Custom Shopify Theme vs. Theme Template: What's best for your business?

With every Shopify build we've worked on over the past 10 years we always get asked the same question - where do we start our builds?

Everything in the hosted world of Shopify is considered a "theme" as it lives within the platform and must fulfill a required structure. Within this world you really have two options - build on top of an existing fully built out theme "template" from the Shopify Theme Store or develop a custom theme from scratch.

There is a third option called Headless eCommerce, but that's only for those that really need the best performance. More on that here.

TLDR

Theme Template

Site we built: BodyBio

Pros

  • Can cut down on development time if site design isn't vastly different and functionality upgrades are simple

  • Vast amount of customization options and additional sections out of the box

Cons

  • Less performant as they're built to be one-size-fits-all with various configuration options resulting in additional code overhead

  • Core javascript required for functionality is often obfuscated and can be very difficult to modify or build upon

  • Overall the starting point is more opinionated requiring you to base decisions in the build around this starting point

Custom Theme

Site we built: Embodied Moxie

Pros

  • Performance optimized

  • Clean codebase that is extensible to meet future additions

  • Full freedom in design. Straightforward implementation of functionality.

Cons

  • Can take more time to develop, since the starting point is less opinionated

At Conspire we've done so many of the latter that we actually have a proprietary scaffolding framework to reduce the time required for custom builds. Trying to provide the best performance/flexibility while reducing the cost to our clients.

Build on top of a theme "template" from the Shopify Theme Store

Merchants typically go this route when they're trying to cut down on development time and reduce costs. That being said, starting with a prebuilt theme template isn't always faster - it really depends on the customization that you're trying to make.

When you wouldn't want to use a Shopify theme template:

  1. Design for the site is far different from that of the theme template

  2. Functionality called for in the build requires that you modify core functionality of the theme template. Many pre-built theme templates use Webpack to bundle/optimize and as such the theme's core javascript can be obfuscated making it very hard to unravel / modify important javascript.

    An example of where we've run into this is often the cart/sidebar cart when we've tried to add functionality that allows customers to swap one-time-purchases for a subscription -or- provide an upsell without requiring a page reload.

Custom Shopify Theme

This custom approach is best for merchants that are looking for:

  1. A site that's custom designed to the brand and/or

  2. Fully performance optimized, aimed at getting the best Google PageSpeed score possible.

  3. Interested in the ability to add advanced custom functionality or use cases that require an atypical user interface. Examples of this are in-cart upsells/add-ons/subscription upgrades, product pages with customization options (see Kim Genevieve's photo + frame builder) or the ability to create a slick product bundling interface

Typically the merchants that approach our team are looking to leverage our full expertise in design & development. For this reason, a custom site/theme is our most common build approach as it allows for full freedom in the design process and straight forward implementation for our developers.

Since we've done so many custom theme builds, at Conspire Agency we've invested a lot into tooling which enables us to build custom themes faster and thus add more value for our merchants.