Custom theme vs. Shopify theme: what’s best for your business?
Written by Erin Hynes, Marketing Coordinator at diff
When you walk into a store you expect it to be clean, easy to navigate, and aesthetically pleasing - because a well laid out store provides a positive shopping experience. If your ecommerce store is your customer’s primary shopping destination or even a “digital” version of a physical store, shouldn’t it be clean, easy to navigate, and aesthetic as well? Yes, it should be, because these are factors that directly contribute to your store’s ROI.
There are three main options to consider when it comes to building your store on Shopify: a prebuilt Shopify theme (which is a template), a modified Shopify theme, or a fully custom Shopify theme. It’s important to consider them all, because your theme is what will provide customers the “experience” of shopping in your online store, and keep them coming back for more.
Benefits of a template
- Easy to use
No coding is required to edit a Shopify theme, which makes the editing process as simple as possible. Figuring out how to structure and edit your site’s content might feel like a bit of a learning curve at first, but there are many free tutorials available through Shopify to help you along.
Using a prebuilt Shopify theme for your store is the most economical approach to building your store. If you choose to use a free theme, then your only costs will be a monthly Shopify subscription fee, and you’ll save on any development costs.
- Quick to market
A prebuilt Shopify theme only requires installation and configuring before it is ready to go live. Depending on how comfortable you are with using the platform editor, and how much configuration needs to be done, you can have a store up and ready for your customers in less than a week.
The prebuilt Shopify themes are designed for broad application rather than with a specific vertical in mind. As a result, in using one of these themes your store will likely look like other stores.
- Functionally limited
Shopify themes can be limited in their scalability and function. This works well for a small or new business, but if you require complex functions (for example, buy online but pick up in store) you will need to hire a Shopify Partner (like diff!) to enable those functions, if you don’t have the in house resources or time to do it yourself.
A theme from the Shopify theme store works for a new, unproven product, or when initial investment costs need to be kept as low as possible. If less than 20% of the theme needs to be changed, then a Shopify theme should work just fine.
Modified Shopify themes
As your business grows, you have the option to tweak your existing Shopify theme to cater to your store’s changing needs in a variety of ways. With the help of a designer and developer you can modify your design and code that powers your theme to add new functions, or integrate third party apps to provide functionality that isn’t included with your theme already.
- Apps for customization
There is an endless amount of third party apps available to add to Shopify themes to fulfill specific functions that you might need or want. These apps are available on a subscription basis, and are pretty simple to install into your store. For example, Gift Reggie is an app you can easily integrate into your store to create gift registry functionality.
- CSS/ HTML / Liquid can be altered
If your theme doesn't include settings for the changes that you want to make and you are comfortable with HTML, CSS, and Liquid, then you can edit your theme code to achieve specific functionality. You also have the option to hire a Shopify Partner to edit the code for you.
- No updates from the theme developer
Just like apps on your phone, every once in awhile your theme will have a software update to add or fix something. As soon as a Shopify theme is modified, that theme becomes ineligible for updates that usually include bug fixes or new features. This means that when your theme’s developer releases an update you won’t be able to take advantage of it. This also means that the maintenance of your site will rely either on your coding skills, or a Shopify Partner you’ve hired.
- Slower site
When modifying your Shopify theme, you risk slowing down your site as it becomes loaded up with more code. This contributes further to the “code bloating” we mentioned before - the back end of your site is filled up with unused code that results in unnecessarily long loading times. Remember that apps add code to your site as well, so every app that you install will contribute to slower load times. According to Google Think, slower load times frustrate users, so avoiding code overload is better for your business.
- Buy vs. build
While third party apps that customize your store are quite affordable, the monthly fees can add up quickly, and you’ll be investing in modifications that ultimately slow your site down.
While modifying your existing Shopify theme sounds like a great option for businesses with changing needs, there are risks to this approach. At first glance it seems like buying a theme and later customizing it is a way to minimize costs. But ultimately, the effort to implement customizations and modifications in a store bought theme is equal to or greater than the cost of developing the same features in a custom theme. In fact, the price of maintaining and changing an off-the-shelf theme may end up costing you more in the long run.
Fully custom Shopify theme
A fully custom Shopify website provides you a user interface designed specifically for your users’ needs and your business objectives. Everything from information architecture to the aesthetic and functions of the website reflect your business’s brand. This means that your store is truly unique and stands out from the rest of the pack. With custom, most of the drawbacks of a prebuilt theme are resolved because the site is being built from the ground up.
- Clean code
Only code that is necessary for your site’s operation is implemented, which ensures a fast load time and avoids code bloating. This is key to ongoing maintenance and scalability of your site, because with a steadfast code base in the back-end, added features won’t contribute to slowing things down in the front-end.
- Unique design
A custom build allows for a unique design that is specific to your industry vertical and reflects your brand. These details are what make your business stand out. To achieve this, a fully custom theme starts with some ground work that allows a theme to be built from scratch. A focused discovery session followed by a systematic approach to mapping your user’s journey is followed by a detailed wireframe and design phase; just some of the key steps to creating a website that reflects your business, brand, and values.
With a custom build, focus is placed on the features that are essential to your business and industry vertical. For some of our merchants as an example, diff has created experiences that allow a customer to buy a product online, then pick it up in store. This customization is great for merchants that have both a brick-and-mortar and online store, something that can’t be accomplished with a Shopify Theme.
A fully custom Shopify website will inevitably cost you more because designing and implementing a unique theme will require at the very least a team of specialized user experience designers and developers. The financial investment will vary based on whether you hire freelancers, or choose to go with a Shopify Partner. But regardless of the direction you go, you can expect pricing to be more than a prebuilt theme, plus you’ll need to plan for maintenance and scaling costs in the future. Shopify does recommend that users of Shopify Plus have an annual revenue of over $1 million.
Creating a custom designed store requires an investment of time. When you work with an agency like diff, the focus is on quality - and therefore the crucial stages of building, like the development phase, are not rushed. When you come to diff with a development-ready design, your store can be implemented in 10+ weeks, but if we are designing your store from scratch, expect a timeline of 4 - 5 months.
A custom Shopify website will always require a larger initial investment of money and time, but for established, growing businesses, this investment is incredibly valuable. When your site is custom, the focus is purely on conversion optimization, usability, and your brand’s look and feel. This will ultimately result in an improved ROI. And we can prove this! To see an example of a custom theme build done by diff agency, check out the work that we did for US retailer PopSockets.
Prebuilt versus custom theme: Which is better?
Remember that your online store is the face of your business - you want it to be welcoming, aesthetically pleasing, and easy to navigate. So before committing to a Shopify or custom theme, we recommend that you think about these three factors:
1. Long-term scalability - what are the goals for your business’s future growth?
2. Financial investment - how much money can you invest in the store now, versus later (CAPEX versus OPEX)?
3. Functionality - what specific functionality requirements does your business have now or in the future?
These factors will help to guide you in understanding your business’s specific direction, and to analyze your functional requirements and content requirements. You can then head to the Shopify theme store to see if there are themes and apps that fit those requirements.
If you are a small business just testing the ecommerce waters, then a prebuilt theme is the way to go. It will get your product on the market quickly and for minimal start up costs.
If you are an established brand that intends to scale, you’ll want to invest in a custom built Shopify website. This ensures that your Shopify store will be optimized in every way possible, from fast loading speeds to a customized check-out experience, and a design that is uniquely yours. Details like this are what convert your customers, and keep them coming back for more.
Is a custom theme right for your business?