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Headless Vs. Composable Commerce: Choosing the Right eCommerce Strategy

  • DATE PUBLISHED (5/9/2023)

E-commerce, once a small market, has grown into a trillion-dollar industry. In its early days, only big businesses could afford to set up online stores due to the technical expertise required. By the 2000s, open-source platforms like Magento and OpenCart emerged, making it easier for businesses to create online stores. However, these platforms had their challenges, such as the need for constant upgrades. Then came SaaS-based platforms like Shopify in the mid to late 2000s, which simplified the process further by handling technical aspects like hosting and security updates. 

Nowadays, instead of relying solely on e-commerce platforms, businesses use specialized apps for specific functions, like search or reviews. Looking ahead, the industry is buzzing about "headless commerce" and "composable commerce." These approaches offer more flexibility and customization but are currently more accessible to large enterprises. However, as with past trends, they'll likely become more mainstream and affordable for smaller businesses soon.

Key Takeaways:

  1. E-commerce has transitioned from being exclusive to large businesses to the accessibility of open-source platforms and SaaS solutions, with a shift towards specialized apps.

  2. Headless commerce provides unmatched design flexibility, allowing businesses to innovate and adapt to digital trends.

  3. Composable commerce is akin to assembling a LEGO set, where businesses can pick and choose specific components based on their unique needs.

  4. In 2020, 61% of retailers were leaning towards headless commerce, while composable commerce, introduced by Gartner in 2000, is viewed as the future of e-commerce.

  5. When deciding between headless and composable commerce, businesses should consider features, integration needs, user experience, customization flexibility, and future adaptability.

What is Headless eCommerce?

Headless eCommerce separates the front and back end, enabling businesses to create distinct customer experiences smoothly. This trend is on the rise, providing unmatched design flexibility.

Why the hype? In our fast-paced digital world, businesses need agility. Traditional eCommerce can feel restrictive, but headless offers room to innovate. Big players like Michaels have quickly adapted using this method.

Brands are tapping into headless commerce for enhanced shopping experiences. From startups to global giants, this approach is trending. Odds are, you've shopped on a headless platform without even knowing!

What is Composable eCommerce?

Composable eCommerce is a modern approach to digital commerce that lets businesses tailor-make their online platforms. Unlike headless commerce, which primarily focuses on decoupling the front end from the back end, composable commerce is all about modularity. In this context, modularity means breaking down the system into smaller, interchangeable components. 

Think of it like a LEGO set: businesses can select specific pieces (or functions) and assemble them in various configurations based on their unique needs. This flexibility ensures that companies aren't boxed into a standard solution. Instead, they can craft a commerce system that aligns perfectly with their objectives and customer demands. Coined by Gartner in 2020, this approach is reshaping how businesses think about eCommerce, offering agility and customization at its core.

In the Market: Headless Platforms Vs. Composable Platforms

In 2020, a significant shift towards headless commerce was evident, with over half (61%) of retailers either already using or planning to adopt this approach by year-end. This trend is set to surge, with the headless e-commerce market projected to grow impressively at 22.5% from 2021 to 2026. 

While the global market was valued at $1.4 billion in 2020, it's expected to double to $3.5 billion by 2025. Industry decision-makers further echo this momentum, with 43% eyeing a headless transition in the next few years. 

In 2000, Gartner introduced the term "composable commerce" and highlighted its potential as the future of building technology systems.

Composable commerce has evolved into a component-based, cloud-native, and tech-agnostic ecosystem. This evolution empowers companies to be more agile and view constant change as an opportunity.

Gartner anticipated that traditional monolithic digital commerce applications would be unable to keep up with the rapid pace of digital business. As a result, there would be a shift towards composable commerce.

  • 70% of large and medium-sized enterprises, by the end of 2024, will consider composability a crucial factor for new application planning.

  • 20% of CEOs from global 2000 companies will attribute increased risk appetite and improved resilience to modular (composable) business redesign.

  • The new mantra for SaaS will be "composable API-first and API-only," positioning traditional SaaS vendors as "legacy."

The Architecture of Headless Vs. Composable eCommerce

Headless eCommerce Architecture:

  1. Foundation: The primary principle is separating the front end (UI) from the back end (business logic).

  2. Communication: Frontend and backend communicate exclusively via APIs. This means the front end can be anything - a web app, a mobile app, a smartwatch app, etc., while the back end remains consistent.

  3. Components:

    1. Frontend: This is the presentation layer. It's what the user interacts with. It can be built using any technology stack, independent of the backend.

    2. Backend: Houses the business logic, databases, and other core functionalities. It exposes data and functionalities to the front end via APIs.

  4. Flexibility: The front end can be swapped, changed, or redesigned without any impact on the back end. This is particularly useful for rebranding or redesigning the user experience.

Composable eCommerce Architecture:

  1. Foundation: It's an evolution of the headless approach. While it also separates the front end from the back end, it goes further by breaking down the back end into modular components.

  2. Communication: Each component, whether the front end, a payment system, a CMS, or any other service, communicates via APIs. This modular approach ensures that each component can be replaced or upgraded independently.

  3. Components:

    1. Frontend: Just like in headless, it's the presentation layer.

    2. Backend Modules: Instead of a monolithic backend, you have multiple backend services. For example, one for user management, one for payments, one for inventory, etc. Each can be chosen based on what's best for the specific need.

    3. Third-party Integrations: Integrating third-party tools or services becomes straightforward due to its modular nature. If a new payment method emerges in the market, you can quickly integrate it without waiting for your platform provider to support it.

  4. Flexibility: Beyond just the front end, any component of the eCommerce system can be replaced without affecting others. This is ideal for businesses that want to continuously innovate and adapt to changing market conditions.

Comparing the two architectures, Headless vs Composable eCommerce

  1. Granularity: While both architectures prioritize decoupling, Composable eCommerce is more granular, breaking down even the backend into modular components.

  2. Integration: Headless focuses on separating the front end, allowing diverse front-end integrations. Composable, however, provides for various integrations across all system components.

  3. Evolution: Composable can be seen as an evolution of the headless approach, taking decoupling principles and applying them more broadly to all parts of an eCommerce system.

  4. Customization: Both offer high levels of customization, but Composable offers more flexibility in mixing and matching the best solutions for each system component.

Ease of Use: Headless vs. Composable eCommerce

Headless eCommerce:

  1. Learning Curve: Headless commerce primarily focuses on decoupling the front end from the back end. Businesses can choose any frontend technology requiring expertise in specific frontend frameworks or libraries. There can be a steep learning curve for teams unfamiliar with these technologies.

  2. Integration: While headless offers flexibility in frontend design, integrating third-party services or customizing the user interface can be intricate. This might require specialized knowledge or additional resources, especially when ensuring a secure and compliant environment.

  3. Management: Once set up, the management of content and products might be straightforward, especially if using a Content Management System (CMS) tailored for headless. However, the initial setup and ensuring seamless communication between the front and back end can be challenging.

Composable eCommerce:

  1. Learning Curve: Composable commerce is about overall system modularity. This means businesses might need to understand multiple systems, each with its functionalities. While this offers unparalleled flexibility, it can also introduce complexity, especially for teams new to the concept.

  2. Integration: The modular nature of composable commerce allows for easier integration of best-of-breed technologies. However, ensuring that all these components work harmoniously can be a task—each module, whether for payments, inventory, or user management, might have nuances.

  3. Management: The advantage of composable commerce is that businesses can replace or upgrade individual components without affecting others. This modular management can simplify operations in the long run, but the initial phase of understanding and setting up each component can be time-consuming.

Challenges of Headless Vs. Composable eCommerce

a. Challenges of Headless Commerce

1. Complex Implementation:

Integrating various systems - third-party services, customizing the user interface, and setting up back-end services, can be intricate, especially when ensuring a secure, reliable, and compliant environment. Example:

  • TechParts Inc., previously using a monolithic platform, now wants a modern React frontend, a third-party inventory system, and a separate payment gateway. Ensuring seamless communication between these systems requires meticulous mapping and testing. A mis-integration could lead to lost orders or incorrect charges.

2. Complex Customization:

While headless commerce solutions are highly customizable, the lack of standardization between different implementations can pose challenges. Ensuring compatibility with other technologies and systems can be a hurdle for B2B companies. Example:

  • TechParts implements a chatbot for customer support from a popular B2C provider. The chatbot needs to integrate with the company's CRM and product data. Due to integration issues, the chatbot provides generic responses instead of specific B2B information.

3. Security Concerns:

Headless solutions might be more vulnerable to security risks since they aren't built on a single platform. B2B companies must proactively ensure their solutions are secure, especially when integrating multiple systems. Example:

  • With multiple endpoints in TechParts' headless setup, each is a potential entry for malicious attacks. A security flaw in an integrated system could allow hackers to manipulate stock levels or compromise customer financial data.

b. Challenges of Composable eCommerce

1. Complexities of Decoupled Systems:

While composable commerce provides flexibility, managing multiple decoupled systems can be intricate. Ensuring seamless communication between different components requires meticulous planning & execution. Example:

  • TechParts Inc. adopts a composable approach, integrating a third-party review system, a separate loyalty program module, and a different payment gateway. Each system operates independently and ensuring real-time data sync across all these systems becomes challenging. A delay in one system could lead to inconsistencies in the user experience.

2. Monolithic Legacy:

Transitioning from monolithic systems can be challenging. With their tightly coupled front-end and back-end systems, Monoliths can make customizations complex, reducing business agility. Example:

  • TechParts Inc. has been using a monolithic platform for years. As they transition to a composable setup, they find that certain legacy features, like their custom bulk-ordering process, are hard to replicate without extensive customization in the new environment.

3. Learning Curve and Integration Issues:

Adopting a composable approach might require teams to learn new technologies and systems. Integrating best-of-breed technologies to compose a stack that meets specific business needs can pose potential integration issues. Example:

  • The in-house team at TechParts Inc. is well-versed in their old monolithic system. As they transition, they need to upskill to understand the nuances of each new component in their composable stack. Additionally, integrating a new AI-driven recommendation engine proves more complex than anticipated, leading to initial hiccups in product recommendations.

Benefits of Headless and Composable eCommerce

Benefits of Headless Commerce

1. Supercharged Performance: By decoupling the front and back end, headless commerce ensures faster and more immersive shopping experiences, reducing page load times across devices.

2. Unique Brand Identity: Headless commerce offers complete customization options, allowing businesses to differentiate their brand and create a tailored customer experience, free from the constraints of design templates.

3. Faster Experimentation: The decoupled nature of headless commerce allows for greater flexibility in experimentation. Teams can innovate and implement new frontend technologies without being limited by backend systems.

4. Seamless Third-party Integrations: Headless commerce facilitates more straightforward integration with third-party platforms, enhancing functionalities like payment processing.

5. Enhanced Conversions: Headless commerce's flexibility and customization potential can lead to a more engaging customer experience, driving higher conversion rates.

6. Omnichannel Capability: Headless commerce supports consistent, high-quality shopping experiences across multiple channels, ensuring brand engagement on various devices.

Benefits of Composable Commerce 

1. Modular Flexibility: Composable commerce allows businesses to select and integrate the best solutions for specific needs, ensuring a tailored eCommerce stack.

2. Rapid Adaptability: With its modular nature, businesses can quickly adapt to market changes, integrating new technologies or replacing outdated ones without overhauling the entire system.

3. Cost Efficiency: By integrating only the necessary components, businesses can optimize costs, avoiding the overhead of unnecessary features in monolithic systems.

4. Enhanced Scalability: Composable commerce is inherently scalable. As the business grows, new components can be added without disrupting existing systems.

5. Future-proofing: The ability to continuously evolve and modify the eCommerce experience ensures that businesses remain competitive in the ever-changing digital landscape.

6. Streamlined Operations: Businesses can ensure streamlined operations by choosing best-of-breed solutions for each component and optimizing each aspect of the eCommerce process.

How to Choose Between Headless & Composable eCommerce?

1. Business Features Requirement: Determine the specific features your business needs. This includes analytics, order management, and inventory management. Your chosen platform should streamline your workflows and enhance the omnichannel experience.

2. Integration Needs: Consider the tools and third-party services you'll need to integrate with. Whether it's payment gateways, CRM systems, or marketing tools, ensure the platform supports seamless integrations through APIs or built-in functionalities.

3. User Experience: Prioritize platforms that offer a user-friendly interface, especially if your team isn't technically inclined. The platform should be intuitive and make managing your eCommerce store easier, not harder.

4. Customization and Flexibility: Evaluate how much customization you'll need. While headless commerce offers extensive front-end customization, composable commerce provides modular flexibility for front and backend components.

5. Customer Experience Focus: The platform should enhance the customer experience. Features like mobile optimization, SEO tools, and fast loading times are critical to ensure customers have a seamless shopping journey.

6. Support and Security: Security is paramount in eCommerce. Ensure the platform has robust security measures and offers adequate support to address issues or concerns.

7. Cost Considerations: While investing in a platform that meets your needs is essential, ensure it fits within your budget. Consider both the upfront costs and potential long-term savings or expenses.

8. Transition and Legacy Systems: Consider the challenges and potential roadblocks if transitioning from a monolithic system. Composable commerce might pose challenges in moving away from legacy systems, while headless commerce might require extensive front-end development.

9. Learning Curve: Assess the learning curve associated with each platform. Composable commerce might require understanding multiple systems, while headless commerce might demand expertise in front-end technologies.

10. Future-Proofing: Consider the longevity and adaptability of the platform. As the digital landscape evolves, ensure your chosen platform can adapt to future trends and technologies.


E-commerce has evolved significantly, from its early days of technical complexity to the rise of open-source and SaaS platforms. Today, the industry is buzzing with terms like "headless commerce" and "composable commerce." Both offer unique advantages:

  • Headless Commerce: Focuses on decoupling the front end from the backend, providing unmatched design flexibility and enhancing customer experiences.

  • Composable Commerce: Emphasizes modularity, allowing businesses to tailor-make their online platforms by integrating specific components based on their unique needs.

While both architectures offer customization and flexibility, they cater to different business requirements. Headless commerce is more about frontend flexibility, while composable commerce is overall system modularity.

The choice between the two depends on various factors, including business features, integration needs, user experience, customization requirements, and budget considerations. As the digital landscape evolves, businesses should evaluate their needs and choose an approach that aligns with their long-term goals.


Is MACH architecture and composable commerce the same?

No, they’re not the same, as well. MACH architecture is one way to implement composable commerce through its four main principles: microservices, API-first, cloud-native, and headless.