makes it difficult or impossible to capture cross-market synergies (e.g., warehouse networks) when and where you want to do so. If you plan to grow substantially outside your home market, that’s the most obvious tell that your plans have outgrown Shopify’s capabilities, and it’s time to move on to a truly headless setup. 

For more information on localization strategies and techniques in fashion ecommerce, read this article.

Better personalization and branding

Headless commerce enables more dynamic content and personalization strategies. Since content delivery is separate from content storage, it's easier to personalize user experiences based on user data, behaviors, and preferences. Headless platforms allow fashion brands to craft unique, engaging user experiences that showcase their brand identity. Without the constraints of traditional ecommerce templates, brands can go wild, designing creative, on-brand interfaces.

Marketing-wise, fashion brands can personalize content and layout for different audience segments, delivering a more targeted and effective user experience.

For more information on personalization strategies and techniques in fashion ecommerce, read this article.

Unlimited merchandising techniques

Many traditional visual merchandising techniques can be successfully replicated in headless ecommerce stores: size guides, fit finders, product videos, 360-degree product photography or virtual fitting rooms – the sky is the limit.

The Swedish denim brand Nudie Jeans is a perfect example – their intuitive fit guide allows buyers to find the right design and fit. Such a shopping experience helps the brand slash its return rates and keep its customers happy – statistics show that over 50% of returns are attributed to the wrong size or fit.

Additionally, Nudie Jeans offers a virtual fitting solution called Virtusize, which enables online fashion retailers to show consumers how the clothes will fit and look. As a result, choosing the right size is no longer a guessing game for Nudie Jeans shoppers.

Nudie Jeans personalizationSuch advanced merchandising techniques would not be possible using a monolithic ecommerce platform and a restrictive templating system.

Agility and speed

In a headless setup, updates to the front end, like launching a new campaign or adjusting for seasonal trends, can be implemented swiftly without affecting the back end. With a headless setup, future website redesigns won’t give you nightmares anymore. Since the backend is independent of the frontend, upgrading the frontend or changing parts of the website is much more straightforward, as the different parts of the store don’t impact one another. This is an important advantage for fashion brands wanting to update the store's visuals frequently, staying abreast of seasonal trends and usability needs.

Also, headless websites often load faster, which is crucial for retaining customers and improving search engine rankings.

Scalability and flexibility

With a headless ecommerce platform, integrating with various APIs and third-party tools is easier, enabling fashion brands to add features like AR try-ons, size guides, or social media integrations.

Fashion brands can quickly adapt their online presence to meet emerging trends, technological advancements, and consumer preferences.

Improved omnichannel capabilities

Headless architecture simplifies the process of integrating various channels and touchpoints, such as mobile apps, social media platforms, IoT devices, and in-store kiosks. This facilitates a seamless omnichannel customer experience.

Easier integration with third-party services

Integrating with third-party services like CRM, ERP, or marketing tools is often more straightforward with a headless setup. The API-driven nature of headless architecture facilitates these integrations.

Centra's ecommerce platform integrates with various third-party solutions to support various business needs. 

For more information on composable ecommerce, read this article.

Data-driven decision making

Data collected can be used to create more effective, personalized marketing campaigns, essential in the competitive fashion industry. With advanced integration capabilities, fashion brands can leverage comprehensive analytics tools to gain deeper insights into customer behavior and preferences.

Cost-effective maintenance

In a headless setup, front-end developers can make changes or updates without modifying the back-end. This results in quicker iterations, faster deployment of new features, and less risk of disrupting back-end systems.

Is all ecommerce turning headless and composable?

Headless architecture is possible on various ecommerce platforms nowadays. Many natively monolithic SaaS platforms are embracing the design and introducing headless deployment as an option in their offerings:

  • Shopify Plus currently offers Hydrogen, Storefront API and tools to speed up the development. They have recently launched so-called Composable Components, but still has a lot of limitations when it comes to composability.

  • Salesforce Commerce Cloud is slowly catching up with Composable Storefront and a few other composable functions but still lacks the full flexibility of truly headless platforms.

  • CommerceTools is one of the industry’s leaders in API composability, API-first, and is a MACH-certified partner.

  • Centra is the only headless ecommerce platform that’s purpose-built to help brands sell fashion products. 

Is headless the same as composable?

Composable architecture can be seen as an advanced stage of headless architecture. It's not just about separating the front end from the back end; the back end itself is also divided into distinct components.

The transition from headless to composable design involves a setup where all elements are linked through APIs. To simplify the creation and upkeep of these integrations, it's crucial to keep them as streamlined as possible.

The primary advantage of a composable system lies in the ability to pick components that best fit your specific requirements. This means your technology stack is customized to your needs, enabling you to stand out from competitors and enhance your backend processes.

Monolithic + API = composable?

The trend towards composability is attractive to many ecommerce platform vendors, but adding an API to a monolithic solution does not truly transform it into a composable system. Moreover, sourcing all components from a single supplier can inadvertently result in the vendor lock-in that composable architectures seek to prevent. It's important not to be deceived by such imitations and to maintain an open approach.

Isn’t composable unnecessarily complex?

Could the versatility of a composable platform lead to excessive complexity and expense? It's true that monolithic architectures are simpler, but they're also more restrictive. It's completely understandable if the composable platform's flexibility isn't a necessity for you and you're content with what a monolithic platform offers.

At first glance, composable systems might seem intricate and costly. In contrast, customizing a monolithic application can be far more challenging and expensive compared to a setup tailored to your specific needs using a selection of tools. Hence, when your monolithic system lacks the needed features right from the start, you'll likely find that a composable approach is more straightforward and could lower your overall costs.

Also, another question remains: does the headless approach yield the best return on investment? Is headless the only way forward for fashion brands?


Do you need a headless setup to sell fashion products?

Naturally, you don’t need a headless setup to run a fashion store – but still, for some reason, many leading fashion brands do. Take the trailblazing Nordic fashion brands like Nudie Jeans and Asket, who employ unique ecommerce strategies, particularly in their commitment to sustainability and forward-thinking omnichannel experiences.

The distinct advantages of headless ecommerce include access to best-of-breed technology, rapid Jamstack frontends, and flexible data models. Still, in instances where non-headless solutions are more suitable for their clients, a headless ecommerce development agency should opt for those instead. Headless architecture offers many advantages but isn't always suitable, especially for small stores. 

If a headless route is chosen, it should typically be best done with a platform designed for this purpose. The same logic applies to agencies – there are agencies specializing in headless solutions and have the processes, skills, and teams tailored for just this approach. Some agencies have honed their expertise and delivery models for specific ecommerce platforms. Grebban’s Shopify Plus team differs from those working on headless and composable offerings, like Centra and Norce.

Headless or otherwise – each approach has advantages. What’s important to remember is that clients benefit most when they fully utilize their platform's core solutions instead of resorting to workarounds. Investing in native solutions, whatever their nature, often results in significant rewards. 

When in doubt, play to your platform’s strengths

An ecommerce platform is essentially a collection of data models for transactions, product data, payments, etc. To maximize your platform's potential, it's best to align with its intended purpose. Workarounds become problematic and untenable over time, making it more challenging it becomes to understand the rationale behind your platform choice.

When selecting your ecommerce platform, choosing one that offers the most functionality natively is the safest choice – and will likely yield the most successful outcome. Whether it's a headless platform like Centra, a monolithic solution like Shopify Plus, or a fully composable service like Commercetools, the choice of the platform should align with your needs and the platform's strengths. In any case, it’s important not to force a platform to function in ways it’s not designed for.

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Shopify PlusCentraMagento
TypeNative non-headlessNative headlessOpen source
Typical use caseBest for clients already using native Shopify solutions, suitable for businesses not requiring extensive customization or headless capabilitiesIdeal for brands seeking extensive customization, localization, and API-driven best-of-breed solutions.Suitable for those who want to leverage open-source flexibility and customization
API accessLimited API access, supports some headless functionalityFully geared towards API integrations, a core component of the platformExtensive API access due to open-source nature
CustomizationLimited customization capabilities in comparison to headless platformsHigh level of customization, allowing for unique user experiences and integrationsHigh customization potential due to open-source flexibility
User experienceStandard user experience dictated by Shopify’s templates and capabilitiesHighly personalized and unique user experiences tailored to specific audience segmentsHighly customizable, dependent on developer skills
PerformanceGood, but can be limited by non-headless architectureSuperior, especially in terms of site speed and performanceVaries, can be optimized with skilled development
ScalabilityScalable within the confines of Shopify’s ecosystemHighly scalable, especially for businesses looking to grow and adapt rapidlyScalable, with potential limited by the need for specialized development
CostGenerally lower cost, appealing for businesses with limited technical resourcesPotentially higher initial cost, but offers more long-term flexibility and capabilitiesVaries, can be cost-effective but may require significant development resources
Ease of useUser-friendly, requiring minimal technical knowledgeRequires more technical knowledge or developer resources for full utilizationRequires technical expertise for setup and customization
IntegrationsSeamless integration with Shopify apps and featuresEasily integrates with various APIs and third-party toolsHighly integrable, but requires technical know-how
MaintenanceLower maintenance due to integrated Shopify ecosystemRequires ongoing maintenance for APIs and custom featuresRequires regular maintenance and updates

In general, whatever native route a platform has is often the best long-term solution. When running on non-headless platforms like Magento or WooCommerce, it's better to leverage their native capabilities rather than force a headless configuration. The same goes for choosing between cloud-based SaaS and on-premises solutions – each has its strengths that should be consciously leveraged.

In other words, using a platform that aligns with your brand’s specific needs is important, whether it's a native headless platform like Centra or others like Shopify Plus, Magento, or Salesforce Commerce Cloud. Each has its advantages, and it's crucial to avoid complicating their usage unnecessarily.

Is headless Shopify Plus a thing?

Shopify Plus, primarily a non-headless platform, sees about 99% of its clients using the native Shopify solution in Liquid. There are advantages of taking this traditional route: direct access to apps, robust support, and a host of features. Shopify Plus offers low complexity and simple implementation. With a stronger focus on ecommerce instead of IT, it’s easy to use and decreases time to market. 

But running Shopify in a headless manner (with a decoupled front end) is also possible – albeit with limitations: not all apps are compatible, and maintaining alignment with Shopify's roadmap can be challenging.

Headless on Shopify can help overcome several limitations, such as improving site speed, enhancing checkout flexibility, and supporting any design on various CMS platforms with the latest frontend technologies. 

However, headless Shopify may not be the most logical choice – it makes you lose many of Shopify's original advantages, like its cost-effectiveness, comprehensive toolset, and the non-requirement of developer skills or technical knowledge. 

Additionally, taking this approach on Shopify often takes away the full range of advantages typically associated with headless ecommerce. The cost might end up equal – or surpass that of a genuine headless ecommerce setup, yet bring fewer benefits. Therefore, if you're considering headless Shopify, it might be a sign that it's time to consider an upgrade to a truly headless solution.

Of course, there are stores that, despite taking the non-native route for a platform choice, have become successful. For Shopify, a native approach – only spiced up with some headless on some parts of the site – is usually the way to go. 

The data models are tailored for scaling Shopify's native solutions. It has so many advantages and works great. The frontend, the apps and the data models are built so that you can scale and administrate seamlessly. 

In a headless setup, you are always somewhat restricted. Neither the admin interface nor other functionalities are designed with headless in mind. You can't use all Apps as is, finding expertise can be challenging, and maintenance, particularly in relation to Shopify's roadmap, can be daunting. For good reasons, Shopify is built to be a platform where the front end and the rest of the system are together. Shopify is in no way a bad platform to build headless, but it is not necessarily the most obvious, either.

There are successful examples where non-native approaches have worked. For instance, a hybrid approach with Shopify might involve a native core with some headless elements. 

Conclusion

For fashion brands, adopting a headless ecommerce platform offers a compelling blend of creativity, agility, and efficiency. Centra, as a native headless ecommerce platform, is designed specifically for headless configurations. Its APIs, support structure, and ecosystem are all geared towards a headless approach, offering more open and flexible data models than a one-size-fits-all solution like Shopify.

Centra's development roadmap is significantly shaped by the collective needs of its network of top-tier fashion brands. This collaborative approach ensures that each new release introduces functionalities that benefit all its clients directly. Being part of Centra means joining a community of like-minded industry leaders, and fostering a shared pursuit of excellence. Additionally, Centra boasts a knowledgeable Client Success team, deeply attuned to the unique needs, challenges, and strategies inherent in the fashion industry. This team is a trusted advisor, empowering brands to enhance their sales strategies and achieve greater success.

Headless ecommerce aligns with the industry's fast-paced nature, enabling brands to provide cutting-edge shopping experiences while maintaining the flexibility to evolve with market trends. As the digital landscape becomes increasingly competitive, the benefits of headless ecommerce make it an attractive option for forward-thinking fashion brands.

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