When should you use a custom Shopify theme?

31 March 2020 by Phil Thompson

If you are thinking of starting a new Shopify store, it can be confusing to know at what point it makes sense to use an off-the-shelf theme, tweak an off-the-shelf theme, and when to commission a custom theme of your own.

Shopify theme prices

As of today the most popular paid-for theme on Shopify themes is $180USD. With many decent themes being free. FREE.

So why would anyone pay for a custom theme which can cost tens of thousands of pounds?

Uniqueness has value

Usually a store owner reaches this point when they want a design that is unique.

When you first start your store, a Shopify theme may be the most pragmatic choice. However, as your sales start to grow and your brand depends upon being unique; then a bespoke design is the right approach.

Design-led businesses

For businesses whose product is style-led or luxury or for whom target customers who are design-focussed, then a custom website is the only real solution. Customers can tell if your website looks very similar to another brand and if that brand is not positioned similarly to your brand then it can be damaging.

Why are Shopify themes so cheap?

Shopify theme prices are low but they are artificially low. This is for many reasons:

  • It may be that a Shopify developer is using a free theme to gain some free advertising.
  • It may be (as in most cases) a team of developers have created a high quality theme, over many days of work, that they hope to sell to 100s or 1000s of clients in order to make lots of money.
  • It may be because the theme developer wants to upsell apps to you once you’ve bought the theme and
  • It may be all these reasons above.

To write a Shopify theme from scratch takes many days of work. The last Shopify website we built took 25 days to code. So, if a theme costs $180USD you should not assume it took very little time to code. The likelihood is that it took a very long time - maybe even months - and that the developer or team continues to work on it, fixing bugs, and updating it as and when Shopify adds new features.

Why are custom Shopify themes so expensive?

Shopify takes a lot of development work away from the developers which means a new site can be built in a shorter timeframe. Whereas, an ecommerce site coded from scratch would be a huge project. It’s not unusual for large brands to pay millions of pounds for their websites to be (re)built and for it to take over a year.

For example, a big project we worked on, for a large car brand, had a budget of nearly £500k for a section of their website. Not the whole site - a section.

Although Shopify does a lot of work for the developer, there is still a lot to do e.g. each Shopify website will have a minimum of the following pages:

  • Home page
  • Collections list page
  • Collection page
  • Product page
  • Search results page
  • Cart page
  • Default content page (including Policy pages)
  • Account area which consists of several pages like login, register, view orders, view addresses, etc

Potentially all those pages need not only HTML, CSS, and JavaScript coding; they also need testing in different browsers and mobile phones; they may also need integration with Shopify’s section/Theme Customiser so the client can edit them easily. They may need to be coded so they can be translated easily in future too.

And if you want it to be an accessible Shopify website that may take more time too.

Designs are all different

A design can be simple or it can be complicated and certain design features may take a lot longer to code than a client or designer may realise. In the above example, we have 7 pages plus the account area. If it takes a day per page on average to build each page then we have a 1.5 week project before we get to the account area and then we’ve got extra tasks like styling the transactional emails, making sure email signups are going to Mailchimp, or Klaviyo, and whole load of other stuff. There’s a lot of little jobs in Shopify which add up.

Often a client will want several unique pages for their website. A big request right now is a ’stories’ section where clients discuss and showcase their suppliers. These pages are usually highly designed and can take days to build.

Maybe the client wants a blog too. Shopify’s default blog design can be a big naff so when a client wants their blog to look a little nicer, it is usually a lot of extra work.

So how long does a unique Shopify theme take to code?

We have never worked on a Shopify project that can be coded in less than 2 weeks. A simple Shopify theme should take 2-3 weeks and anything above ’simple’ has to be planned properly and can take months.

It is nearly impossible to estimate the timeframe for the new Shopify store without seeing the design first. At Safra we can give estimates based upon previous projects to give clients an idea of budget, but we nearly always have to re-evaluate that estimate the design/artwork is complete to ensure we have assigned enough time.

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