When you first set up your Shopify store, you’re asked to make a lot of decisions. One of the hardest calls you’ll have to make early on is deciding between a pre-built or custom Shopify theme. The look and feel of your store will have a huge impact on how successful it is, both in the near and long term future. Whether you decide to go with a pre-built theme or you invest in a custom design, know that each have merits as well as downfalls, and it’s up to you to decide what’s best for your business. Because this is a decision that will directly influence your conversion rate and overall success of your store, it’s important that you thoroughly understand each option.
Pre-Built Shopify Themes
A pre-built theme is just that - a Shopify theme that is a plug-and-play solution that you can easily install into your store. There are many options for pre-built themes in the Shopify store, as well as third party designers. Many (especially in the Shopify store) are free, with other options usually only costing a few hundred at most.
When Is A Pre-Built Shopify Theme The Best Option?
The simplest answer for this question is: if your e-commerce store is not your primary business, is temporary, or if you’re still testing out your brand and idea, go for a pre-built Shopify theme, which supports all three of these situations perfectly:
- Get up and running quickly. With a pre-built theme, you’ll be able to launch your Shopify store, from conception to receiving orders, as quickly as within a few hours. This is especially helpful when you’re trying out a new idea, gauging interest, or if you don’t have a lot of time to spend on creating your e-commerce store.
- Keep costs low. The simple fact is that pre-built anything is going to require a much lower investment than a custom model. This is as true for Shopify themes as it is for cars.
- Easy installation. If you aren’t a developer and don’t have one on staff (or on contract), and don’t want to hire one, a pre-built theme is the way to go. Most themes are built to be DIY-friendly for non-technical users.
- Flexible branding. Not sure yet what kind of brand image you’d like to project? Playing around with pre-built themes, especially the free ones, can help you decide what colors, fonts, and overall mood suit your products best before you commit.
However, it should come as no surprise that going the easy, inexpensive route is not always the best option. A pre-built Shopify theme does have significant downsides, especially as your company’s growth picks up speed:
- Forgettable branding. If you’re going with a pre-built theme, that means you’re also signing up to have a page that looks the same as several other brands. Make sure to check your competitor’s websites, or your store may get mixed up with them!
- Limited functionality and customization. While you can customize and install add-ons, both of these functions are limited, which means that pre-built themes aren’t the best bet if you’re selling complicated products or want unique website functions.
- Your users can tell. No matter how many customizations you use on a pre-built theme, your users will be able to tell that a large part of your Shopify theme is generic. The level to which this matters will depend on your audience: if you’re a restaurant selling swag and gift cards online, your guests probably won’t mind, but if you’re a B2B brand, the lack of a custom experience could be a poor reflection of your company..
- It’s hard to scale. The final downfall of a pre-built theme is that they may end up costing you much more in the long run. Because they’re designed to be easy to use for non-technical users, that means they have a lot of extra lines of code that allow them to support drag-and-drop customizations and plugins - which means they’re usually difficult for designers and developers to work with. While this may not matter to you now, down the road, if your e-commerce store takes off, you’ll likely need to pay for a designer or developer to rebuild your theme from scratch as you begin needing further customizations. That means you may end up paying more for a designer in a few years than you would have if you had went the route of customization initially.
Pre-built themes are a great resource to small stores or those that are still testing ideas, but they are limiting to more established brands.
Custom Shopify Themes
A custom theme is one that is made just for you by a designer and/or developer. This means that the design suits your brand’s needs specifically and completely, and is written with future customizations and expansions in mind.
Is My Brand Ready For A Custom Shopify Theme?
If creating memorable branding and having the ability to grow consistently are a priority, a custom theme is likely the best option for you. While they do require a bit more of an investment upfront, you’ll receive much more value for your dollar:
Unique and memorable branding. If your brand already has an established look and personality, a custom-built Shopify theme will be a great way to stay consistent. This is incredibly important for many brands, especially those who have close competitors or who have a loyal following.
Exactly what you want. Are your products customizable? Do you need advanced tools for users to get the most out of your brand? A capable developer can create a Shopify theme that accommodates any need your brand may have, now and in the foreseeable future.
Scalable. Unlike a pre-built theme, your custom Shopify theme will be written with future developers in mind, and won’t be crowded with code meant for non-technical users. This means that further customizations and expansions will be easy and take much less time than that original build - which is critical for a quickly scaling business.
While custom themes are incredible branding tools and offer much greater flexibility and scalability in the long term, they do have two major detractors:
- Larger investment. The simple truth is that, just as with anything that’s built just for you, your custom theme will cost considerably more than a pre-built theme. It will depend on your business and your financial situation to determine if that investment is worth it at this time.
- Longer build time. Because the theme has to be built from scratch, you’ll need to allow time for communication, approvals and the actual creation. You’ll need to find a designer you trust, have them submit drafts of the design, and then actually write the code and create the graphics to make it a reality. A normal timeline is between two and six months, so if you need a site ready by next week, a custom theme may just not be possible.
Custom themes are great for specific needs and big ideas, but may not be feasible for brands with small budgets or who need to move very quickly.
Still Not Sure? Check These Sites Out!
While the choice may be easy for some, it’s not unusual to feel torn between the two options. It can often help to check out examples of successes on either side of the aisle, so I pulled together some of my favorite example of each:
At Growth Spark, we specialize in designing and developing custom Shopify themes. We do, however, work pre-built themes in the right circumstances. Here are a few examples:
Because they were brand new to the market after a successful crowdfunding campaign, Como Audio was looking to launch quickly to capitalize on the initial momentum they built and continue making their product available for sale.
Pottymints was dealing with a number of issues on with their previous e-commerce website that was built on Woocommerce and was looking to migrate to a more reliable platform as quickly as possible. They chose Shopify and used a pre-built theme to help make the move in only a few weeks.
Having just launched their products and still in the ‘testing’ phases of their marketing, Sagetonic chose to use a pre-built theme as they continue refining their positioning in the market.
All three of these brands have very similar needs: simple design, a need to move quickly, a few products to showcases, and user friendliness.
As our core offering, Growth Spark specializes in crafting beautiful custom Shopify themes that help drive conversion for your brand. Here are three of my favorite examples of custom themes:
This formerly local but now cult favorite fashion brand needed a site that would be memorable while also creating a user friendly site that makes it easy to buy any of their numerous products. In addition to shopping, however, they also wanted to showcase their company culture, events, and other services. Johnny Cupcakes primarily sells their products online (though they have an amazing store in Boston) and knew they needed a beautiful user experience that wouldn’t soon be forgotten by their e-commerce shoppers.
As the site in charge of attracting DIY-ers, home engineers, and parents of industrious children, BOSEbuild wanted a site that could communicate what they offered while also showing that the audio behemoth has a fun side.
In as crowded a space as alcoholic beverage accessories, it’s important to stand out - and BottleKeeper is well aware of this. That’s why they invested in an awesomely visual site that communicates just how fun their product is while simultaneously demonstrating how it works! Make sure to scroll down on this site to get the full effect.
No matter which type of Shopify theme you decide works best for you, know that Growth Spark is here to help! We love talking through what your brand needs to succeed, and can either point you in the right direction for a pre-built Shopify theme, or start the process of building your custom built theme today!