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Upgrade to Stencil – Benefits and Things to Know Before Switching

You’ve probably been hearing about Stencil themes lately. You may have been told to upgrade by a BigCommerce support rep when you called in for help. Or you may have received an email from BigCommerce suggesting you make the switch. If you’re active in the BigCommerce Community, you’ve probably also see a lot of questions from merchants using Stencil themes. But you’re probably wondering – why should I upgrade to Stencil?

There are lots of reasons to upgrade to Stencil, but there are even more benefits for stores that are on very old themes. BigCommerce websites with a separate mobile theme have the most reason to upgrade to Stencil, because they’ll be moving to a responsive theme – one where the design adapts to the screen size instead of having a different mobile experience. Since Google prefers responsive designs and is starting to base your rankings on the mobile experience, upgrading to a responsive Stencil theme can have a significant positive impact on your search engine rankings.

Below I’ve listed the primary reasons to upgrade to Stencil. As BigCommerce releases new features for Stencil themes, this list will grow, so check back later if you’re not quite ready to make the switch yet.

Reasons to Upgrade to Stencil

  • Responsive design (benefits older websites with a separate mobile template)
  • Built-in Customize menu that allows you to modify the design without coding
  • New theme options like restricting purchase to login and showing product price ranges
  • Ability to use “if/then” statements, which give your designer more flexibility in customizing your design and displaying content
  • Optimized code to make pages load faster
  • Ability to enable Google AMP, which makes page load quick for mobile users
  • Access to Akamai image caching to speed page load times
  • Improved schema markup so Google can index and display your product pages better
  • Customizable optimized one-page checkout (shown to increase conversion rates)
  • More attractive icons for social media and payment methods
  • Fixes/improvements to some functionality that didn’t work well on Blueprint themes
  • Access to new features and functionality that BigCommerce releases in the future

All of these benefits can lead to more traffic, higher conversion rates and increased sales.

With all that’s good about upgrading to Stencil, you should be aware that Stencil themes do come with additional maintenance costs. You won’t see this talked about much on BigCommerce’s website or hear about it when a tech support rep encourages you to make the switch. Many BigCommerce partners never mention theme updates when they quote you for your BigCommerce web design project. But it’s an important consideration.

Stencil Updates and Associated Costs

Because of how Stencil themes are built, it’s not easy to update a customized Stencil theme. When you purchase a Stencil theme and apply it to your store, you’ll have access to the built-in Customize menu, which gives you a good amount of control over the design. But what if you want to make further changes?

Let’s say you make your own products, so the concept of “brands” doesn’t apply. But your theme has a column in the footer for Brands and you want to remove that. You can disable brands in the Customize menu, but now you’ve got an empty space in the footer, which you’d prefer to use for your Social Media icons. To make that change, you (or your designer) will need to edit the theme files. But to edit the theme files, you have to make a copy of your base theme first. No big deal, right?

BigCommerce and theme designers release updates on a regular basis. These updates include bug fixes, code updates and new code to support features that BigCommerce has released. You can see release notes for all Stencil themes on the BigCommerce website here.

When those updates are pushed out, they’re only applied to the base theme. If you’ve copied your base theme so you or your designer could edit the theme files, your theme copy won’t get those updates. So when BigCommerce says that Stencil themes receive automatic updates, that’s true – but only if you haven’t made a copy. So how do you keep your theme updated?

Updating a copied theme is a fairly time-intensive process. It involves updating the base theme, then re-applying all the changes you made to your theme copy. Depending on how much customization you’ve done on your theme, this process will take at least a few hours. If you’re code-savvy, you may be able to handle this update process yourself. But for many store owners, the easiest way to keep their theme current is hiring a BigCommerce partner to do the updates for them. The cost will depend on the complexity of the code updates to the base theme as well as how much customization you’ve done to your theme copy.

The Stencil theme update process isn’t a reason not to upgrade to Stencil, but it’s worth considering as you decide whether to make the switch. Many store owners are using custom Stencil themes, so this situation is not uncommon. Part of the benefit of upgrading to Stencil is that your theme will receive new features that BigCommerce releases in the future. But you’ll need to pay a developer to update your customized theme if you want access to those features.

If you don’t have the budget for theme updates, you may want to stick with your Blueprint theme. Or you can upgrade to Stencil for the current benefits and not worry about future releases. If you’re on an older theme, upgrading to Stencil may be worth it even if you never update your theme in the future. You’ll need to weigh the pros and cons and decide whether an upgrade to Stencil is the right decision for your business.

If you’re considering an upgrade to Stencil, make sure you work with a certified BigCommerce partner and make sure to ask them about theme updates. Some may charge an ongoing maintenance fee to cover theme updates, others may do them quarterly or only when requested. It’s good to know all the implications of your upgrade to Stencil up-front so you can make an informed choice.