Throughout my duration as CEO at Verbal+Visual, I have always had one consistent focus: to help grow our clients, regardless of what it means for us. Entrepreneurs and brands must be given the right direction to reach their goals based on the current trajectory and situation of their business, not our business.
Over the last 3+ years, however, a major paradigm shift has occurred where customers now care more about the mission of the brands they purchase from in addition to the quality of the product. I like to call it the anti-brand brand movement. Customers now want to be asked where they bought that shirt or sofa not so they can brag about the name of the brand, but so they can share a story about the artisan who made that item and how that item’s durability will decrease environmental impact over the next X number of years.
When a retail brand comes to Verbal+Visual asking about services, we always ask them a handful of questions to help guide them appropriately: Scope (what are their needs), Timeline, and Budget. We must have alignment on expectations for the end result alongside timeline and budget constraints. Some clients need to migrate over to Shopify Plus and have a complex infrastructure. Others are starting out and needing to get off the ground. Another common scenario is for brands already on Shopify to be running into challenges with their site, their agency, or both.
From those discussions, one key decision needs to be made almost immediately: are we going to design and build a fully custom site experience, including a custom theme, or alternatively, are we going to leverage an existing theme from the Shopify Theme Store. Both have their pros and cons, and the final decision does ultimately boil down to the current client situation, as well as the 3 most important factors: scope, budget, and timeline.
Let’s dive into the pros and cons of each.
Shopify themes are prepackaged and ready to go out of the box. They’re easy to setup, affordable, designed with conversion in mind, and quick to set up. Themes allow startups and younger companies to get off the ground and reach critical mass ($1mm+ revenue). In fact, depending on your product line and site complexity, themes can and do often last well beyond the $1mm mark.
For most brands, however, the downsides start to come into play as the business matures. The look and feel is formulaic. After spending some time building out a theme, the site infrastructure can become bloated, leading to poor load times and ineffective customer journeys. Content may have evolved while site structure remained static, meaning the content doesn’t look like it fits. Lastly, for particular site changes and optimizations, the entire site needs to be updated, versus a single component or file on a custom theme.
These are good problems to have. It means you’re growing and evolving as a brand, and it may be time to move into a custom theme.
Some of the key benefits include an optimized codebase (great for load time), a unique design, and sets of functionalities and features scoped from the outset, meaning there are no major and awkward customer interactions with the site. Also, it’s built with scalability in mind, both on the existing site and for expansion internationally and on the B2B side.
As you would imagine, designing and building a fully custom theme is more time consuming and expensive. The initial build will be more costly, but ongoing work and optimization with an agency will be an investment, albeit one with a return on that investment.
In summary, if you have yet to fully establish your brand, and have a limited budget, scope, or a short timeline, an existing Shopify theme will likely be your best bet. If you’re mature as a brand and are doing at least $1mm in revenue, if not closer to $5mm+ in revenue, then a custom theme will make the most sense.
Shopify Theme Best Practices
If your agency or you feel that a Shopify theme is best, there are a handful of vital factors to consider to get the most out of your experience setting up a theme. Here are a few that we’ve found helpful for our clients who we set up with an existing theme:
Brand standards. Having strong branding guidelines, including logo, palette, typography, and art direction are crucial in having a site experience that feels as custom as possible. Shopify themes are designed to work with a variety of businesses so they are going to make sites look more universal and less uniquely "on brand.” Strong brand guidelines help provide that differentiation.
Content. By delivering world-class photography and copy early in the process, you increase your chances of having a beautiful end result. We sometimes see clients still figuring out their content up until launch day itself. This is a less than ideal strategy, and often leads to a disjointed experience for customers.
Features. By identifying key site features you’d like to have on the site upon launch, you’ll be able to influence the theme selection process and ensure you’re sticking within budget and timeline from the outset.
Global Elements. To maximize impact, we focus on global elements such as the header, footer, mobile nav, etc. These elements are seen across the site and make up a large percentage of the customer experience and interaction, so having a focus here helps maximize impact.
Explore options. We always review multiple themes based around the content, brand standards, and design layout preferences. We also set up test instances and see which ones are the best fit for the client based around these factors.
Existing Shopify themes are meant to be used across many different stores, so it’s important to know ahead of time that you most likely will not get everything you’d like out of the box. We often select a few different “areas of opportunity” to customize more deeply and make the site feel unique without disrupting best practices for e-commerce.
Some of those areas of opportunity could include a custom Product Detail Page, a new Product Card, and/or custom animations, amongst others. It’s important to identify low investment / high impact areas, focus on those first, and move down the priority list until we hit the budget cap.
Custom Theme Best Practices
When considering moving to a custom-designed theme, there are a few key factors that usually come into play. Often, a client is coming to us already on Shopify Plus and having hit their “theme ceiling,” incapable of customizing the site as they desire and seeing a distinct degradation in the quality of site experience and load time. Alternatively, clients may be migrating and want to couple their migration with a brand new site experience. Lastly, a client may simply want a best-in-class experience and also have complex technical requirements. All are viable opportunities to move to a Custom Theme.
Once that decision has been made, it’s important to know what the process looks like and what you’ll get. Firstly, you should note that many of the best practices from using a Shopify Theme still hold true. Branding, content, and desired functionality lists are all still a must-have. In a custom theme process, however, there are a handful of elements that give custom themes an extra edge over using an existing Shopify Theme.
We’ve built a robust and proprietary Verbal+Visual Component Library, which gives our clients an established foundational framework for all custom themes. This Component Library is optimized based on e-commerce and Shopify-specific best practices, ensuring high conversion rates & AOV’s, a well-thought through codebase, and most importantly, it is design agnostic by nature. We can design any site experience on the front end, and still leverage the component library to ensure a highly performant theme.
In addition, we can identify opportunities to displace content into modals, accordions, and other custom pages, in order to keep the customer journey and path to purchase clear. We base the site structure around the content, and not the other way around. On existing Shopify Themes, you are forcing content into a provided structure.
We infuse our process with key data points to help drive decisions. For instance, we perform a set of user tests for the path to purchase on a clients’ existing site. This helps us see what’s working and what’s not, and with that information combined with our analytics review, we’re able to make informed decisions from the outset of the design process.
We design mobile-first, and at medium-fidelity first (wireframes), in order to ensure all functionality, paths to purchase, content, and navigation are fully thought through, tested rigorously, and approved by our clients. When utilizing an existing Shopify theme, we can’t do medium-fidelity wireframes and can’t do as much testing as a result.
How a site feels is very important. Perceived load time and load experience, smoothness of loaders & transitions, and utilization of white space all contribute to that experience, and the more appropriate polish we have on a site, the more likely a customer is to feel inspired by a brand and make a purchase.
Designing & building a site on Shopify is akin to buying a home. You can select a prefabricated home (a theme), or a standalone custom home (custom theme). You can have an interior designer craft the inner workings of the home (work with an agency), or you can design it yourself (design it in-house).
Ultimately, these decisions boil down to your situation, desired features, budget, and timeline. Also similar to buying a home, we recommend always getting 3+ quotes, so that you can see how agencies identify your needs and present the appropriate solutions for you.
Going with a theme versus a custom theme is likely the biggest customer-facing decision you’ll make. Do your research, ask questions, and make sure that the digital home you select is one that both you and your customers will be happy living in.