What's Best: A Pre-Made Theme or Custom Development?
What’s Best: A Pre-Made Theme or Custom Development?
Firstly what do we actually mean when we refer to a pre-made ‘theme’?
Well, regardless of if you are using Magento, Shopify or WordPress/WooCommerce all of these platforms offer a vast array of Themes that you (or your developer) can use as a starting point.
A Theme will generally include a selection of key pages depending on the purpose of the Theme. So for instance if you are looking at eCommerce themes it is likely that all the Themes will include:
- Navigation / sub navigation
- Category listing page
- Product Page
- Basket and Checkout
- One or two ‘basic content’ pages.
The Theme will have a consistent style across all of the page templates included which would cover off font choice, image size and colour palette.
The idea behind using a Theme is that then all is left for you to do is add your own logo, products and content and you’re done- ready to launch and go-live.
There are also hundreds, even thousands of different Themes to choose from, all with different design aesthetics to different functionalities built in. Feel free to check out a selection by platform from the links below:
Seems easy right? So why doesn’t everyone do it?
Pros and Cons of using Themes (platform agnostic)
Below we will go into the more specific pros and cons of using themes across Shopify, WordPress/WooCommerce and Magento but there are some very common pros and cons across all platforms.
Regardless of what platform or technology you are using, if you choose to start off with a Theme then you will save yourself time in the initial development and launch – which will also save you money (initially). The best way to think of it is like building a house, using a Theme gets you a house with all the rooms, the bathroom, the cooker – fully furnished but maybe not exactly to your taste. A custom build starts off with the house (the chosen platform) as an empty shell ready for you to completely decorate and furnish to your specification and tastes – which you would expect to take longer and cost more before you ‘move in’ (launch).
The other Pros are if you don’t necessarily know what you want from your website, be it design, features or structure then reviewing Themes can really give you a good steer. By browsing Themes you will soon start to realise what sort of design you like and what sort of information and content you should be thinking about including in your website. These days when thinking about eCommerce, all of the key pieces of functionality you would expect as standard will be included in 90% of Themes -things like add to cart, Wishlist, product descriptions, multiple images, discounts, etc. So you can be confident that you will be able to start selling and making money with a Theme.
Again the extent of the various negatives of using Themes does differ between platforms and technologies but the general commonalities do remain. The main negative is that with most Themes there will be parts of the Theme you are not going to use, most Themes tend to be created with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mentality (so they appeal to wide audiences) but what this means is that you might only end up using 50% of the pages and code within the Theme and the rest of the code is sat there not doing anything but impacting your website’s performance. If we go back to our house analogy, think of it like having to keep all the radiators on in a 5 bedroom house but you are only using 3 of the rooms. So the unused code will have an impact on site speed, SEO and maintenance even though you don’t need to use it.
The other common negatives of Themes are their compatibility and ability to develop further. Most platforms, be it Shopify, WooCommerce or Magento, all have a wide range of plugins and extensions to deliver additional functionality. These products are designed to be quick to install and use based on the core code of the platform, so when installing them alongside pre-built Themes there is a risk that the product won’t work and will cause errors which then require a developer to assist. This is also the case when the core platform release their own updates (normally platform updates will include security updates and occasionally new features). Unless the Theme provider includes ongoing support within the Theme then it will mean your website will not get updated alongside the core platform updates unless you engage a developer to perform them for you.
As previously mentioned, there are some nuances and other considerations when looking at specific platforms, below we try summarise these specifics.
More-so than other ecommerce platforms, Shopify is more built around the idea of Themes. With Shopify being a SaaS platform (meaning it is a licensed platform) this means the core code of the platform cannot be customised in the same way as WordPress and Magento, which are open source platforms. What this means is that 90% of the development that you or a development partner would be doing would be focussed around the front end.
As such Shopify has a far higher % of its users starting off with a Theme as opposed to a completely custom build. So actually with Shopify the bigger decision to make is around whether to go with a free Theme (there are plenty of good ones) or a paid, premium Theme (of which there are thousands).
When deciding on a free Theme vs a Paid for Theme, you obviously want to look at the features, design and layouts you need to get started but it is also worthwhile thinking about features you may want to have in the future. Reason being is if you go with a paid for Theme, you are likely going to end up needing to add new features down the road – which you would have to do via Shopify Apps. These Apps can be as simple as adding a newsletter pop-up for new customers – which as a standalone app might only cost $20 (monthly) but as time goes on and you keep adding more and more apps these monthly fees will start to add up.
Whereas if you invested in a premium Theme up front (which might set you back $200-$500) it would be a one-off fee and often will include many features you would otherwise need to pay for as an app but has been coded by the Theme developer.
Shopify does also have an in-built customiser for most Themes, so with most premium Themes you will have some flexibility on making small design and layout changes.
In our experience you would only really want to invest in a fully customised front end build if you have a very specific design in-mind. From a functionality standpoint most paid Themes will cover 75% of all eCommerce functionality so its will very much come down to design and how specific you want to be in your user journey.
From a summary point of view our recommendations would be;
- If you are just starting out and don’t have cash sitting in the bank, then start with a free theme.
- If you’ve got a business already and can happily afford an investment of $200-$500 then definitely go for a premium paid theme based on features and functionality you require.
- If your site is already selling and has traction and is profitable but you have a long list of changes and features you want to implement then it’s time for custom development (get in touch now >>).
Examples of Shopify Builds with customised Themes:
WordPress/WooCommerce differs slightly from Shopify in that it is open source which means the entire platform (front end and back end) are completely customisable – so essentially with the right developer you can do whatever you want with it.
That being said across both WordPress and WooCommerce there are an unlimited amount of pre-built themes available, across hundreds of industries. Whether you want to launch a marketplace with auction bidding OR a property listings site – there will be a Theme already built ready to be used!
So again the biggest Pros of using Themes for WordPress and WooCommerce are the speed and cost involved in getting started. You can go from nothing to a fully functioning site with very limited investment (under £200 in many cases)
So if you want to get a site up and running to test a concept or to simply start receiving traffic and revenue then this is a really good option to start off.
Unfortunately this is probably where the Pros end for using Themes with WordPress. If you do go down this route you will quickly find after a few months that your core WordPress platform is out of date. This is because WordPress release new updates and security patches monthly and if you allow your site to become too out of date you will be opening yourself up to hackers. Now some Themes and Theme providers will offer ongoing support – so if you do go down a Theme route it is best to check this before proceeding. You will want your Theme to be kept up to date with the latest versions and make sure you are pro-active in updating.
The second part of this is that one of the best resources across the WordPress network are the huge amount of plugins available. But if you are planning on installing plugins there are no guarantees they will work with your chosen Theme and as such you will need to look to a developer to assist who may or may not be comfortable working with your chosen Theme.
Lastly as we mentioned earlier, WordPress is designed to be a lightweight platform, but because many Themes are trying to satisfy so many needs there is often excessive code sitting within the Theme that you will not be using or benefitting from, which will, in turn, have a detrimental effect to your SEO and performance.
In Summary for WordPress and WooCommerce our advise would be:
- Use a Theme if you have a specific set of needs that can be met by a Theme
- If going down this route expect to need the support of a developer from time to time, including budget for this to keep your site up to date alongside WordPress’s core updates and to support in installing new plugins.
- Look at a custom build if you have a specific set of requirements and have some capital to invest up front £1,000 to £5,000 minimum.
Examples of custom WordPress / WooCommerce builds:
When it comes to Magento this is probably the platform that has the fewest options available when it comes to Themes. The majority of Magento builds do start off using Magento’s ‘default’ Theme known as Luma. This Theme can be seen in action from many good Magento development agencies, for example: https://magento2.algolia.com/
With Magento if you stick to the Luma Theme while the design won’t be pulling up any trees all of the functionality is geared towards using Magento’s features to their best so you can be confident if you stick to the Theme and admin settings you will have an eCommerce store that works efficiently in selling products.
As with Shopify and WordPress there are Themes available that focus in different design aesthetics and industries, but like WordPress the same negatives apply around compatibility and ability to stay up to date with the core platform.
Also as Magento is a heavier platform, development is more time consuming and costly so business owners who have decided to use Magento are usually businesses already generating revenue and have cash reserves and are now looking to build their own custom website specific to their needs.
Our summary on Magento by way of recommendations would be:
If you are expecting to be able to choose a pre-built Theme and get your website launched without any development support then we would strongly advise against Magento. If you do not have technical knowledge you will very soon hit a wall with this approach. If this is you – Shopify would be a far better route to go down.
If however you have an established business with money to invest and are looking to design and build a website tailored around your business and products then Magento may well be the perfect platform for you. It comes with an unrivalled amount of eCommerce functionality out the box and can be endlessly customised and developed, either by custom code or by using extensions from the Magento Marketplace.
In conclusion there isn’t a yes or no answer to whether using a Theme is the right choice, in most cases it depends on how much budget you have and how specific you are about your requirements on design and functionality. But hopefully the above guide gives you a decent stating point in beginning your journey.