How Customizable Is Shopify? Standing Out at Scale Without Giving Up Control

How Customizable Is Shopify? Standing Out at Scale Without Giving Up Control

Is it better to be fast or to be original?

Better to launch new projects, products, and campaigns quickly … or to create rich customer experiences — one line of code at a time?

It’s a dilemma that lies at the center of enterprise-level ecommerce.

The thing is … it’s also false.

Today, let’s pull back the curtain and take aim at a question we hear regularly, “Just how customizable is Shopify, really?”

To do that, we’ll look at five areas where myths associated with this deceptive either-or fallacy can stunt growth and kill progress:
  1. Customizing Themes
  2. Customizing Products
  3. Customizing Discounts
  4. Customizing Checkouts
  5. Customizing Payments


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1. Customizing Themes: “To template or not to template, that is the question.”

The decision to build your site from scratch or start with a templated theme isn’t an easy one. Ground-up development — the kind that open-source code allows — gives you full control over every decision as you plan, create, and optimize.

Control like that is seductive. But does it pay off? Perhaps a better question is: What’s your goal?

In The Science of Familiarity: How to Increase Conversions by Being Completely Unoriginal, Shanelle Mullin — who now helps run content and growth at Shopify — opens with a surprising revelation:

“Unconsciously, we give preference to things and people we’re familiar with. … Even if the stimuli you’re being repeatedly exposed to is negative (e.g. an abusive relationship), you will subconsciously find comfort in the familiarity of it.”

In ecommerce, Amazon is the king of familiarity. So much so that its “conversion rate among Prime members is 74%.” That’s 1,133% higher than those same shoppers at other online retailers.

As Mullin puts it, “Those numbers are impressive. So, what gives? Amazon’s copy and design aren’t 1,133% better than everyone else’s. Amazon converts so much better than the competition because it’s familiar … to the point of habit.”

In other words, the power of familiarity — creating a user experience that is first and foremost natural — offers substantial evidence against the need to recreate the wheel.

Instead, what really matters is balance: giving customers just enough originality that you stand out, but not so much that finding what they want becomes a chore.

That’s exactly where templated themes with customizable frontends through Liquid, HTML, CSS, and JavaScript come in.

Coming up, we’ll dig deeper into how to customize Shopify from a technical perspective. For now, consider men’s luxury fashion retailer Ledbury.

Built off of Shopify’s Debut theme, you’d never know their storefront wasn’t coded from the ground up. High-quality product images, mobile optimization, and the use of full-screen video merge to create a customer experience that reflects Ledbury without sacrificing ease-of-use:


As Ledbury co-founder Paul Watson explains:

How Customizable Is Shopify Standing Out At Scale Without Giving Up Control“Using the Shopify Plus themes has allowed us to quickly iterate on design layouts and functionality with our development partners at Maui New York. The result is a superb user experience to our customers while streamlining our operational processes on the back-end.”

C by GE — in conjunction with their Parter, ZehnerGroup — utilizes a host of interactive elements to show off their state-of-the-art LED smart bulb:

For photography and technology powerhouse Think Tank Photo, beautiful design was just the start.

From accounting and inventory automation to information-rich content and stunning imagery to “a seamless integration between Shopify and a custom built CMS using Python’s Django framework as a canvas,” Shopify Agency Partner ZDCA customized Think Tank Photo from the backend forward:

How Customizable Is Shopify Standing Out At Scale Without Giving Up Control

In the words of Philip Vasilevski, the co-founder and technical director at Maui New York who partnered with Ledbury:

“The development workflow with Shopify is the best of any ecommerce platform — both in terms of front-end styling and CMS capabilities. Beyond that, Shopify Plus provides great documentation, API support, and tools like Theme Kit.”

Tired of battling scalability and control?

Shopify Plus makes it possible to customize everything that matters to today’s ecommerce customers. Automating full-scale campaigns, creating personalized buyer journeys, offering intuitive payments and direct social selling …

Connect with an ecommerce expert

2. Customizing Products: “Complex doesn’t mean complicated.”

Theme customization on Shopify strikes a balance between familiarity and originality. Both of which are frontend considerations.

Customizing your products, on the other hand, is far more about striking a balance between the frontend — for customers — and the backend — for merchants. After all, it’s one thing to display your products beautifully. It’s another matter to make them easy to purchase, update, add, remove, manage, and list across multiple sales channels.

Our position is straightforward: you shouldn’t need an IT team or coding knowledge to add a product, change copy, update images, load a video, or even optimize details like pricing, shipping, and SEO.

Everybody should be able to do these things without software getting in the way.

For streamlined management, Shopify’s RESTful API integrates directly with your existing OMS, PIM, 3PL, and CRM. The same API access can also be used to bulk upload or update your products.

As for customization, three points deserve special attention.

First, multi-channel sales. Once you’ve set up your products, Shopify’s native integration means you can automatically push individual products or entire collections to over 20 different channels. Most notably: POS for physical sales, social networks like Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram, chat platforms for conversational commerce, mobile apps, wholesale, and Buzzfeed.

Second, variants. For merchants with deeply customizable products, Shopify’s 100 variant limit is often seen as a black mark. Complete code control over the backend removes such limitations … or so the argument goes.

In truth, very few merchants bump up against the 100 variant limit; however, for those that do, Jason Bowman — a Solutions Engineer and APAC Team Lead at Shopify Plus — recently released a step-by-step process to exceed those constraints along with the exact code you’ll need to accomplish it:

customize Shopify products to exceed 100 variant limit

Third, metafields. Instead of creating multiple templates to accommodate unique data or design elements, metafields give you the ability to customize products, collections, blog posts, and even entire pages.

How Customizable Is Shopify Standing Out At Scale Without Giving Up Control“Metafields allow frontend developers and designers to evolve their themes and products beyond what’s possible with the default data fields,” explains Bowman. “This is the hidden superpower that helps drive some amazing custom designs.”

In their most straightforward form, metafields can be used to add product information (like care instructions for apparel):

Custom metafields in Shopify

More advanced usage — particularly with the ShopifyFD tool — extends to product videos, hover features, affiliate links, and any other custom adaptations you’d like to make:

How does all this translate to the frontend? This time, let’s peek briefly at two examples of Shopify customization in action.

Last month Kim Kardashian launched KKW Beauty. The site featured five unique cosmetic sets, all of which sold out in a matter of hours.

To achieve this, KKW showcased each set with a mobile-friendly blend of product images, in-action shots, and a “Read More” option to toggle seamlessly between description and visuals:


At the opposite end of the spectrum, take Nice Laundry’s “Build Your Box.” Not only can customers filter, expand, and add 108 different products to their cart, they can also select sizes and engage in live chat … all without ever leaving a single page:


3. Customizing Discounts: “I thought Shopify just did coupon codes.”

While competing on price as a growth strategy is self-defeating, it’s not as though price is irrelevant. When it comes to acquiring new customers, retaining and rewarding the ones you already have, and maximizing average order value, price is a powerful leverage point.

Unfortunately, optimizing discounts at scale is often the “king of all ecommerce migraine headaches.”

“Imagine having tens of thousands of products for sale on your site, offering discounts to customers who buy in bulk, but having to manually add each discount you want to offer because you can’t automate the process.”

For Merchology — a leading provider of corporate branded apparel and accessories with more than 50,000 products — the search for a way to automate discounting was what led them to Shopify Plus.

Customizing discounts on Shopify comes down to three options.

(1) Discount Codes

Naturally, you can create discount codes for customers to enter manually at checkout. These codes can be applied to specific products, collections, customers, or universally.

Pura Vida Bracelets utilizes first-time buyer codes masterfully by not only offering a variety of overlays but by adding the appropriate code to the top of each customer’s browser so that it follows them throughout their journey:

How Customizable Is Shopify Standing Out At Scale Without Giving Up Control

How Customizable Is Shopify Standing Out At Scale Without Giving Up Control

(2) Price Discounts

Much like codes, price discounts are manual creations you can use to mark down products or collections. The result is a comparable price that shows off savings in the form of dollar amounts, percentages, or both.

However, don’t let the simplicity of this approach fool you.

Lapis Lois, for instance, has applied price discounts in an ingenious way. To begin, the jewelry seller operates two storefronts: (1) their usual domain and (2) a subdomain.

Visiting the second of the two immediately prompts you for a password, which they leveraged last month after an appearance on Today:

How Customizable Is Shopify Standing Out At Scale Without Giving Up Control

Image via Lapislois

How Customizable Is Shopify Standing Out At Scale Without Giving Up Control

Image via Lapislois

(3) Custom Scripts

Shopify Scripts go beyond the first two options and allow you to create custom code to apply a variety of buying incentives automatically:

  • Percentage (%) or amount ($) off products
  • Tiered pricing for volume
  • Free shipping thresholds
  • Buy one get one (BOGO)
  • Discounts based on past purchase behavior

And virtually any other order logic you can think of.

Scripts remove the need for manual coupon codes and one-size-fits-all price discounts. In Merchology’s case, their Scripts identify changes in size or quantity and automatically adjust prices in real-time:

How Customizable Is Shopify Standing Out At Scale Without Giving Up Control

How Customizable Is Shopify Standing Out At Scale Without Giving Up Control“This is a game changer. Instead of finding workarounds, using apps, or writing code to trick the system, Scripts gives us the flexibility we need to customize ecommerce sites which benefits merchants, customers, and agencies like us.”

Jonathan Goodman, President at Range

4. Customizing Checkouts: “But can you customize Shopify when it matters most?”

There’s an old saying in ecommerce — if old can be applied to something yet to hit its mid-thirties: “optimize closest to the money.”

Of course, ecommerce didn’t invent this idea. Rather, it’s a digital adaptation of sales and marketing’s most universal principle: the right offer, design, images, copy, and incentives count for nothing if you can’t close the deal.

In ecommerce, failure to optimize closest to the money results in two painful words: abandoned carts. Eliminating abandoned carts means that customizing your checkout process is one place it pays (pun intended) to retain fine-grain control. Optimization demands governing exactly what your customers experience, lest they fail to become customers.

The truth is: Until Shopify Plus, this was easily the biggest objection to customization on Shopify.

How Customizable Is Shopify Standing Out At Scale Without Giving Up Control

“The ability to customize with Shopify Plus really allows us to push it to the limit,” says Gina Gregory, from design and development agency Noticed, “and create a custom checkout experience customers can trust and be confident that their personal and payment information is safe. It really makes customers feel like the site is going to take care of them.”

Thankfully — in addition to the cart features mentioned in the discounts section — Shopify Plus merchants can completely customize their checkouts through the checkout.liquid file.

Unlike a site’s overall theme, checkout.liquid is self-contained and doesn’t render any additional template files. This means you can duplicate the same styling as your site itself while — at the same time — editing the code that controls the checkout process directly.

We’ve already seen how Pura Vida uses overlay discounts to generate new customers.

How Customizable Is Shopify Standing Out At Scale Without Giving Up Control

Once someone enters their shopping cart, the code not only follows them, but three new incentives appear:

  1. A “Buy any 3 Originals, Get the 4th FREE!” offer
  2. An offer to “Help more Costa Rican Artisans” by purchasing a Mystery Bracelet
  3. Free shipping “unlocked” based on total order value:

How Customizable Is Shopify Standing Out At Scale Without Giving Up Control

The checkout screen makes purchasing as easy as possible by …

  1. Opening with PayPal and Amazon Pay gateways
  2. Giving the option to create an account through email, Facebook, or Google
  3. Appling the coupon code automatically
  4. Applying free shipping automatically as well

How Customizable Is Shopify Standing Out At Scale Without Giving Up Control

LilGadgets, on the other hand, has built a customized checkout process that displays as one screen on desktop and morphs into a three-step sequence on mobile:

How Customizable Is Shopify Standing Out At Scale Without Giving Up Control

The point of each example is the same: whatever customization your checkout process needs, Shopify Plus can make possible.

5. Customizing Payments: “More is more, except when it’s not.”

Although accepting payments are the final step in checkout, they deserve special attention on the customization front for at least two reasons.

First, personalization.

Shopify offers over a hundred different payment gateways based on you and your customer’s location. This includes Shop Pay — which allows you to accept cards online or off without any third-party setup — as well as a host of third-party gateways built directly into our Level 1 PCI compliant checkout. Plus, if your preferred gateway doesn’t yet exist, Shopify’s Hosted Payment SDK can integrate it.

Of course, options are great, but too many choices can lower conversion rates. In this sense, less is almost always more. That’s why the Shopify Script Editor lets you create a smart checkout experience to show, hide, or rename payment methods based on select products, customer groups or tags, or a customer’s shipping address.

How Customizable Is Shopify Standing Out At Scale Without Giving Up Control

The result is a payment process that’s personalized for each customer.

Second, mobile.

Pura Vida Bracelets loads PayPal and Amazon Pay front and center on their checkout screen. Why? Because on mobile, the less-is-more principle becomes paramount. In this case, fewer clicks equal more sales.

In addition to integrating with other mobile-friendly gateways like Apple, Shop Pay’s new one-field confirmation takes easy to a whole new level:

How Customizable Is Shopify Standing Out At Scale Without Giving Up Control

Together, Shopify’s Script Editor and mobile-payment options — not to mention native sales channels on Facebook, Pinterest, and (very soon) Instagram — combine to add the final touch of customization to your online funnel.

Forget the Fallacy

“One size fits all” can be deadly in ecommerce.

But that doesn’t mean you have to trade responsiveness and speed for customization and control.

Moving fast with new projects, products, and campaigns while at the same time creating rich, unique, and personalized customer experiences are both possible.

Whether you want to customize your theme, products, discounts, checkouts, payments, or more … standing out at scale and staying in control aren’t mutually exclusive.

At least, not on the right platform.

Find out for yourself

Shopify Plus puts control back in the hands of merchants, marketers and ecommerce managers … without forcing you to sacrifice speed, agility, or deep customization.

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About the author

Aaron Orendorff

Previously the Editor in Chief of Shopify Plus, Aaron Orendorff is the founder of iconiContent, a strategic agency “saving the world from bad content.” Named by Forbes as one of the top 10 B2B content marketers, his work has appeared on Mashable, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, Fast Company, Inc., Success Magazine, The Next Web, Content Marketing Institute, and more.

Check out Aaron Orendorff’s work