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August 09, 2021
When you set up or upgrade your Shopify store, you’ll have to decide if you’ll install a free theme or purchase a paid theme. It seems like a simple decision, but it can be quite difficult for some store owners, especially those who are working with a tight budget.
Do you need a paid theme? Or can you make do with a free one? In this article, we’re going to explore the differences between free and paid themes to help you make your decision.
First, let’s understand exactly what a theme is and how it affects your site.
A theme is the look and feel of your website - the colors, fonts, layout, and features. You can change a theme at any time without affecting your product listings and page content (those elements are stored in a database that’s left unchanged).
New Shopify stores come with the default theme called Debut. It’s suitable for most stores, but quite generic.
Most store owners opt to change to a theme that fits their needs and their brand’s style. Shopify offers a collection of free themes, as well as some paid ones. Paid themes can cost up to $180 if you buy them through Shopify. They can cost far more if you purchase them through a third-party site.
So while you need a theme for your store, you have a lot of options. Should you purchase one? Or is a free theme sufficient?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer here. A free theme may have the right design and features to meet your needs, but many store owners feel their site lacks something special unless they purchase a paid theme.
To help you make this decision, let’s run through the differences between free and paid Shopify themes.
Generally speaking, paid themes offer more design options than free themes. A free theme will give you a standard layout and a small selection of fonts and colors, but not enough options to make your store stand out. The last thing you want is to look like every other ecommerce store.
A paid theme will give you lots of customization options, thereby creating a unique experience for your customers.
For instance, a professional masonry grid like this isn’t available in a free theme.
The obvious difference between free and paid Shopify themes is the cost. The cost of paid themes varies widely. Some are as inexpensive as $17. Others can cost over $500. If you want a custom-made theme from a developer, there’s no limit on price.
Free themes can be downloaded right from Shopify. Paid themes can come from Shopify’s store, but you can also purchase them from third party sellers.Features
Typically, free themes come with standard features, but lack anything that would set you apart from the crowd. If you want a special feature to work with your free theme, you’ll have to install an app. Too many apps slow down your site and raise your monthly costs.
Paid themes, however, often come with advanced features right out of the box, optimized to run fast. There’s no need to install an app to get them. You might not need them all right now, but who knows how your business may grow.
For instance, while every free theme comes with some product filtering (by price, by collection, etc.), some paid Shopify themes offer advanced filtering that give your customers total control over how they search for products. If you think an advanced filter like this will lead to more conversions, the paid theme is worth the initial cost.
Page speed is tough to evaluate here because there’s no clear rule of thumb. It depends entirely on how the theme is made and whether the creator considered loading speed.
Free themes tend to load quickly because they are made by Shopify, who optimizes them well. Plus, there just isn’t much to them. They have fewer components to load.
However, that doesn’t mean that paid themes are slow. On the contrary, paid theme creators know that customers value fast-loading sites, so they make sure their themes meet those expectations.
This means the only way to know if a free or paid theme loads quickly is to read reviews, ask questions to other customers, and test the theme yourself.
Free themes are generally easier to use, but that’s only because they don’t offer many options and customizations. You can’t make them your own. What you see is what you get.
Paid themes usually have a steeper learning curve, but that’s because you can do more with them. They give you lots of options to make the theme right for your products and brand. Ultimately, these customizations can make your paid theme look unique, so it’s worth learning how to use them.
It’s worth mentioning that paid themes almost always come with documentation and getting started guides to help you use the theme. If you choose one of the top paid themes, you’ll find plenty of blogs with reviews and tutorials.
All of the free and paid themes from Shopify include documentation and direct support. If you buy a paid theme from outside of Shopify (like a theme from a third party platform or a custom theme from a developer), you’ll have to make sure that source offers some kind of support.
If you’re serious about selling on Shopify, there’s no doubt that paid Shopify themes are the best value. Yes, they come with a cost, but that cost is tiny compared to the value paid themes provide. Free themes are a good starting point, but you should expect to move to a paid Shopify theme at some point.
Look at it this way: Ecommerce customers rely on your website to decide if they will make a purchase. 75% of consumers judge a company’s credibility based solely on their web design.
Image source: Kinesisinc
If your site looks cheap, unprofessional, or generic, they’re going to assume your products and customer service are the same. But if your site is clean, clear, and well designed, customers will think better of you.
Furthermore, paid Shopify themes give you more control over the look and function of your site. You can choose the right theme for your needs. If you opt to hire a developer to make a custom theme for you, you can get any layout and design you like.
Even though we recommend using a paid Shopify theme for your store, sometimes using a free theme is the right method. We recommend using a free theme when...
If you don’t have a lot of cash lying around right now to invest into your store, a free theme will suffice for the time being. Don’t spend too much time customizing it if you plan to upgrade to a paid theme in the future.
If you’re still playing around with your branding, it doesn’t make sense to invest in a paid theme yet. Otherwise, you might purchase a theme that doesn’t suit your look.
Shopify isn’t the only ecommerce platform. It’s reasonable to experiment with a few of them before you decide on one, but there’s no need to spend your cash. You can explore all of the primary Shopify features without buying anything.
Some store owners set up a Shopify store for very specific purposes. For instance, a family reunion organizer might set up a store for attendees to purchase the reunion T-shirt. Or a boy scout troop might set up a store to sell a few swag products to parents.
In cases like these, your needs are few and your customer base is small, so there’s no sense in spending a lot of cash on a premium theme when a free one will do the job.
If you’re just poking around with tools to see if ecommerce is right for you, don’t purchase a theme yet. Use a free theme until you decide to seriously pursue it.
As you can see, both free themes and paid themes have their advantages and disadvantages over each other. Free themes don’t require payment, but their features and designs are limited. Paid themes offer tons of features and high quality designs, but they require an investment. Ultimately, you’ll have to decide which is right for your store.
If you've decided to go with a paid theme, the next question is: which paid theme should I get? We will save that for another blog post; however, we do recommend any Out of the Sandbox theme (specifically Flex, especially if you want a fast theme) or Pixel Union theme.