Trade-offs of custom development vs updating Shopify themes

By Ilana Davis

It can be challenging when your theme is lacking the features you need. Do you update your theme, buy a new one, make custom code edits or even get a custom theme built?

There are always trade-offs we must consider before making a decision.

Here are some options:

I’ve provided details below. This table may help those who may want to see it in a quick comparison view.

Option Investment Risk Level
Update your current theme 💰
Free or low cost if no custom code edits.
Get a new theme with features built-in 💰💰
Full redesign can be more.
Custom code edits to your existing theme 💰💰 to 💰💰💰
Complexity of features increase costs.
Low to High
Build a new from-scratch theme 💰💰💰 to 💰💰💰💰
Unknown amounts of risk
Use an app 💰 to 💰💰💰
Careful with recurring costs
Low to Medium

Let’s also use an analogy that may be easier to grasp since Shopify doesn’t do a great job of defining how themes work.

Each theme in your Shopify Online Store is its own self-contained unit such as a backpack. The content inside of each backpack can vary even if the backpack itself is the same (they are all black JanSport backpacks).

The backpack that is currently on your back is the live theme that’s currently published. Your theme library has other backpacks that can be swapped out but you can only wear one backpack at a time.

Option 1: Update your current theme

A theme update would keep most of your theme settings in the Theme Customizer if you follow the theme provider update path. Sometimes updating your theme is the easiest solution as they already solved your issue with the update.

This is like swapping out what’s inside the backpack without buying a whole new one.

The risks for updating your current theme are typically low when using a theme from the Shopify Theme store. However, if you’ve done some custom code edits you risk losing these code changes.

Themes also have so many settings it can be hard to know which setting is beneficial. Part of the Website Rescues is configuring these settings to optimize your Shopify store.

Generally, minor updates to themes don’t have a large impact on things like your customer experience, SEO, and how the theme works with apps.

If you’ve steered clear of custom code, a theme update should be straightforward. Expect to spend only a couple of hours max if you have not edited the code.

However, if you are so far behind or the theme has a major update (such as those now compatible with Shopify’s Online Store 2.0), an update is more complicated.

A major update often feels like you’re having to set up the theme all over again. Major updates add new settings that didn’t exist before.

Updating themes that had a major update can take 3-4 hours at least with no custom code. If custom code is involved, this can take way more time and should include a lot more testing to make sure the custom code works with the update.

Option 2: Get a new theme with features built-in

A new theme is a redesign no matter how you slice it. Shopify theme settings won’t transfer and many apps need to be set up again or enabled when you publish a new theme.

Here, you’re buying a new backpack with new contents. You’ll need to decide what moves from your old backpack to your new one if anything.

Some free themes may have the features you need. Dawn, the default theme for all new stores, has most of the basic features every store needs. This is a great place to start if you aren’t sure what theme to use and don’t want to invest money in a theme yet. Dawn is also where Shopify is investing its development resources so it’s getting regular updates.

When you’re ready to invest in a theme, expect to spend $300-$400 USD. The safest bets for paid themes are those from Out Of The Sandbox (Flex or Turbo) and Archetype Themes (Expanse or Impulse).

If you need help with setting up your theme or are considering a redesign, I’ve seen a very wide range in prices. Basic theme setup will likely cost around $5,000+/- without customizations. At this rate, you are still doing the heavy lifting. Of course, you can find cheaper rates but cheaper isn’t always better. This also assumes that you already have a Shopify store with all your data in Shopify already. For new builds, expect that number to go up.

You can set up themes yourself so if budget is a concern, try getting as far as you can to keep costs down. Remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect. Customers need to be able to find what they need and checkout. Don’t overcomplicate things.

When evaluating themes, look for features you need, not want. These should be easy to find on the sales page. New themes can add risk to your store depending on how different your current theme is from the new theme.

Option 3: Custom code edits to your existing theme

By custom code edits, I’m talking about actually editing the code in the theme files. Anyone including yourself, developers, and apps can access the code editor with the right permissions.

This is using the same backpack you have on but you’re putting new things inside the backpack that wasn’t included already. You are customizing the contents to make the backpack your own.

Custom code edits to your theme are more common than I care to admit. I often do custom code edits as part of the Website Rescues but only if the value of the feature the code edit enables, outweighs the cost of not being able to update the theme

Custom code edits are a slippery slope and can add a lot of risk to your store if the developer doesn’t know what they are doing. I encourage you to stay as close to the theme without making custom code edits as possible.

A risk of custom code edits is that at some point, you deviate so far from your theme, it’s hard to know what was custom and what was native to the theme. This causes more work for you when it’s time to update or migrate to a new theme.

Another risk is that custom code edits can break something else in the code. This could cause a cascading effect (e.g. change A breaks area B, which breaks area C, and now customers can’t check out).

Testing needs to be a part of any custom code edit project.

Most stores I’ve worked on go the custom code edits route. One store’s theme deviated so far from the theme that they more or less built a theme from scratch. Spreading the investment out over time likely made it easier on their cash flow. What they didn’t realize is that it cost them $25,000 over the course of a couple of years and ended up being more or less a from-scratch theme.

Here’s the #1 concern with making custom code edits that most store owners don’t know.

When you are ready to update your theme, all your code edits are gone! Theme updates override the code changes.

Many developers use a data comparison tool that shows the difference between code files. This helps to see what code they may need to transfer to the new theme.

Unfortunately, you can’t just copy and paste code from one theme to another. Sometimes you can’t even copy and paste code from an earlier version of the theme into a later version. The updated theme code may be so different that in order for your feature to work, you’d need to redo the entire thing. Essentially paying for the feature twice.

Using the backpack analogy, this could be like trying to fit a skateboard into the backpack. You may get it zipped if you stretch it really far, but risk breaking the zipper and everything falling out.

If you must go this route, ensure the developer you’re working with documents the code very well so that it’s easy to see what the code does and what changed.

Before you make code edits, take a backup of your theme and store it someplace safe. This can be restored or examined if things go wrong and they can help you tell which code was in the theme originally versus which was added later on.

Option 4: Build a new from-scratch theme

Building a from-scratch theme gives you a unique and beautiful design. From-scratch themes are what most stores want, but can’t afford.

This is like hiring a tailor to sew a new backpack with your own fabric and custom zippers. You then get to put only what you want in the backpack rather than what may have been included from the manufacture.

Not only is this a large investment, but you also need to consider the cost of ongoing maintenance. Who’s going to make updates as new features become available in Shopify? Who’s going to fix issues when they arrive?

It’s very easy for costs to get out of hand. There’s a lot of unknowns when building a from-scratch theme adding an unknown amount of risk. Surprise technical limitations, time, and budget restrictions can impact the end result.

For a quality freelancer or agency, expect to spend at least $15,000 (if you’re lucky) with an unknown limit. Expect to also invest more funds each and every year for the maintenance of the theme.

Ask if the developer is using a base theme in their build process or if they are starting from square one. Both are fine and common. If the developer is not building off a base theme that Shopify approved, your risks increase significantly.

Option 5: Use an app

There are so many apps in the Shopify App store, many of which exist today because Shopify or themes didn’t include the features from the start. That’s shifting now. Shopify and themes alike are starting to include more and more features.

Apps allow you to add items to your backpack while keeping costs down. These can add tools to your backpack making it more complete. They can also overstuff your backpack making it too heavy to carry. Choose wisely.

Before adding an app, check to see if Shopify or your theme includes the feature already. Shopify has many features that aren’t documented or hidden that even their support forgets about.

For example, how you’ve been able to edit your SEO fields in bulk for years but that’s still a major selling point for SEO apps. Sometimes it’s worth talking through what you are trying to do with a consultant and seeing if they know of a built-in way to do it.

Using an app is a great way to improve the customer experience and conversions, however, adding apps to your Shopify store do come with their own risks. Most apps are fine but I’ve heard of apps that completely break the basic functionality of stores. There were a few problem apps in the past that ended up blocking checkouts during Black Friday. So make sure you understand what the app does. Much like themes, you should be asking a lot of questions before adding an app.

All apps should have a support email. If you have questions about the app functionality or if it works with your theme, email them and ask. Shopify requires App Store apps to provide support.

Some apps alter your theme code, leave extra code behind, or may not work due to incompatibility issues. So it’s important not to add or remove apps without doing your homework.

Can I say that again?

It’s important not to add or remove apps without doing your homework. Adding and removing apps can negatively impact your store and in some cases, delete data. Do your homework!

I recently had a customer add an app, then delete it. Their title tag and meta description were wiped from their live theme, severely impacting their SEO. They now have to rebuild much of the on-page SEO from scratch, losing months of work.

If your theme is really old, not all apps will work. So you may need to upgrade themes or choose a new theme to use the app.

One of the reasons I wrote this article is because I’m asked this exact question all the time. In the Website Rescues, we focus on small tweaks or changes to your current theme. This keeps costs down while optimizing sites at a fraction of the cost of a redesign. There are dozens of small things that a Website Rescue can do for your site’s usability, SEO, and design. See if the Website Rescues is right for you.


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