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Indraneil Khedekar for Fabric

Posted on • Originally published at resources.fabric.inc

E-Commerce Frontend Vs Backend: What's the Difference?

The frontend of an e-commerce website is the part that online shoppers see and interact with. This is also referred to as the digital storefront. The backend of an e-commerce website is the part that handles all the data such as prices, promotions, product images, order details, and fulfillment.

In short, the frontend defines how the online shopping experience feels, and the backend defines how it functions.

As the touchpoints between buyers and sellers grow, the need for consistent shopping experiences across e-commerce websites and other sales channels grows as well. A 2017 study by Google found that retailers implementing multi-channel strategies saw 80% more store visits.

Understanding the difference between the e-commerce backend and frontend and how they work together can help you design a seamless omnichannel shopping experience for your customers. Understanding how separating them in a “headless commerce” setup can then help with scaling that experience.

Frontend vs Backend

Frontend

The e-commerce frontend, or client-side, is what people (i.e. clients) see when they visit your site. It’s the part of your site that shoppers interact with directly and includes features like fonts, colors, drop-down menus, image sliders, shopping carts, search bars, and product detail pages.

Frontend development ensures that an e-commerce website (or other digital sales channel) is functional and visually appealing by prioritizing the user experience. Frontend developers use programming languages like JavaScript, HTML, and CSS to create and manage a website’s frontend.

Backend

The e-commerce backend, or server-side, is the data access layer that holds products, orders, and customer information. It helps websites operate by processing, storing, and transferring their data to and from the customer-facing side. These actions are carried out by backend components like the web server, application server, and database which make the frontend interactive. They make it so customers can view products, place orders, and manage their purchases using their own devices.

Traditional Frontend and Backend in E-Commerce

Traditional e-commerce platforms such as Oracle ATG, Salesforce Commerce Cloud, and Shopify Plus bring the front and back ends together into tightly coupled systems. This approach makes it easy for merchants to deploy online stores but has several downsides.

frontend vs backend

These coupled, monolithic platforms lack flexibility. Adding new applications to such systems can compromise their integrity due to the dependencies between their front and back ends.

For instance, Shopify merchants that use apps to add functionality to their stores often struggle with site performance issues. Something as simple as adding a small popup widget can decrease page speed, introduce vulnerabilities, and cause JavaScript and CSS conflicts that can potentially “break” the frontend.

The good news is there's an alternative that overcomes the rigidity of legacy e-commerce systems. The need for better functionality, easier integrations, and consistent shopping experiences across channels has fueled the rise of a new approach to building e-commerce systems called headless commerce.

This approach separates the front and back ends of an e-commerce solution. It allows all the different frontends and the backend to exist independently, resulting in fewer dependencies so brands and retailers can scale to match varying business needs across channels.

Headless Frontend and Backend in E-Commerce

In a headless architecture, the front and back end communicate using APIs. This allows the backend to connect with multiple frontends across varying touchpoints, which is important since online touchpoints exist far beyond the web browser. They include every device used to make a purchase or a purchase decision.

backend-api-gateway-frontend

Headless systems can connect with a diverse range of digital touchpoints such as:

  • Smartwatches
  • Smart refrigerators
  • Smart speakers and voice assistants
  • In-store kiosks
  • Digital signage

And that’s not all. The e-commerce backend in a headless system can be built differently as well. Unlike a tightly coupled system that holds the commerce, cart, and order management functionality in a single structure, the backend system can be constructed using modules. This approach gets rid of complex dependencies and helps websites adapt to changing needs without interruptions.

Benefits of a headless frontend and backend

Safer upgrades

Separating the content (frontend) and delivery (backend) systems gives you more control over both aspects. You’re able to adjust each part independently without jeopardizing the entire system. You can add and remove components and test new technologies with little to no downtime.

Better personalization

Independent frontends allow you to experiment with design changes easily. They also help you offer personalized shopping experiences. You can modify store designs to suit individual customer preferences and display tailored content on the fly.

Easier omnichannel

A headless approach makes it easy for you to sell across different touchpoints. With an independent front and back end, you’re able to design unique shopping experiences across all of your sales channels. You can do it without slowing down your digital storefront.

More freedom

An API-based approach lets you experiment with platforms and technologies. Don’t like your store design? Slap on a responsive, Vue-based storefront. Battling a buggy product management system? Move your catalog to fabric PIM. You can explore different options until you find what works for you.

Key Takeaways

  • The front and back ends are two parts of the e-commerce architecture that define its design and functionality.
  • The outdated approach of coupling the front and back end lacks the flexibility needed for a successful omnichannel commerce strategy.
  • A decoupled front and back end makes it easier to sell across channels, improves site performance, and gives you more freedom to make design changes.
  • You can use frontend solutions for e-commerce such as fabric XM and backend solutions such as fabric PIM to facilitate a seamless omnichannel experience.

Discussion (5)

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leouofa profile image
Leonid Medovyy

I like the article, but I’d like to point out that separating backend and front end doesn’t necessarily make things easier to upgrade.

It’s going to come down to the architecture of what you are building. A downside of non monolithic solution is that now you have to maintain 3 separate systems (backend, api and frontend), and reap all the “benefits” of having to do that.

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Robert Gibb

You're right. Harder, but more scalable. It reminds me of the quote: “Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.” You need a service-oriented, headless approach to scale. Monoliths do not work. Case in point: linkedin.com/pulse/shopify-plus-la...

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leouofa profile image
Leonid Medovyy

I think the “more scalable” is up for debate.

It helps to solve the problems you actually have. Shopify is solving problems a company of that scale would need to solve regardless of what tech they are using. The vast majority of online business are not having their problems.

Solving non existent scalability problems at the expense of cost, agility and development speed can be a deadly mistake for any startup.

With the SPA, Iteration will be more challenging. Functionality will take longer to ship, making it more difficult to find the ever elusive product market fit.

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gibbiv profile image
Robert Gibb

Great point, and I agree. I'm referring to mid-market and enterprise businesses. Our business (and e-commerce platform) are growing because Shopify Plus doesn't "check out" for them.

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leouofa profile image
Leonid Medovyy • Edited

I think we’re taking apples and oranges. Some people want headless solutions. I like Contentful CMS for that particular reason.

This has nothing to do with choosing to build an SPA or not. I could consume content from a headless API, format & display via Rails, and add interactivity with Stimulus the same way I could build a Vue app.