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Can WooCommerce power a headless e-commerce alternative to shopify?

24.01.2023

Online marketplaces like Shopify, WooCommerce, and others have made it easier for businesses of all sizes to set up an online store and start selling products and services online. This ease in setup comes at a price - most shopify stores look heavily alike and setting brands looking to set themselves apart are more limited with design and page setup. However, with the rise of headless e-commerce, a new alternative has emerged that promises more flexibility, scalability by making the frontend completely independent of the backend used.

In this article, we will explore how accessible headless e-commerce can be and whether it can be a real alternative to one-stop solutions like Shopify. Is the added complexity worth the resulting flexibility?

Shopify is the most straightforward solution to set up - at the expense of flexibility

Fully managed one-stop solutions (i.e. Shopify)

Shopify is a popular e-commerce platform that allows businesses to create and manage their online store. It offers a wide range of features, including inventory management, payment processing, shipping, and more. It is an all-in-one solution that is easy to set up and use, making it a popular choice among small and medium-sized businesses. Its market share has been ever increasing in recent years.

Self managed open-source solutions (i.e. WooCommerce)

WooCommerce, on the other hand, is a popular open-source e-commerce plugin for WordPress that powers a large portion of the e-commerce market. It allows businesses to turn their WordPress website into an online store and add e-commerce functionality to their website. Little or no development experience is needed to set this up. Like Shopify, it offers a wide range of features, including inventory management, payment processing, and shipping. WooCommerce out of the box is compatible with a wide range of Wordpress themes but within each theme the customization options are limited. It is free to use in its basic version, but you need to host it yourself.

Headless e-commerce

Headless e-commerce, as the name suggests, refers to an e-commerce system where the front-end and back-end are decoupled. In other words, the front-end (the user interface) and the back-end (the server-side logic) are separate entities that communicate with each other through an API. This allows for greater flexibility and scalability, as businesses can use any front-end technology they prefer, such as Next.js, React, or Vue.js.

The difference between headless e-commerce and classic e-commerce is that in classic e-commerce, the front-end and back-end are tightly integrated. This means that businesses are limited to the front-end technology that the e-commerce platform provides. In headless e-commerce, businesses can use any front-end technology they prefer, providing them with more flexibility and scalability.

However, headless e-commerce comes with its own trade-offs. Building a new e-commerce store with a headless architecture requires a significant amount of effort and technical expertise.

Combining WooCommerce with a custom and modern (compared to the PHP based Wordpress Themes) frontend might allow businesses to take advantage of the flexibility and scalability of headless e-commerce, while also addressing performance issues and making the headless setup less frightening.

There are some drawbacks and challenges to this approach that we’ll explore now. When combining a WooCommerce backend with a custom frontend, there are several challenges that businesses may encounter:

  1. Integration: Integrating a custom front-end with a WooCommerce back-end is still a complex process. Businesses will need to ensure that the front-end and back-end communicate effectively and that data is synced correctly.
  2. Security: A custom front-end built with for example Next.js may not have the same level of security as a pre-built e-commerce platform like Shopify. Businesses will need to ensure that their custom front-end is secure to protect sensitive customer data.
  3. Performance: Businesses will need to ensure that their custom front-end is optimized for performance and that the back-end is configured correctly to handle the load. Using a lightweight frontend can however be a lot quicker than any other option out there.
  4. Scalability: Businesses will need to ensure that their custom front-end can scale to meet their needs as their business grows.
  5. Maintenance: Businesses will need to ensure that they have the resources and expertise to maintain their custom front-end and keep it up-to-date with the latest security and performance updates.
  6. Hosting: Businesses will need to find a hosting solution that supports both WooCommerce and their frontend tech stack. This might need additional configurations and settings. Keep reading to find some options worth exploring.

While these challenges can be daunting, businesses that are willing to invest the time and resources into building a custom front-end like Next.js and a WooCommerce back-end may find that the increased flexibility and scalability are worth the effort. Your brand will be able to stand out much easier - one of the reasons why all large online retailers are going with headless solutions these days.

To test the feasibility of using headless e-commerce for a large project, businesses can experiment with building a small e-commerce store using this approach. This will provide them with a better understanding of the challenges and benefits of headless e-commerce and whether it is a viable alternative to Shopify. There is a great tutorial on how to do this here: https://leojbchan.medium.com/headless-woocommerce-next-js-create-a-local-wordpress-with-woocommerce-4411b24a160e

In conclusion, headless e-commerce can be a real alternative to Shopify, providing businesses with greater flexibility and scalability. Albeit challenging, building and running a custom shop has never been easier than today.

With new cloud providers like Codesphere, hosting setup, stability and scalability are not a reason to turn to Shopify any more. Ultimately, businesses might want to experiment with headless e-commerce to determine whether it is the right solution for them.