Shopify Theme Development

It can be tempting to install a theme and get rolling, and in some cases that might be enough. Or enough to get started.

But what are your options for a brand experience that aligns with your requirements?

  • Free theme
  • Paid theme
  • Custom theme
  • Headless theme (uses Shopify as e-commerce backend — either with own payment providers and using the Shopify native checkout)

So what is the difference?

The short version

Go for a free or paid theme until you reach a reasonable conversation rate, or make sure you have spent time thinking about design and functionality needs — because a custom theme easily starts at 15k Euro (not including design).

The longer version

Developing a custom theme is more costly, but might make sense (and reduce cost long term) and starts around 15k Euro. This does not including the actual design process creating a prototype design (Tool suggestions: Figma) which can be implemented.

Going for a paid theme is therefore a far cheaper approach to getting started on Shopify — but will also add “developer debt” — meaning that at some point it is no longer a financial gain to keep extending a paid theme — making a move to a custom theme imminent.

A relevant question to answer would be how your roadmap (and budget) looks for iteration, adjustments and development?
Are you ready to commit to a monthly retainer of at least 1k Euro?
If not, then pursuing a custom theme might not be ideal since fewer people can provide support and also your budget doesn’t qualify for having a technical ongoing partner.

Performance and reusability: One of the goals of a custom theme is to take control of the layout, performance and to build a modular theme with lots of reusability — making continuous development faster, easier and cheaper on the long run. But on the other hand this also requires some knowledge about how to run an ecommerce store on Shopify. This means that it might make sense to take a theme as far as possible, while building experience.

What it comes down to is basically where are you in your merchant journey in terms of knowledge, experience, team and turnover. Large shops require custom UX design, integrations & workflows — and have the (financial) means to execute it.

If you have just started using Shopify then there is a learning curve, and its important to decide whether you are actively involved and learning how Shopify works or wether you want to focus on your main business — creating, marketing and selling your product.

A DIY enthusiast can take it far on his own, but it requires practice, commitment and time.

Another consideration is to which extent you are willing to compromise at this stage. There are a lot of services and extensions to Shopify delivered through the App Store which can leverage your store functionality.

TIP: Use the apps as it was designed. Understand how an app works and setup the default flow before designing your requirements and adjustments.

The App store is also worth mentioning, and might spawn another article at some point.

In general you can install 2 types of Appsfrontend apps.

  • Frontend apps — adds customer facing functionality (theme modifications)
  • Backend apps - adds admin functionality on the backend interface (enhancing product and store management.

Installing frontend apps comes at an overhead, and also potentially making the webshop fail. And finally adding too many frontend apps can cause the loadtime to decrease, potentially hurting your Google Page Rank.

Backend apps can be valuable if your are using Shopify as your central hub for managing products, prices, inventory etc. But if your data lives in other systems — then it’s important to map master data and synchronisation needs.

TIP: Make sure that you test apps in a controlled environment or contact a Shopify Expert for help and quality assurance.

(Related article: Who on your team have the technical capacity to fix something that is not working?)

Your options:

  • Shopify Free theme
  • Paid theme
  • Custom theme
  • Headless theme

So what is the difference?

Shopify Free and Paid Themes are both an extremely cheap way to get started selling on Shopify. Especially if you want to learn how to operate Shopify. You will get a decent codebase to start modifying and there will be many who can provide support across the world.

Custom themes (and headless themes) are developed based on provided template designs, which are then converted to custom shopify templates.

Depending on your technical requirements, a custom theme might create the need for a service and support retainer with a Shopify agency, unless you have inhouse technical resources with ownership and knowledge about the customisations.

  • Shopify Free theme: In general decent themes to extend — and free to use.
  • Paid theme: Still a cost friendly option if you use the theme as designed. Modifying themes might break updates and bugfixes.
  • Custom theme: A custom design system running on Shopify’s templating system and server setup.
  • Headless theme: A custom design system implemented on managed cloud service — using Shopify as e-commerce backend API — picking and using functionality as required. Either with own payment providers and using the Shopify native checkout.

TIP: Going headless adds a significant initial investment. There should be solid (and financial arguments) for considering a headless approach. Maybe you need to embed Shopify in an App, or you want to have full control of the time to first byte, urls and ht access files. But it should be measured against the projected conversion increase as a headless approach comes with a requirement for technical maintenance and support.

The First Step

  • Map OKRs — as a roadmap and measurable milestones/results (team effort)
  • Outline critical user journeys
  • Map your product catalog (categories, filter options, taxonomy)
  • Map your ideal platform (integration needs, accounting needs, marketing needs, etc)
  • Map the operation team (technical, design, copy, implementation, quality assurance)
  • Consider need for ongoing maintenance (vs inhouse technical)

With the above you will be well prepared for selecting a theme approach.


Using paid themes might be a good solution to get started — especially if you have not done any product and content architecture.

However, if your template design requirements are clear, your functional requirements described and your content workflow mapped — then a custom theme will make it worth while when switching to maintenance and continuous development.

Happy theming
Johan Staureby

A platform agnostic blueprint
I’m working on a blueprint for an ideal infrastructure which incorporates SAAS software as tools which can be replaced as needed.

I have migrated 100+ stores and websites during the years, and migrations come a cost, even though the new tool adds missing functionality.

Drop me a message if you want the blueprint when it’s finished.



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