Which to Choose? An eCommerce Theme or Custom Design?

0 min read

Alicia Doiron

Ever since the article “Web Design is Dead” first surfaced, there has been a flutter of online articles debating whether or not web design has really died. With the amount of pre-made themes out there, many argue that they’re good enough, and that going to a digital agency for a custom design is no longer necessary. However, this is false reasoning.

The traditional way of building out a website is indeed on its way out, but hiring an experienced web agency to work with you to create a high converting custom site is not. But that isn’t to say that using a theme is never prudent.

Both a custom design and a theme serve a purpose when used at the right time. The question is, when is that? This is exactly what we're going to examine today.


Somewhere along the way it became standard practice to disregard a custom design in favour of a theme. Almost all eCommerce platform companies from small to enterprise offer at least a few themes. Then there's Graphic River, Theme Forest, Template Monster and dozens more that sell inexpensive cookie cutter themes.

After all, they look pretty, they’re cheap, and eCommerce platform companies can use them as a selling feature to draw in potential clients. This can leave a retailer believing a theme is the best option for them, but oftentimes it’s not.

The questions they need to be asking themselves are: Do they convert? Are they always applicable? Do they help my company stand out?

Let’s examine.

Do they convert? This really depends on the design. While many are designed with standard UX elements that online shoppers are used to, such as the cart placed in the top right hand corner or the navigation bar transforming into a “hamburger” menu on mobile, others sacrifice usability for ridiculous design trends that make no sense.

A retailer might look at this and think “wow, cutting edge” without thinking about how it’s going to negatively impact the way their customers interact with their site, in turn hurting conversion.

Are they always applicable? The good thing about themes is that they don’t cost a lot. And let’s be honest, all businesses are concerned about cost, especially when they’re just starting out. Perhaps a business may appreciate the time and continuous research web agencies put into developing a high converting site, but they just don’t have the funds to hire one. This is when using a theme is the best option.

A theme is the perfect starting point for a business just getting up and running. It’s the best way a retailer can validate if their product will sell online.

A business can go-to-market quickly at a relatively low cost and start driving traffic to its site in order to gauge consumer interest. While the interface may not be perfectly tailored to customers, it allows a retailer to understand which products visitors are engaging with and which they are not.

Do they help my company stand out? With over 12 million online stores currently out there, without a doubt there's at least a few dozen retailers selling the exact same, or similar products, which means competition is fierce. In order to cut through the convoluted market, an online brand needs to be special.

Similarly designed themes are extremely common, which means retailers run the risk of their online store looking like a cheap copycat. Every eCommerce store has to be tailored to the kind of buyer it wants to attract, and while a theme can be great for a business just starting out seeking validation, a growing brand needs to pay close attention to data backed customization.

When to hire an agency for a custom design?

While my initial gut reaction is to say always, I know this isn’t always the case. For a business still in validation stage with limited funds, this is probably not the best idea.

However, if a company is looking to seriously grow their online store, a custom design personalized to the way visitors interact with their site, is the only way to go.

Traditionally, a website was built on guesses and opinions, focusing on presenting a trendy design and unnecessary features. This process didn't provide much value to online businesses, which may have played a role in them reaching the conclusion a theme is just as good as a custom design, only cheaper.

Thankfully, agencies are beginning to adopt a more iterative approach that focuses on providing a business with a design backed by data. The process is called growth-driven design–a methodology that The Jibe has always been keen on.

When an eCommerce store is built out using this approach, there is no guesswork involved. The way the site is designed is not based on assumptions, opinions, or superficial trends.

A design is launched quickly, and then continuously improved upon based on the way customers interact with the site. A business is left with a high converting custom site that is built to last; something a theme cannot provide.

The Verdict

While themes look attractive, there is a huge disconnect between an online store looking good and converting well. However, a company strapped for cash looking to validate their product offerings, a theme is a great place to start.

But for a serious online business looking to grow their eCommerce store backed by customer data, partnering with a group of experts to is the best route to go.