Composable Commerce: What It Means and Is It Right for You?


The term “composable” in software refers to an architecture composed of modular building blocks that can be combined to create customized solutions. A composable commerce approach enables businesses to choose best-in-breed vendors who offer robust functionality for the one thing they do, rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all offering.

According to Gartner, a leading research and advisory company, composable commerce will emerge as an increasingly important approach in the enterprise software space, with ecommerce at the forefront.

Read on to learn what composable commerce is, how it differs from other ecommerce architectures, and its benefits and limitations.

Table of contents:

What is composable commerce?

Composable commerce is a modular approach to building ecommerce platforms, where businesses can select and integrate various technologies to create a tailored solution. This flexibility allows for quick adaptation to market changes and customer needs, promoting innovation and offering a competitive advantage.

Composable commerce is able to deploy this by using packaged business capabilities (PBCs). PBCs are the building blocks of the larger solution, all of which are connected via application programming interfaces (APIs). The core capabilities of an ecommerce platform may still be used, but will act more like a “peer” among other solutions than a “core” around which other solutions fit.

Composable commerce vs. headless commerce

Headless commerce was the foundational technology that introduced the separation of front-end presentation layer and back-end functionality. Composable commerce is a further evolution of this technology, as it allows a business to break its commerce platform down into individual services.

In a headless system, the front-end system or components typically rely on a single back end. In a composable system, each business capability is independent. For most enterprises going down the path of composable solutions, a decoupled front end is a great starting point for their journey.

Composable commerce vs. modular commerce

Whereas composable commerce focuses on integrating and combining independent capabilities, modular commerce emphasizes breaking down a business’s ecommerce system into smaller, interchangeable modules. These modules are usually specific features or functionalities on a site—things like product search, shopping carts, checkout, or promos. 

Using a modular approach can let businesses modify or extend their commerce system as they see fit. They can add or remove modules without affecting the rest of the system. Ultimately, it simplifies a business’s maintenance or upgrade needs while also empowering businesses to reuse specific modules or components across their system.

In short, composable commerce lets businesses select and integrate the best solutions for higher-level functionalities like payment processing or inventory management. Meanwhile, modular commerce lets them organize their systems into smaller, interchangeable modules to fuel a flexible, reusable, scalable approach.

What are packaged business capabilities?

Packaged business capabilities (PBCs) are software components that represent a particular business function. In other words, a PBC serves a specific business capability and is meant to be functionally complete to ensure autonomy. A composable commerce solution is a collection of these PBCs, stitched together using a unifying API. They may be from the same or different vendors.

PBCs are created to align to a business outcome. Examples of PBCs include:

  • Storefront
  • Catalog
  • Promotions
  • Cart
  • Checkout
  • Payment
  • Search

These should be available in a catalog of capabilities both first and third party, for deployment as part of a solution. The benefit of a composable commerce’s plug-and-play architecture is you pick the PBCs that best meet your unique needs and configure them to work together as you see fit.

Composable commerce vs. microservices

It’s important to note that PBCs aren’t necessarily microservices. Microservices are the small units of individual programs, whereas PBCs are a compilation of those individual units, working together to serve a specific business purpose for the organization. Packaged business capabilities can themselves be composed of a group of related microservices for a more unified, organized, and maintainable commerce architecture.

What is the evolution of composable commerce?

Commerce suites were once the pinnacle of ecommerce technology. Dubbed monolithic commerce suites, they offer a ton of commerce-related functions in one single software system. Popular vendors include Oracle, IBM, and SAP.

These suites are often huge and integrate deeply with other elements of digital commerce, such as:

  • Enterprise resource planning (ERP)
  • Customer relationship management (CRM)
  • Warehouse management (WMS)
  • Product lifecycle management (PLM)
  • Content management system (CMS)

Their goal was to deliver everything in one single suite. This resulted in monolithic structures that depended deeply on each other and were not modular.

A few years back, legacy suites were challenged by the idea of a future-forward commerce approach: composable commerce. Monolithic suites are complex and require so much maintenance that it’s hard to scale, resulting in high operational costs and low flexibility. And the promise of a solution completely tailored to a business’s needs was promising. 

But reality is more complex. Whether teams are dealing with internal signoff, complicated design architecture, or working with a wide array of vendors, building a fully customized system can result in higher costs and a much longer implementation time.

Over the past few years, legacy suites have been challenged by present and future commerce. Monolithic suites are complex and require so much maintenance that it’s hard to scale, resulting in high operational costs and low flexibility.

Benefits of composable commerce

Composable commerce offers a range of benefits to businesses looking to enhance their ecommerce systems. Here are a few ways it can yield greater flexibility, increased profits, and a better user experience:

  • Flexibility and agility for businesses: Composable commerce lets you choose the components within your ecommerce systems to best meet your needs and requirements. With a modular software component approach, you can select and configure the components that best align with your strategies and objectives. This may take a bit longer to set up, but can hugely improve future business agility, as you are not tied to a monolithic solution.
  • Increased efficiency and profitability: A best-of-breed, modular approach lets you handpick components that align with your ecommerce business needs, reducing the time and resources spent on unnecessary or inefficient elements. This can save time and money in the long run by allowing you to focus on what matters: serving your customers and driving revenue.
  • Improved user experience: With composable commerce, you can choose the best-in-class components, such as content management systems and marketing automation software that better enables targeted and personalized touchpoints, including customized product recommendations and personalized content.

Challenges of composable commerce

Composable commerce is more complex than a traditional all-in-one platform. By weighing the following factors, you can decide whether a composable commerce approach aligns with your needs and objectives:

  • Complexity: Proper integration between your various PBCs and services is crucial because these components must work together to create a unified and cohesive experience for customers. However, this can be complex and time-consuming, particularly if you and your team lack technical expertise. Each component may have its own unique set of contracts, APIs, data structures, and dependencies, which can be challenging to manage. Ultimately, unless you’re a digitally mature company with an experienced engineering team and complex delivery requirements, a composable commerce is probably not right for you.
  • Maintenance: In a composable commerce architecture, you must pay for individual components of the solution, which, depending on the amount of PBCs from varying vendors, can quickly accumulate maintenance and update costs.
  • Slower speed to market: If you want to get live quickly, composable commerce may not be the best solution for you. Since it’s still a pro-code environment, you’re better off adopting a platform that enables you to compose various aspects of your architecture, while still allowing you to get up-and-running quickly with pre-built commerce components.

Get the flexibility you need with Shopify

The point is, composable commerce does work for plenty of businesses—but it comes with a host of challenges that can slow them down too. 

We’ve found that a blended approach might be the solution.

In a recent survey done in partnership with IDC, we found that of the over 1,000 enterprises we surveyed, 45% have a composable front end with a full-stack back end. And it seems to be a phenomenal approach—they get faster time to market, higher cost effectiveness, and a more enjoyable customer experience. 

As we continue to grow our enterprise presence, we’re here to help you outpace not just your competition, but the untethered evolution of ecommerce. Because if there’s one thing that’s true about enterprise commerce, it’s that massive growth is on the horizon—and you deserve a platform that can grow with you. 

That said, there are also challenges ahead. From that same IDC study, we found that the top two challenges enterprises face are a lack of digital skills and a lack of technological scalability. 

But that’s where we come in. 

Our global commerce volume is second to none, and we’re built to support all your traffic—we’ve handled 40,000 checkouts per minute and didn’t even break a sweat. That, coupled with our 99.9%+ uptime and dedicated technical account management, set you up for success. Both now and long into the future. 

Commerce is always evolving, always changing. We won’t let you get left behind.

Composable commerce FAQ

What is composable commerce?

Composable commerce, a term coined by Gartner, refers to an innovative approach to building and deploying ecommerce solutions in which each component of the operating system is independent but integrated. This lets businesses create tailored and personalized ecommerce experiences that can adapt and grow to meet the changing needs of customers and the market.

What is the difference between composable commerce and headless commerce?

Composable commerce takes the flexibility and modularity of headless commerce to the next level by offering independence for every component of the commerce operating system. Whereas headless commerce involves decoupling the front and back ends, composable commerce goes even further by enabling businesses to break down each specific business need to an individual software component.

What does the term “composable” mean in the context of technology?

Composable architecture can be considered the software equivalent of building with Lego bricks, where pieces can be combined, swapped out, and recombined to create custom solutions. The composable approach is designed with an API-first strategy, making it easier to integrate with existing systems and processes. This is just the start, and ideally, in the future, composing will be a business user task, not a developer task.