What is an API? + Why Ecommerce Sites Use Them (2024)

Technically speaking, API is an acronym for application programming interface, and is considered a set of protocols for building application software. Practically speaking, APIs are the basis of much of what keeps people digitally connected.

From apps on our phones to complicated flight control systems, APIs bring otherwise disparate systems together to create single platforms. They allow applications or IOT devices to access data and create gateways to interact with external systems.

They’re the connective tissues to bind the digital world together and can be inserted through simple HTML and without needing to know a programming language like python.

For ecommerce businesses, APIs, and, specifically, web APIs, are an opportunity to use your platform to get better customer insights, provide additional purchase opportunities and more.

Companies have the opportunity to turn their entire business into a holistic platform that expands what existing architecture can do.

How APIs are Used Now

The connectivity that we take for granted now are powered by APIs. Many of the apps on your phone, including IOS, or you interact with on a daily basis are APIs with a user interface.

Virtually every operating system or webpage you visit includes some sort of API. API use is now commonplace and all the end user needs is a web browser.


  • Transferring funds from bank-to-bank online.
  • Viewing bank accounts from different institutions on one platform.
  • Using a smartphone to pay at retail stores.


  • Searching for the best hotel price on a single website.
  • Using your phone for your boarding pass.
  • Getting real-time status reports on delayed flights.

Searching on Facebook.

  • Able to search by name, including incomplete names.
  • Searches are prioritized by physical location.
  • Images with a specific person tagged are included in search.

Finding a New Restaurant.

  • Reviews from multiple sites are consolidated on one site.
  • Make reservations through a third-party application.
  • Find a restaurant closest to you, listed by the kind of food you’re looking for.

Staying up to date with social media.

  • Viewing tweets associated with a specific topic.
  • Easily sharing a news article on Facebook.
  • Embedding a YouTube video directly into a page.

Ecommerce Sites are Using APIs to Grow Customer Bases

API development is opening up new avenues — and in some cases new revenue streams — for sites that properly leverage them. They’re helping customers find what they’re looking for and offer them related products that they weren’t necessarily looking for.

Brands are growing with connected social media accounts. Single products are being sold across multiple marketplaces, significantly expanding a company’s reach without minimal investment. The most successful ecommerce sites are using service APIs to their greatest potential and enjoying the benefits.

So, why should your site use APIs?

Move at the speed of business.

Modern customers are accustomed to getting information immediately. They don’t want to call a brick-and-mortar location or a customer service number to see if you have the shirt they want in their size. They’re more likely to choose your platform if they can easily access inventory and buy directly from their phone.

Automating this process provides a superior customer experience and also relieves staff of an additional burden.

Quickly scale to meet changing needs.

The ecommerce market moves quickly — really quickly. Businesses need to be able to adjust to changing demands on the fly all too often. Many don’t have the programmers to properly meet a surge in interest.

If an ecommerce company has an item that goes viral on social media, they don’t have the time to create, test and deploy a code update. The sales opportunity will have long passed if that happens.

An API, however, allows sites to scale up, on demand. Internal APIs connected to cloud computing providers keep sites up and running when traffic surges would normally knock them offline. APIs can mean more sales.

Keep data safe.

Most feature strong API security that keeps data safe, whether in transit or at rest. Strong APIs take on the security burden and keep data - especially customer and payment data — safe from bad actors.

Technically, ecommerce sites aren’t even connected to third-party servers. Your site delivers data to the API and the API connects to the server, minimizing the risks associated with backend server vulnerabilities.

Examples of APIs Ecommerce Sites Regularly Used

From displaying critical product information to managing shipping to customer communication, ecommerce platforms are using public APIs at almost every customer touchpoint.

These are common types of APIs widely used in the burgeoning API economy to automate functions or improve experience. API design has come a long way and is improving regularly.

Product information to display features.

These give developers full management over product catalogs and what information is displayed. This API management may include descriptions, images, pricing or SKUs. Users are able to interact directly with databases and get the most up-to-date information, immediately.

Search APIs to easily navigate the site.

Building a site function from scratch is hard. It can be really hard. Using an open API is often the preferred option, especially as sites get larger and more complex. Leveraging a search API that is effective at crawling all product information and delivering results that accurately reflect search intent increases sales. There are several open APIs available using open source architecture.

Payment APIs that make checkout easy.

Removing friction in the payments process is critical in ensuring that items aren’t left in shopping carts. The final step in the customer journey should be easy and using a well-rounded payments API that accepts multiple forms of electronic payments does that.

Shipping APIs that provide accurate delivery dates.

Quality shipping APIs work by providing accurate shipping costs and provide credibility with the customer. They have clear communication that their order was received, processed, shipped and have an estimated date of delivery or even where a shipment is located using a Google Maps API. This produces confidence in your business and encourages repeat customers.

Convert currency to encourage international customers.

Making it easy to understand how much an item is in local currencies encourages customers that don’t use your local currency. There are far more countries that don’t use USD as their official currency than those that do and providing accurate pricing information for a customer’s market makes them more likely to make a purchase.

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The Final Word

BigCommerce business partners can leverage private APIs in most parts of their web applications. From back-of-house inventory management to order fulfillment, our customers can get the most out of their sites by using the robust systems that may be integrated into the BigCommerce platform.

These come with specific API specifications designed for BigCommerce.

The catalog API streamlines catalog creation.

Creating and managing catalogs has never been easier than using BigCommerce’scatalog API. It’s simple to integrate into existing sites and simplifies inventory management by:

  • Automatically syncing large and complex catalogs.
  • Connecting brick-and-mortar and online stores.
  • Taking advantage of analytics and reporting to get better customer insights.

The login API connects BigCommerce accounts with preferred logins.

Ourlogin API simplifies identity management and makes it easy to connect user accounts on BigCommerce sites with other preferred identity management systems. The API improves the customer experience by:

  • Enabling customer logins using sources like Active Directory, Google Apps, Microsoft, Amazon or Facebook.
  • Inserting BigCommerce sites into non-commerce content management systems, like WordPress.
  • Allowing single sign-on access to stores through identity provider integrations.

The cart API brings new insights into buying decisions.

Thecart API gives owners actionable data and a unique understanding of customer buying habits. Get a better handle on the why of customer decisions and make smarter, data-driven decisions to improve sales.

The cart API does this by:

  • Providing full access to cart data, including items added and removed.
  • Adding bespoke tools as needed, including analytics, pricing and checkout functionality.
  • Customizing carts to provide personalized shopping experiences.

FAQs for APIs

What is JSON and why is it used?

JavaScript Object Notations, or JSON, represent data on a server. It’s a simple way for machines and humans to understand information.

On BigCommerce, a JSON may look like:

What is an API? + Why Ecommerce Sites Use Them (1)

In Java, This is easy to understand as it’s outputted in key/value pairs, with the key on the left, and a value on the right. Keys are a fixed object defined by the application and will remain the same as with “category.” Whereas the values will be unique, such as “Shirts.”

What is an API request?

API requests are made up of several components. Each is integral to building a request.


Endpoints are made up of two parts: the URL and the path. The URL directs API requests. All BigCommerce API requests use https://api.bigcommerce.com/stores/.

The path is dependent on what you’re trying to accomplish. BigCommerce provides developer documentation to help you choose the correct path.


Headers provide information to the client and server. Common examples of a header would be authentication credentials such as a “Auth Token” or “Client ID” and are automatically provided when an API account is created.

Another common header is referred to as the “Content Type,” which informs the server about what type of content will be sent. For example, a commonly used content type is “application/json”. This informs the server JSON data is being sent.


Methods are actions taken when sending a request, such as GET, PUT, POST and DELETE.


Request data is the API call sent to or from a server and is often referred to as the “body”. The body of a request will sometimes require specific information before it can be delivered. An example of this is if you are editing a single product, the Product ID will be required before any change can be made.

What are REST and SOAP APIs?

Representational State Transfer (REST) and Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) define how an API is presented. Their basic functionality is similar, but have differing use cases. REST APIs are the set of rules developers follow when creating an API, such as an API should be easy to use for other developers. SOAP APIs are a design modal for web services that uses XML and follows a strong standard of rules, such as messaging structure and convention when there’s a need to exchange data.


How are microservices and APIs related?

Microservices build an application through modular software components, making it easier to build software. APIs actually enable microservices and simplify the software development process.

What is an API? + Why Ecommerce Sites Use Them (2024)


What is an API in e commerce? ›

APIs, or application programming interfaces, enable one application (such as your ecommerce platform) to expose services (such as catalog content, order management, pricing information and customer data) to other applications. Simply speaking, an API helps systems “talk” to each other.

What is API and why we use it? ›

API stands for Application Programming Interface. In the context of APIs, the word Application refers to any software with a distinct function. Interface can be thought of as a contract of service between two applications. This contract defines how the two communicate with each other using requests and responses.

Why is it necessary to use API in e commerce? ›

Why Do We Need an API in Ecommerce? APIs allow ecommerce merchants to seamlessly integrate various systems in a way that creates a headless ecommerce store to improve the customer experience.

What is API for dummies? ›

APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces, are like a set of rules and protocols that allow different software programs to talk to each other and share data or functionality. For example, when you use a weather app on your phone, it's probably using an API to get the current weather data from a service.

What is an API and how do they work? ›

API stands for “Application Programming Interface.” An API is a software intermediary that allows two applications to talk to each other. In other words, an API is the messenger that delivers your request to the provider that you're requesting it from and then delivers the response back to you.

What is the benefit of having an API? ›

The major benefit of using an API is accessing and consuming data and services from thousands of independent sources. This means organizations of all sizes can access these functionalities without developing their own specialized applications. Other major benefits to using APIs include: APIs increase business agility.

What is an example of an API in real life? ›

In everyday life, APIs power various experiences, from social media interactions to real-time weather data access. Public API examples include social media bots, third-party login, e-commerce transactions, and weather apps.

What are the 4 types of API? ›

APIs are broadly accepted and used in web applications. There are four different types of APIs commonly used in web services: public, partner, private and composite.

What is the role of API in website? ›

It acts as an intermediary layer that processes data transfers between systems, letting companies open their application data and functionality to external third-party developers, business partners, and internal departments within their companies.

What is the most important in API? ›

Even so, security, documentation, validation, and testing are crucial focus points for designing and building a successful API for any use case.

What is the best way to define an API? ›

To define the API of a component , we must clearly understand the needs of component's clients. The best way to discover an API of a component, therefore, is to talk to the clients of the component. For example, the client for the back-end is the front-end.

How do APIs work simple? ›

An API is also an abstraction of the web server. The application (such as a website or a mobile app) will make an API call for a set of data to display for the end user to consume. The request is made via the API that accesses the web server to retrieve the requested data, which is populated in the user interface.

How do you answer what is an API? ›

An API (Application Programming Interface) is a software intermediary that enables two applications to communicate with each other. It comprises a number of subroutine definitions, logs, and tools for creating application software.

How does API work on a website? ›

Most web APIs sit between the application and the web server. The user initiates an API call that tells the application to do something, then the application will use an API to ask the web server to do something. The API is the middleman between the application and the web server, and the API call is the request.

What does API mean in Shopify? ›

The API (Application Programming Interface), known as the Shopify Platform, gives developers a complete and easy to use toolset for creating powerful applications to be used in Shopify's online stores.

What is API in marketplace? ›

An API marketplace is a platform that aggregates APIs. It allows creators to upload and publicize their APIs while also enabling developers to discover and integrate the APIs into their own use cases. It brings the producers (sellers) and consumers (buyers) of APIs together and ensures their mutual benefit.

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