Shopify Themes vs. Building a Custom Theme from Scratch

Your client tells you they want a custom Shopify website, but what does that actually mean and is it the best solution for them? 

Should you build a Shopify store from scratch?

Has a client ever asked you for a totally custom Shopify website, insisting that they don’t want to use a template?

Here’s a message we got from one of our followers:

“I got myself into a pickle. I’m doing a Shopify store for a client. I’m customizing a template with minimal code but now they are saying they thought the site was going to be build from scratch. Is my understanding correct in what they are looking for is a theme developer?”

What is a Custom Shopify Theme?

Templates, themes, semi-custom, custom, from scratch. These terms are all a bit confusing and everyone seems to have their own idea of what they each mean. Whenever a client tells me they need a custom website, I ask them, “what makes you think that you need a custom theme?”. Most of the time, they tell me that they’re working with a designer to design a website that’s very customized to their brand, or that they need “x” functionality.

I tell them that for most brands (and most budgets!) building a Shopify theme from scratch is NOT the best solution. We can achieve those results far faster and cheaper by not building from scratch.

Reasons why not to build a store from scratch:

It’s unnecessary.

You can get a custom look, with out needing a custom theme if you know what you’re doing. Shopify themes give you complete access to the front-end code of the design so you can customize the design to your heart’s content — the possibilities are basically limitless.

It will be full of bugs.

Themes are tested extremely thoroughly. They have whole teams of developers working to build and improve them. They can do that because thousands of people are buying that theme. You wouldn’t get the same quality in a custom built store without charging a TON.

It’s time consuming & less profitable.

When a project is time consuming, every hour you spend on it makes it a little less profitable. You might think you’re done a project and made a decent hourly wage until you have to fix a bunch of little bugs that take hours each to solve — further reducing your profitability. If you’re a freelancer or solopreneur then you know the feeling of being ‘over’ a project because you’ve spent way more time on it than you anticipated.

It doesn’t make sense.

Your client might have a crazy vision for their site and need a custom theme to do that. But a crazy custom design may not make good sense for UX. Design for e-commerce generally follows clear patterns that shoppers are used to. This is important for getting those conversions. You can still have some fun with the design, but you’ll notice most successful stores are very careful not to confuse their visitors.

It’s expensive.

If your client wants additional features, it will be expensive, when a theme might have had those features built in, or an app could have easily been integrated to save time and money.

It requires a developer.

If you’re building a store from scratch then you’ll need the expertise of both a designer and a developer. Most of our audience identifies as some kind of designer (web, brand, graphic), not a theme developer, and most likely your clients were attracted to you for your designs. So you might need to explain to them that building themes from scratch is a completely different skillset.

It requires extensive maintenance.

All themes require maintenance to maintain browser compatibility, enhance speed performance, improve SEO, improve accessibility, and more. When you use an existing Shopify theme, the developers do this maintenance and provide theme version updates every few months. Updating the theme version is far less work (in some cases just a single click) compared to keeping on top of all the maintenance requirements and making them yourself. 

A client might think they want a store built from scratch, but you have to ask them why. It’s likely down to them not understanding Shopify as a platform or even website design in general. I bet that any concerns they have about using a theme could be squashed with the points above.

So next time a client says they need a custom theme, instead of focusing on what “custom” means, bring the conversation back to their needs and the result you can provide the client.

How to provide a custom theme experience

Most of the time you can get better results starting with a theme from the Shopify Theme Store and customizing or building on top of it to meet your needs. A premium theme has all the bells and whistles in the form of extra features like animations, product upsells, mega menus and more.

Spending a few hours exploring themes to see which ones most closely match your needs, and investing $350 in the best one will save you a lot of time, and headache. Read How to Choose a Theme on Shopify for our tips on starting a project with the best theme for the job.

From there, so many customizations can be made with just CSS to make a theme look custom. The first step to adding custom CSS is creating a custom.css file.

You can be incredibly profitable if you learn how to do things efficiently. That means matching the perfect Shopify theme to your client, and learning some code so you can tweak it how you want. Learning how to code custom sections is WAY more profitable than learning how to code a whole website. Plus, by being able to customize themes, you’re able to offer a service at a lower price than building from scratch which will open your potential client base up to a much larger market.

If a client asks if I use templates or themes, I can educate them on why we need to use them and why this is actually what they need.

What if you do want to build a custom theme?

If at this point you’re saying, “I know all that and I DO want to build stores from scratch”, then good for you! That will be a highly valuable skill especially if you want to work as a developer for a traditional large agency.

Building from scratch can mean two things: developing a custom theme, or building a headless website. If you don’t know the difference, read What is headless Shopify and when to use it?.

Asking around, you’ll find little consistency about the price of developing a custom Shopify theme. Most people would say a fully custom theme will cost $30-100k depending on the design complexity and functionality required. This doesn’t include the cost of the design. As with all services, prices vary and this will depend on the project complexity, what apps are required, where developers are located, the skills of the developer, and if you need specific optimizations such as SEO, speed, etc.

If you’re interested in learning how to customize themes and build custom sections on Shopify, you’ll love our Shopify course for designers. Get a taste of it by watching our free workshop.

Shopify Custom Themes FAQ

Should I use a Shopify theme for my store?

Every Shopify store must use a theme, as a theme creates the front-end of the website. Only headless commerce stores do not use a theme.

What is a custom Shopify theme?

What's considered 'custom' will depend on the individual. It may mean that a theme has been customized to add new features, that the free Dawn theme has been used as a starting point to build a more impressive theme, or that a theme has been built from scratch. The best way to know is to ask for clarification from the designer or developer you're speaking to.

Should I use a custom Shopify theme for my store?

Use a custom theme only if the paid themes in the Shopify Theme store do not meet your requirements. Custom themes can come with their own issues such as bugs, lack of updates, and dependance on a developer. Custom themes are far more costly to build, maintain and make changes to when compared to choosing the best theme for your project from the Shopify theme store. We prefer to choose an existing theme and customize it to the brand's needs.

Should I create a custom Shopify theme?

Creating a custom Shopify theme is a lot of work, and quite costly. The answer depends on your goals. If your goal is to provide a client with a custom solution, you should probably begin with an existing theme as your starting point in order to save several hours of work. If your goal is to sell the theme in the Shopify theme store, note that a theme of that caliber requires a strong UX and development team, and ongoing maintenance and support – it is a huge commitment.

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