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Headless eCommerce: A Shopify Developer’s Guide

Even if you have a Shopify shop, it won't be enough if your business is scaling quickly. It could limit your ability to grow your reach, enhance your conversions, and keep reeling in new digital contact points using Shopify's native capabilities. Headless commerce (also known as headless Shopify) is a solution to this problem.

What Is Shopify? 

Shopify is a subscription-based platform that anybody can use to set up an online shop and begin selling their products. Shopify shop owners can also sell in physical locations with the help of Shopify POS, its point-of-sale software. Over a million businesses in 175 countries are currently supported by its services.

If you're a Shopify merchant with both an online and a physical presence, your inventory and stock are synced so that you can manage your store(s) from one account on any device. It has almost everything new and established businesses might need from order management, delivery, and even payment. Plus, the Shopify App Business and its APIs make it easy to customize your store or even develop it from the bottom up.

What Is Headless Shopify? 

Image Source: Snipcart

Shopify follows a monolithic architecture but one of its plans, Shopify Plus provides a decoupled headless framework. While anyone can agree that Shopify is an amazing one-stop shop for all eCommerce purposes, as businesses grow, some of its functionality or design capabilities could be too restrictive. The one-size-fits-all approach may be a fine place to start, but your clients or your company will quickly want more than the Shopify Storefront can provide.

Luckily, you won't have to start from scratch with a new eCommerce platform. In fact, Shopify was developed with the intention of headless commerce in mind. Thanks to their storefront API, Shopify can offer a frontend that better suits your company requirements, with minimal effort.

How does a Headless Shopify work?

A headless Shopify will be made up of two independent parts: the front-end and the back-end. The API, or application program interface, is what connects these two sections (head and body). It is the foundation of a headless architecture and is responsible for exchanging data between the display layer (front-end) and the database or back-end.

To create your back-end, which stores and handles the material you wish to share with your consumers, you can choose any of the following platforms:

  • Content Management System (CMS)
  • Customer Relationship Management (CRM)
  • Digital Experience Platform (DXP)
  • Progressive Web App (PWA)

Because Shopify was designed with headless commerce in mind, converting Shopify-powered websites into more agile headless commerce businesses is a breeze.

What Are The Benefits of Using Headless Shopify?

Here is a brief overview of the most important benefits of headless Shopify:

  • Headless Shopify's decoupled architecture gives developers a high degree of customization & flexibility. You’ll be able to build custom experiences to match your brand, not just generic ones.
  • When you use a headless framework, it's easier to integrate with third-party applications and services. This lets you take an omnichannel approach and get your product on the market faster.
  • Headless Shopify provides technological freedom since businesses can use any coding language or content management system (CMS).
  • You get portable backends, data, and data structures, which means you won't be constrained by infrastructure limitations. Your front may remain competitive without being constrained to turnkey or coupled solutions.
  • When you use a headless CMS, you can choose the best front-end toolkits for each platform or device. This enables you to adapt and scale because your backend can publish anything, anywhere.
  • The core promises of Jamstack and thereby headless commerce include faster, more secure, and lower recurring cost websites and apps. But, its most appealing feature is a purposeful, creative, and strategic development experience for today's developers.
  • Shopify provides companies with 24/7 customer support through online tutorials, hotline, email, and live chat service.

While these are all amazing benefits, it is important to point out that headless Shopify isn't the best answer for every business. Initial expenses may be high, and businesses would need to adhere to very specific timelines to make a profit from their investment.

What You Need To Know About Shopify as a Headless Structure

While headless commerce may seem to be a win-win situation, it is not without its drawbacks. So, before you dive in, you should first understand the headless Shopify framework from the ground up. 

No theme and rich text editor

We've all experienced how useful the Shopify theme editor is. Customizing themes was a cinch. The headless commerce environment will sadly lack this handy functionality.

Also crucial to the Shopify platform is the rich text editor. However, when you transition to headless commerce, this will also be gone. Thus, text formatting and style would be a thing of the past. 

If your store can't function without these two, then you might have to think twice.

Fewer native functionalities

In addition to the theme and the rich text editor, going headless will result in the loss of numerous additional native features. You'll lose Shopify statistics and Shopify scripts so you'll have to depend on third-party solutions such as Google Analytics. If you rely heavily on Shopify's analytics, your performance might suffer.

In the same way, you won't be able to use a Shopify app to replicate your old storefront. An API can be used to get the desired functionality. But it's not always doable.

Say goodbye to some apps and plugins

Unfortunately, you won't be able to use apps or plugins to add new functionality to your front-end after going headless.

You may be able to use some of the plugins and apps with additional integrations. If you can't, expect to lose more than one program or plugin. Using back-end-only applications and plugins will be your sole option going forward, which is a little consolation. Keep in mind that your backend is still Shopify Plus.

Loss of customer accounts

Losing customer accounts is another important concern. Headless commerce won't support Shopify accounts. Without an account, customers can checkout as guests.

You may, however, use the Shopify Admin API to build your own solution.  customers can manually enter information. If needed, cookies may be used to store customer info.

Choosing a headless CMS for your store's backend

Alas, if only there was one ultimate CMS, we could get this over with. But new ones are popping up every month so you have plenty of options.

For almost two years, the Medium team was able to test a large number of them. From open-source to hosted to monolithic CMS like WordPress utilized as a headless CMS. Below are the headless CMS that they’ve managed to try.

List of headless CMS:

Each of the CMSs listed here has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, so think carefully before selecting one. Note: The following entries ALL contain detailed instructions on how to integrate Snipcart for headless e-commerce.

Open source headless CMS

Cockpit — self hosted, open source

Tuts: Bundle Cockpit CMS & Nuxt.js in a full JAMstack

Tuts frontend: Nuxt.js

Directus — self hosted, open source AND hosted, paid (19–99$/month)

Tuts: An Introduction to API-First CMS with Directus’ Open Source, Headless CMS

Tuts frontend: Metalsmith SSG / Vue.js

Hosted headless CMS

Contentstack — hosted, paid (3500$/month)

Tuts: Contentstack Tutorial: E-Commerce Integration with Headless CMS

Tuts frontend: JS / Node.js

ButterCMS — hosted, paid (0–166$/month)

Tuts: Build Vue.js E-Commerce on Top of Headless ButterCMS [Demo]

Tuts frontend: Vue.js

Sanity — hosted, paid (0–990$/month)

Tuts: Build an Angular E-Commerce App on Top of Sanity’s Headless CMS

Tuts frontend: Angular

DatoCMS — hosted, paid (0–145$/month)

Tuts: Creating a static e-commerce website with Snipcart, GatsbyJS and DatoCMS

Tuts frontend: Gatsby.js

Prismic — hosted, paid (0–500$/month)

Tuts: Sample E-Commerce Website with API-first CMS Prismic.io, Node.js, & Snipcart

Tuts frontend: JS / Node.js

GraphCMS — hosted, paid (0–349$/month)

Tuts: A GraphQL & Node.js Express Tutorial: Powerful E-Commerce with GraphCMS

Tuts frontend: JS / Node.js

Contentful — hosted, paid (0–879$/month)

Tuts: Dynamic Product Management in a Static E-Commerce Workflow with Contentful

Tuts frontend: Middleman SSG

Coupled CMS used as headless CMS

Grav headless — self-hosted, open source

Tuts: Grav as Headless CMS Tied to Gatsby with GraphQL Schema

Tuts frontend: Gatsby.js

Drupal headless — self-hosted, open source

Case study: Patrick Roger’s Headless E-Commerce with Drupal & Angular Tuts: Drupal Headless Architecture with JS Framework [Live Demo]

Tuts frontend: Inferno.js

WordPress headless — self-hosted, open source

Tuts: Strapping React.js on a WordPress Backend: WP REST API Example

Tuts frontend: React

Head over to headlesscms.org to find more open-source or closed-source headless CMS. And for those who don’t want to use Snipcart there’s:

What frontend should you use for headless e-commerce?

The fact that there are so many distinct specialized tools is part of what makes modern development so compelling.

The old way

  • HTML/CSS/vanilla JS

Frameworks

  • React

  • Vue.js

  • Angular

  • Inferno.js

  • Nuxt.js

  • Next.js

Static site generators

  • Jekyll

  • Hugo

  • Gatsby

  • Spike

  • Wyam

  • VuePress

Front-End as a Service

  • Shogun Front-End
  • Builder.io

During Unite 2021, Shopify launched Hydrogen and Oxygen. Hydrogen is a developer toolkit containing a few react components for creating unique front-end solutions. You'll get faster load times and less dev-ops work.

However, these are both new and there are few real-world references to turn to so you might not get the support you need except for Shopify's own customer support team.

Understand the Shopify Storefront API

Shopify Storefront API is required for all front-end development possibilities, therefore you must first get familiar with it.

The API for Shopify Storefront is accessible using GraphQL. If you want to use the full potential of the Storefront API, you'll need to grasp GraphQL. You can check out the GraphQL documentation for more details.

Generating the Access Token

To get started with headless Shopify, you’ll need to create an access token.

  1. Go to your Shopify admin page and log in.
  2. Go to the Apps area and choose Manage Private Apps from the drop-down menu.
  3. Now choose the option to create a new private app.
  4. Add a name for the app and an email address.
  5. Select the Allow this app to access your storefront data via the Storefront API checkbox in the Storefront API section.
  6. Select the data types you wish to make available to your app next.
  7. Save the file.

After saving, the created storefront access token may be seen at the bottom of the Storefront API page.

Building Your Front-End (Shopify Storefront)

After you've created the access token, you can start constructing and/or modifying your Shopify shop. But first, you should look at custom storefront example applications for Shopify front-end development. If you're creating a React-based front-end application, check out the react-js-buy repository.

When developing a React.js application, you must install the JavaScript Buy SDK through NPM or Yarn.

Check the JavaScript Buy SDK documents and Shopify's API documentation. It should help you understand what data is accessible.

Important considerations for headless e-commerce

Here are some considerations for developers when adopting a headless eCommerce stack.

How much e-commerce logic are you or your clients ready to outsource? How much time and money will you save?

If you're considering everything, skip the headless CMS and go with a coupled platform like the Basic Shopify plan or Magento instead. If you just need a frontend store design, you can choose Vue Storefront or Front Commerce (a Storefront alternative for React).

What if it's only the shopping cart and checkout? Snipcart, Foxy.io, Commerce.js, or Stripe checkout are some options. If you’re thinking most back-office "operations" then Snipcart and Commerce Layer, for example, provide add-ons and APIs that can handle this.

What are your clients'/merchants' content/store management requirements?

Is the chosen headless CMS (or headless conventional CMS/e-comm. system) able to address these concerns? Consider roles and permissions, as well as the production and updating of blog posts, manual SEO optimization, product management, and product variations.

How crucial is SEO to the client?  Check to see whether your frontend is simple to index, optimize, and crawl. If you're using JS frameworks, think about pre-rendering and server-side rendering.

What is their spending limit? After you, who will continue working on their technological project? Are the technologies you've chosen scalable and easy to use by other developers?

Take your time to consider all of the options and answer these important questions. If you've only dealt with standard e-commerce platforms before, it may seem daunting at first, but the flexibility and creativity you'll get will be well worth it in the long run.

Work With Webinopoly to Implement Headless Shopify For Your Business

Shopify isn't just software; it's an all-in-one commerce platform. It's a robust ecosystem that provides value for company owners by bringing together developers, business professionals, and consumers.

Headless Shopify has gained popularity in recent years. This new CMS is groundbreaking for its speed, efficiency, and security. Many people don't understand headless Shopify, how it works, or whether they should use it. So we hope this guide has helped

Contact us if you want to go headless with Shopify. Our Shopify experts can help you with determining the best headless Shopify strategy.

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