One of the beautiful things about Shopify is that their themes just work.
That's an unusual way to open an article about custom designed themes I know, but it's the truth.
Not all merchants need a custom theme. For some (perhaps you) a custom theme could well warrant considering though. There are pros and cons to the different approaches that can be taken to theming. In this article I've tried to cover those factors so you can make the best decision for your business.
It's perhaps best to start with some of our internal vocabulary around Shopify theming approaches. Not everyone will be familiar with these terms.
Free Shopify Themes
As the name would suggest these are the most entry level and the lowest cost (literally free) themes. While they can work for some merchants, they are also the least feature rich with the fewest options.
You'll find a bunch of free theme options in Shopify's catalog - 9 at the time of writing. Depending on where you're at with your business, one of them may cater well for your needs. You also might find them a bit lacking in features and options.
Premium Shopify Themes
Similar to the free themes, you also get premium themes via Shopify's own theme catalog. They range from $100 to $180 at the time of writing.
You have the ability to filter down to certain attributes you're looking for in a theme. For most merchants starting out, one of these themes is probably your best and safest option. If you have some wildly specific requirements or needs, then possibly not.
Unlike the free and premium themes, the Premium Plus category caters for merchants wanting a bit more out of their theme. Shopify keep their own themes very basic by design. They do this to prevent newer merchants from getting bogged down in detail. Protecting them from themselves so to speak.
As mentioned in our writeup about the Turbo theme, one of these themes is a no-brainer if you're looking to really leverage the Shopify platform. That is, if you either can't or don't need to go with a custom theme.
Custom Shopify Themes
Vendor: Your chosen agency or suitably skilled design & development team.
You have relative carte blanche over this one. How do you want your store to look? Design it like that then.
It's almost as simple as that. I say almost because there are still some standards and best practices to contend with. Ultimately you can make something completely your own though.
Vendor: Non Shopify (nor expert rated) marketplaces
Here be dragons. Seriously, if you want to spin up a store on the cheap, rather go with a free Shopify theme over one of these. You unfortunately get what you pay for.
Support issues, spaghetti code, poor performance or just plain forcing you into a life of hacks and workarounds, it's a type of theme we literally won't touch even with your mouse cursor.
A good rule of thumb with these themes is that if the vendor doesn't also have themes in the official Shopify theme store, you are safer to avoid them. Chances are they've tried, been rejected and now only have these marketplaces to peddle their wares.
Let me start with a bit of a devil's advocate approach to the concept of a custom theme.
First off there is whether or not you need a custom designed store. In all honesty, for most merchants, the answer is probably no.
Sure you may want your store to be unique. Maybe none of the available themes really resonate with you. Are you building this store for yourself, or your customers? Hint: it should be the latter.
More often than not, a good quality theme can cater to your audience perfectly fine.
Secondly, have you considered the time and budget requirements of a custom project? Not only how much you need to dig into your war chest, but also how long it will take you to go to market with the new store. You'll also need to factor in time of your own to make sure your vision is realized.
Of course budgets and timelines will vary depending on who you're thinking of doing this with. If you're looking at less than $30k and shorter than a few months, it's possible you've either found a unicorn, or you're in for a bumpy ride. We regularly hear horror stories and are asked to fix projects that have gone wrong. Sadly a complete re-do is usually the only real fix here. Again, you get what you pay for.
Since you've read this far, I'll assume you're not in the free theme camp. Presumably the premium themes aren't blowing your hair back either. This leaves you in a position where you either need to make the most of one of the Premium Plus themes (Turbo, Flex, Superstore) or... go custom.
Looking beyond the hard requirements for a custom theme project (time and budget), it would be so much easier for everyone if there was a clear metric that told you when it would be justified. Something like a certain number of sales, a revenue threshold, a volume of products or maybe traffic.
Unfortunately this just isn't the case. We've seen theme based stores transact 8 figures and on the flip side, custom theme based stores yet to even reach seven.
A strong motivator for a custom theme might be a specific brand aesthetic.
I'm not just talking about needing to match colors, fonts and selecting from a couple of pre-set layouts. This can be achieved using almost any good theme. I'm referring to cases where there is a strong need for the store to look a very specific way.
The ARgENTUM Apothecary Shopify store (screenshot below) is a great example of this. We were able to flex our bespoke theming and gamification muscles on this project and the end result speaks for itself.
Maybe it's brand consistency. Possibly a specific user journey is required or simply that the brand experience is "cheapened" by the use of a pre-baked visual. The custom theme approach allows for almost infinite possibilities in how the store can look, and how it works.
In the build for pucciManuli, it's safe to say that the screenshot below doesn't do it justice. Go to the store and take a look around at the small (and big) details. Move the mouse around, visit a collection, add a product to the cart. The micro interactions and finesse applied to what could easily have been just a run-of-the-mill experience is so much more that it could otherwise have been with a cookie cutter approach.
Another factor that could influence the decision to go with a custom theme would be the performance benefit and control you have over your store. You have a blank canvas on which to build a lean, mean converting machine.
The codebase is totally within your control. You're able to build the theme with absolute speed and efficiency in mind. Maybe there is a different need in mind for your business like ease of content management. The project could focus on building out all conceivable sections. A store that allows you to quickly and easily create a rich experience for your customers on each product, collection or page. You can choose your own mandate.
Having this control allows you to steer your V8 supercharged ecommerce store from the driver's seat. You won't be sitting behind the bus driver asking and waiting for them to step on the gas.
This one is actually conditional. If your custom theme is built by a muppet (no offence to muppets), it could be quite slow and tricky to customize anything.
If however your theme is built properly, and specifically for your needs, you will likely be able to do things faster and more of them with a custom built theme.
Theme vendors need a single theme to cater for many merchants. In some cases, literally tens if not hundreds of thousands of them. They're sadly forced to make decisions that can reduce the ability for a third party to customize them. In fact some theme vendors even try to subtly -and justifiably- dissuade the customization of their themes.
Customization can reduce or eradicate your ability to upgrade their theme when they release new versions of it. It can also make things difficult or or even impossible for them to support the merchant when they have customized it.
"Not only does adding a customization require an investment in custom code and testing, but it will also hinder, as outlined above, the ability to upgrade your theme in the future."
—Michael P. Hill from Out of the Sandbox
When you've built a lean, mean highly converting theme, assuming you've done it right, the ability to add new functionality, swop out redundant bits of code and upgrade parts that need it should be a relative breeze.
In comparison, working on a prebuilt theme's code that started life intentionally bloated, has built up what we call "technical debt" over the months or years since it was launched is both inefficient, frustrating and a not good use of our time or your money.
One would think that taking a theme and customizing it to suit your needs would be the easier / quicker / cheaper option to have a custom workflow or buying experience.
Interestingly this has not proven to be the case for us. It often (usually) ends up being more of an obstacle than of any help to the process.
Of course it depends on what kind of customization we're talking about. Most non-standard functionality in a store will cause the developer to need to spend more time ripping things apart and refactoring / rewriting code to make it work. This obviously defeats the point of going the pre-made theme route in the first place and can paint you into a bit of a corner.
With the developer able to focus on the task at hand and building accordingly, they don't need to work around code created to cater for another type of merchant. The thing that the developer just spent half a day extracting with a virtual scalpel to only discover that it cut off blood supply to the other thing that relies on it? Yeah, that thing... it's inefficient, a waste of time and the end result is rarely even close to the same quality as a purpose made thingamajig.
Do you need to have a custom theme created? Possibly not, but also maybe. Don't you hate these kinds of summaries?
If the "maybe, it depends" answer isn't what you wanted to hear, scroll up a bit and read why this is the case. Stop trying to tl;dr everything.
If you have any questions about this topic, feel free to drop us an email and we'll do our best to help you decide which route to take.
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