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by Michael P. Hill January 16, 2017

Searching for and buying a Shopify theme is exciting — but it also can be confusing and challenging to ensure you get everything you need from your theme investment.

When considering what theme to purchase, it’s important to carefully consider which features, functions and design elements are included in the theme — and which ones are not.

What a Shopify theme is

While the Shopify platform handles tracking your store offerings and processing orders, Shopify themes are the “wrapping paper” or “wallpaper” that control how a Shopify store looks and, in some cases, works and functions. It is the storefront for all your online shoppers and it will play a large part in the impression customers get of your shop and brand.

Added features in Shopify themes

Shopify theme features

As Shopify themes have become more advanced, theme developers have started adding more functionality and features to themes beyond just the design elements that are at the core of Shopify themes.

Although the distinction between design and functionality is often blurry, common examples of functionality that Shopify themes offer may include:

When you purchase a Shopify theme, you’ll get access to the features and functionality included in the theme, as outlined by the theme developer, as well as the necessary HTML, JavaScript, CSS and Liquid code that controls the design of your store.

This includes colors, typography, layout, spacing and other settings related to the “look and feel” of your Shopify store.

Premium Shopify themes, such as the ones in the Shopify theme store, are often offered with additional functionality such as the items listed above.

Often some of these features may be similar to what a third party app might add, but it is not uncommon to find these enhancements bundled with a theme.

Potential pitfalls

However, it’s important to keep in mind that, like with any app or feature, it might not meet your needs completely.

For example, “out of stock” and pre-order notification forms included with themes often use Shopify’s basic form functionality to send an email to you containing the customer’s request, but don’t offer the ability to automatically notify the customer when the item comes back in stock.

Shopify theme shopping tips

When considering a theme for your store, be sure to carefully review how the theme looks and functions, including any variations in design or functionality that might exist within the same theme.

A common mistake many store owners make is to assume that a theme can do something they want or they forget about a feature they really need — only to find out that it will take more investment of time and money to add those features or functionality to a theme that doesn’t contain them.

Because of this, thinking strategically about your plans for your store and its features and then carefully reviewing your Shopify theme options is vital.

Make a list

In general, a good plan of action is to make a list of all your “must haves” and “nice to haves” and then carefully review each theme to see which one offers the best balance between your lists.

Common examples of these features might include, in addition to the features in the list above:

  • “Up” and “down” arrows on quantity boxes
  • Ajax “add to cart” (customer can add product to cart without leaving current page)
  • Trust badges in the footer or on the cart page
  • Custom page layouts
  • Image gallery effects, such as zooming, left and right arrow navigation and thumbnails
  • Color swatches
  • Custom image banners on collection pages or other pages
  • Social media widget integration
  • Ability for shopper to “favorite” an item
  • Advanced filtering or faceted browsing
  • Advanced search and autocomplete
  • Related products, upselling or bundle ordering

The options in these lists aren’t always included in themes or may require customization or an app to realize, especially if you require advanced or specific functionality.

Try before you buy

To avoid disappointment, making an informed purchase decision is key.

One of the best ways to do this is to try before you buy.

Shopify theme demo

Many theme developers offer multiple demo stores for the same theme to illustrate its flexibility and often each of the stores will be set up to demonstrate various options, presets or built-in functionality that comes with the theme.

Also take advantage of the Shopify feature that lets you install a read-only copy of a theme on your store so you can see how it works with your actual products and configurations. Take the time to really test out any theme you’re considering by using this “Preview in your store” option in the Shopify theme store.

Try mimicking behavior that your shoppers will commonly execute. Browse your store from the perspective of the customer, including navigating through collection pages, product and blog pages and testing each part of each page:

  • Try searching for products via both the menus and any built-in search functionality
  • Add items to your cart, adjust quantities and remove them, observing what happens
  • Try selecting different variants of products, including ones with colored or other types of options
  • Test the filtering or sorting features on collection pages
  • Review the layout and functionality of blog pages
  • Test how image galleries behave as well as type sizes and styling, spacing and other aesthetics
  • Finally, be sure to test the site on a mobile device (or through Shopify’s mobile preview mode) to see how the theme looks and functions on smaller screens.
  • In the end, the goal of these tests is to make sure you’re getting what you’re expecting.

For example, if having tabs in your product descriptions is important to your store, check that each theme you are considering includes that feature by default — and that it works the way you want it to.

More features

While it’s always possible to add additional functionality or customizations such as tabbed descriptions to any theme, it’s important to keep in mind these features or functionality won’t be included in your theme purchase unless otherwise stated.

To add these features or functionality, it will typically be necessary to work with a Shopify Expert or other third party developer, who will charge you by the hour or on a per-project basis.

Adding customizations to themes not only adds to the overall cost of starting your store, but can also make upgrading your theme in the future more difficult.

Unique needs

Since every store has unique needs, it’s possible you won’t be able to find a theme that meets every single one of your needs and you may need to find an app or have custom code written to achieve this.

Also, keep in mind that premade Shopify themes are designed to provide you with the basic functionality and layouts to sell online — and most stores will be able to function just fine within any limitations of the theme, especially at the beginning.

Features can always be added and improved down the road.

However, carefully weigh the pros and cons as well as the potential costs of each feature and look for ways to avoid feature creep. It can also be helpful to prioritize them so that you can invest in them in a strategic order as your business grows.

Michael P. Hill
Michael P. Hill

Michael P. Hill is a Shopify, Shopify theme, content marketing, digital marketing and product management expert based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelphill or connect on LinkedIn.

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