A question that comes up frequently when we’re chatting to new potential clients is about prebuilt vs custom Shopify themes. What are the benefits of both? When is a good time to move from a prebuilt to a custom theme?
Before we dive in, let’s clarify what we mean by “Custom” and “Prebuilt”.
A custom theme is one built from the ground up. You work with a designer who will design every page in the user flow, from homepage all the way to checkout.
The other side of this is starting with a prebuilt theme that provides a base, and you customize from there. Whether you buy the theme from the Shopify Theme Store or from third party sellers such as Out of the Sandbox, it doesn't matter - the point is you have to spend less time building out a theme and getting up and running because you already have a solid base. Both are good options. One may be better for you than the other. And that's what you'll learn reading below!
Why would you want a custom theme?
You have a unique customer flow that needs special attention.
If you have a complex purchasing flow, such as building a box of various items or heavily customizing the item recommendations based on a user quiz, a custom theme may be easier to work with because you won't be working within the constraints of somebody else's code.
You have a very specific brand identity that gets lost if using a theme from the Shopify Theme Store.
A brand with a more eclectic vibe that tends to fall outside a standard grid system for a website may feel limited by the themes available. If you're aiming to go outside the box with your website, it's often easier to start from scratch.
You just want something different.
The reality is a lot of stores are using the same themes. To someone knowledgeable, you can visit a store I've never seen before and immediately know if they're on Shopify, and what theme they're using if it's from the Theme Store or a popular third party seller. If you're wanting to stand out from the templated websites you often come across, going custom may be a good option for you.
Why might you not want a custom theme?
You're working with a smaller budget.
Custom themes are time-intensive and require many more hands to get from blank canvas to functional site. As a result, agencies and freelancers must charge more to cover the additional time required to build a custom theme.
You're under a tight deadline.
As mentioned above, custom themes are much more time-intensive to design and build out. We usually set aside 3-4 months from beginning to end barring no crazy complexities in order to complete a custom theme project. That time frame will vary from agency to agency, but needless to say we wouldn't recommend going the custom route if you're trying to launch quickly.
You have basic needs that don't require a custom theme.
Now this isn’t to say you can’t still choose a custom theme if your website needs are simpler, but a prebuilt one may have all the functionality you need. There's absolutely nothing wrong with going the prebuilt theme route and iterating from there.
The decision to go custom or prebuilt isn’t finite though - you can always start with prebuilt and develop a custom theme later down the line when you have the time and budget. Hopefully the above gives you a little more food for thought so you can make the decision that will suit your brand and store best.