So You Want To Get A CMS for Your Shopify Headless Storefront?
Jun 08, 2024
By Paul Phan12 mins read
So You Want To Get A CMS for Your Shopify Headless Storefront?

If you’re here, you’re likely looking for a headless CMS solution, so I won’t bore you with the regurgitated content on what is headless commerce, or its benefits. You’re here because you know the power of headless - whether it’s about snappy performance, bespoke user interfaces, or integrating cutting-edge web technologies. So I’ll try to be concise and straight to the point.

When looking for a Shopify Headless CMS, it’s important to be clear about how you’d go headless with Shopify. There are 02 ways:

  • Using Shopify’s APIs: These let your custom front end communicate smoothly with Shopify’s robust back end.

  • Frameworks like Hydrogen: Shopify’s own framework for building web storefronts that are fast, dynamic, and tailored to your brand.

There are 02 ways to go headless with Shopify, let’s take a closer look at both of them.

Going Headless With Shopify: Using Storefront API

The Storefront API is one of the cornerstones of Shopify's headless offerings. It opens the door to the full spectrum of Shopify's commerce capabilities necessary for creating engaging buyer experiences. This includes everything from optimized carts and product collection pages to search functionalities and advanced pricing options. What makes the Storefront API particularly powerful is its framework-agnostic nature, meaning it can integrate with any development tools you prefer, such as Next.js, Gatsby, or Astro - or any CMS you prefer.

Take Kotn, an online clothing retailer, as an example. They used the Storefront API with Next.js to combine two separate online stores into one smooth operation. This setup allowed them to add a new content management system, custom product pages, and a unique checkout experience, showcasing their brand's uniqueness while Shopify handled the standard e-commerce features.

This API is designed to deliver lightning-fast experiences across all devices and channels, optimizing even the biggest sales events without any performance throttling. It operates on a global scale, deployed to the edge, ensuring quick load times without rate limits, and serving a wide range of client requests.

Going Headless With Shopify: Using Storefront API

For those looking for a more structured approach, Shopify offers Hydrogen and Oxygen, its official development stack for building dynamic and scalable headless commerce sites. Hydrogen is built on the React-based Remix framework, known for its ease of use and high-performance standards. This setup includes features like Optimistic UI and Nested Routes, which enhance the user experience by making interactions feel swift and smooth.

  • Hydrogen offers a suite of optimized components and hooks that are pre-configured for seamless integration with Shopify’s APIs. This "opinionated" tech stack means that while it guides you toward best practices, it remains flexible enough to allow integration with your existing tools and services.

  • Oxygen, on the other hand, is Shopify’s hosting solution, designed to deploy Hydrogen stores rapidly. It features a global distribution network, ensuring your site is served as close to your customers as possible, which enhances site speed and reliability. Oxygen is included at no additional cost in Shopify plans, supporting your development efforts by reducing overheads while ensuring peak performance globally.

Together, Hydrogen and Oxygen provide a powerful duo for you to launch high-performing online stores quickly. For example, the collaboration between Patta and Tommy Hilfiger on a headless commerce platform showcased a 90s hip-hop culture-themed e-commerce experience that was set up in just two weeks, demonstrating the speed and agility of Shopify’s headless solutions.

However, due to the nascent state of Hydrogen, the number of integrated CMS might be more limited. We'll talk more about that later.

First, how do you choose the right Shopify Headless CMS?

II. How To Choose The Right Headless CMS

Choosing the right headless CMS for your Shopify store can feel like picking out a new smartphone—there are a ton of options, each with its own bells and whistles. Here’s how you can navigate this without getting lost in the tech jargon.

  • Integration with Shopify: First things first, make sure the CMS plays nice with Shopify. It needs to snugly fit with Shopify’s APIs so that things like your product info, customer data, and orders flow seamlessly between the CMS and Shopify. This integration is crucial because it ensures that updates on one end automatically sync across the board, keeping your store's front and back ends on the same page.

  • Technical Complexity: Headless CMS platforms vary wildly in how tech-heavy they are. Some are plug-and-play, while others might require a PhD in computer science (just kidding, but only sort of). Consider your team's tech skills when choosing a CMS. If tweaking HTML sounds daunting, look for a CMS with a friendly user interface and lots of support resources.

  • Higher Initial Costs: Going headless isn’t cheap—at least initially. Because you're custom-building parts of your site, you might need to invest more upfront, especially if you’re hiring developers to set things up. However, think of it as an investment; a well-set-up headless CMS can save you money in the long run by making your site faster, more flexible, and easier to update.

  • Integration Challenges with Third-party Apps: Remember all those Shopify apps you love? Integrating them with a headless CMS can be tricky. Some apps are designed to work with Shopify’s standard front end and might not function as expected in a headless environment. Before committing to a CMS, check which apps are compatible and whether you’ll need to find alternatives.

  • Scalability: Think about where you want your business to be in the next few years. The CMS you choose should be able to scale with your business. This means it should handle increased traffic and content without a hitch. Check if the CMS can manage a growing product database without affecting the speed or user experience of your site.

  • Security Features: Security is non-negotiable, especially in e-commerce. A headless CMS should offer robust security features to protect both your data and your customer’s information. Look for CMS platforms that provide regular updates, strong data encryption, and compliance with international security standards like GDPR.

  • Developer Community and Support: A strong developer community can be a lifesaver, especially when you run into technical issues or want to add custom features. A CMS with an active community means you’ll find plugins, tools, and troubleshooting advice readily available. Also, check the kind of support offered by the CMS provider—24/7 support can be crucial for businesses operating in multiple time zones.

  • Content Workflow and Collaboration Features: If you have a team handling content, the CMS should have tools that facilitate collaboration. Look for features like multi-user roles and permissions, workflow management, and real-time editing capabilities. These features can greatly enhance productivity and ensure that content updates are seamless and error-free.

  • SEO Capabilities: Since organic search is a major traffic driver for most e-commerce sites, your headless CMS should be strong on SEO. This includes SEO-friendly URL structures, easy sitemap generation, and the ability to customize meta tags without needing to dive into the code.

  • Customizability and Extensibility: Can you tweak it to fit the specific needs of your business? Check if it allows for the integration of custom code or if it supports the APIs of third-party services you might want to use. The ability to extend the functionality of your CMS as your business evolves is crucial.

  • Multilingual and Multi-regional Support: If you're planning to sell globally - which is often the case with Shopify, your CMS should be up to the task of handling multiple languages and regional differences seamlessly. Look for a CMS that not only supports translation but also localizes content according to different regions. This includes adjusting the layout, currency, and even content based on local market preferences and legal requirements.

  • API Flexibility and Robustness: The API is the backbone of a headless CMS, facilitating all interactions between your front end and the back end. Ensure that the CMS offers comprehensive API documentation and robust endpoints that cover all potential needs, from basic content retrieval to complex interactions. Flexible APIs allow for more creative front-end experiences and integration with other business systems.

  • E-commerce Specific Features: Given that you're operating within Shopify's ecosystem, it's beneficial to select a CMS that offers features specifically tailored for e-commerce. This includes support for product variations, dynamic pricing models, and inventory management integration. A CMS with strong e-commerce capabilities can provide a more cohesive user experience and streamline backend management.

Choosing a headless CMS isn’t just about going with the most popular or cutting-edge option. It’s about finding the right fit for your business needs, technical capabilities, and budget. Think carefully about what you need your CMS to do, and choose one that will help your store thrive without causing a headache.

10 Headless CMS for Shopify

When you’re deep into the Shopify game and looking to go headless, picking the right CMS is more about aligning with your business strategy than just going with the biggest name out there. Here’s a rundown on some of the top players in the headless CMS market:

1. Weaverse

Weaverse is the right CMS for you - if you go headless with Shopify Hydrogen.

As the first CMS built native for Hydrogen, Weaverse comes with a familiar visual editor on top of Hydrogen. With Weaverse, developers can use Weaverse SDKs to build reusable, customizable Hydrogen themes, and share them with non-technical merchants for code-free editing.

Using a visual editor just like Online Store 2.0, non-technical users can use sections, drag and drop, edit content, add text, add animations, and enrich their headless storefronts.

  • Pros:

    • Native integration with Hydrogen.

    • Intuitive editing experience, making it easier for everyone to manage and edit content.

    • SDKs and templates to facilitate easy development of reusable components.

    • Flexible route structure that allows for custom nested pages.

    • Custom markets and localization features.

  • Cons: Relatively new so more mature functionalities are still in development.

2. Contentful

Contentful is a favorite among developers for its flexibility and scalability. It's known for its robust APIs and a strong emphasis on delivering digital experiences across multiple channels, especially suited for enterprises that need a complex, multi-integrated environment.

  • Pros: Highly customizable, strong integration capabilities, extensive API support.

  • Cons: Can be complex to set up, has relatively higher costs, and may require experienced developers.

2. Prismic

Prismic offers a more streamlined, user-friendly interface that's great for teams looking for a simpler, more straightforward CMS experience without sacrificing functionality.

  • Pros: User-friendly interface, custom type builder for structured content, built-in preview capabilities.

  • Cons: Limited built-in e-commerce-specific features, less control over complex integrations compared to some rivals.

3. ButterCMS

ButterCMS is a good option for those who want an all-in-one CMS that offers marketing-oriented features alongside content management. It’s designed to be plug-and-play, which can be a major time-saver.

  • Pros: Easy to use for marketers and developers alike, SEO features built-in, fast content delivery.

  • Cons: Less flexibility for deeply custom applications, may not scale as well as more robust platforms.

4. Sanity

Sanity stands out with its real-time collaboration tools and fully customizable editor that can be tailored to exact project requirements. It’s particularly good for teams that need to manage content collaboratively in real time.

  • Pros: Highly customizable, real-time collaboration, portable text editor.

  • Cons: Steeper learning curve, pricing can escalate as usage increases.

5. Strapi

Open-source and developer-focused, Strapi gives full control over the API and admin panel. It's a strong choice for tech-savvy teams looking to build a bespoke e-commerce experience from the ground up.

  • Pros: Full control over customization, strong community support, cost-effective.

  • Cons: Requires more technical expertise, self-hosting means handling your own updates and security.

6. Storyblok

Storyblok shines with its visual editor that allows marketers to see content changes in real-time. It's especially useful for teams that require a more intuitive content creation process.

  • Pros: Visual editing interface, robust plugin system, strong multi-language support for global businesses.

  • Cons: Custom layouts can require more development time, and its unique block structure may have a learning curve for new users.

7. Ghost

Ghost is a sleek, minimalist CMS focused on blogging and publishing but has been adapted for various uses, including e-commerce through integrations like Shopify.

  • Pros: Simple and intuitive user interface, SEO optimized out of the box, fast content delivery.

  • Cons: Primarily focused on blogging, less native e-commerce functionality, limited extensibility for complex store setups.

8. GraphCMS

GraphCMS offers a strong GraphQL-based headless CMS that allows developers to build and deploy content-rich applications faster.

  • Pros: Utilizes GraphQL for efficient data fetching, scalable content infrastructure, good for dynamic content applications.

  • Cons: GraphQL knowledge required, may be complex for teams new to headless CMS.

9. PayloadCMS

PayloadCMS is an open-source, JavaScript-based CMS built on Node.js and React. It stands out for its flexibility and ease of use, particularly for developers who want to build custom applications.

  • Pros: Highly customizable, strong REST and GraphQL APIs, built-in authentication and access control features. PayloadCMS is particularly noted for its developer-friendly setup that allows for extensive customizations without requiring a lot of boilerplate code.

  • Cons: Being relatively new, it might not have as large a community or as many ready-to-use plugins as more established CMS platforms. The open-source nature means support can largely depend on community contributions.

Challenges and Pitfalls When Using Headless CMS for Your Shopify Stacks

Switching to a headless CMS architecture with Shopify comes with a host of advantages, but it’s not without its hurdles. Knowing these challenges can help you prepare better and avoid common pitfalls:

Technical Barriers

One of the biggest challenges of moving to a headless CMS is the technical complexity involved. Unlike traditional CMS setups, headless architectures require a good grasp of both frontend and backend development practices. This can be a significant barrier for teams with little technical expertise.

Additionally, going headless with Hydrogen would require a solid team of Remix/Hydrogen developers. Most Shopify devs know Liquid better, so this could be a big technical hurdle.

Syncing data between Shopify and the headless CMS can lead to issues like outdated product information or pricing discrepancies if not handled correctly. According to the DEV Community, maintaining consistent data across platforms requires careful setup of webhooks and API calls (DEV Community).

Cost Considerations

The initial setup for a headless CMS can be pricey. This is because it often involves custom development work to integrate the headless CMS with your existing systems, such as Shopify.

While the upfront cost is higher, the scalability and flexibility offered by a headless CMS can lead to cost savings in the long run through improved website performance and customer experience.

Integration Challenges with Shopify Apps

Shopify store owners often rely on a variety of apps to add functionality to their stores. When switching to a headless CMS, you may find that some Shopify apps don't work as expected, or at all, without substantial modification.

Popular apps for reviews upsells, or customer loyalty programs may need custom development to function properly in a headless environment. This is due to the different ways these apps interact with the Shopify frontend, which might be bypassed or altered in a headless setup.

Ending Note

As I built PageFly - #1 Shopify Page Builder, and now building Weaverse - the first theme customizer for Shopify Hydrogen, I understand how hard it is to choose the right CMS. It's not simply about how many features a CMS has - it's about whether the tool fits into your process, your organizational behavior, your culture, your existing tech stack. I hope what I shared here can be of help, and if you want to connect, hit me up on Linkedin.