Shopify Unite 2021 - Takeaways from the Virtual Conference

By Liam Quinn - 31 August, 2021
Liam Quinn 2021

Shopify Unite was hosted a few weeks ago now, and we’ve had time to digest the announcements and understand what sort of effects they’re going to have on our agency and the brands we work with. This year was certainly more development focused than previous conferences, but we still got some insight into Shopify’s roadmap and future functionality.

I’ve dissected the areas of main interest, and how each of these might also affect merchants, projects and the ecosystem as a whole.

App Development

App Revenue Share

Shopify has scrapped the 20% revenue share costs for Shopify Apps up to the first $1m generated per year. Also past that point, the percentage cost has dropped to 15%. This should lead to more resources for app developers to improve the quality of Shopify Apps - particularly at the lower to mid end of the market.

Developer Console

Shopify introduced the new “developer console” for easier testing throughout app development. Developing and testing apps in isolation of a genuine store environment was previously a clunky experience, especially without the ability to quickly see changes in real time. This new console should hopefully provide a much more robust environment optimised for developers.

Webhook Events with Google Cloud

Google Cloud middleware has been introduced as a more native way to manage incoming webhooks and queuing API calls. As with some of these announcements, it’s quite a specific one that won’t interest the masses - however it is an indication that Shopify is putting a lot more focus on being a serious platform for developers to do more.

App Store Ad Spaces

There’s soon to be evolution of the paid ad spaces on the Shopify App store to improve the customer experience and exploration of apps. Whilst ‘conversion ads’ will still exist, personalised sets of ‘awareness ads’ tailored towards what Shopify’s algorithm decides a merchant needs to see at that point in time, are going to be gradually included. This is another opportunity for the smaller apps to potentially get noticed, and for merchants to explore and discover new apps.

Theme Development

CLI & Theme Development Tools, with Github Integration

This is unfairly combining three (or so) separate announcements, each of which are really interesting for developers - but all bundle quite nicely into one sentence of “a new suite of theme development tools is now available to make theme development cleaner, easier and more efficient”. Some of the benefits that come from these tools that would be of more interest is:

  • The development time per task should be quicker and updates should be deployed to a site with less risk of issues cropping up.

  • This should also eliminate an issue with the development of multiple tasks at the same time, which can be reasonably common. Often merchants may want to deploy some of tasks that have been tested and signed off, but due to complicated version control we have previously had to wait for all the development to be complete and deployed at the same time.

  • This should allow the merchant to carry out minor tasks that currently risk being overwritten by the next development deployment due to version control setup (for example, adding a new app or updating tracking codes that sit in the theme).

Dawn Starter Theme

For a number of years now (in fact for about as long as I can remember) Debut has been the base theme that comes with a fresh version of Shopify. In the early days, this was often extended by a development agency as the base to their own custom theme. However, Debut has generally been redundant in more recent times and has been replaced by a base that is set up for the new architecture and ready for ‘Sections Everywhere’ - and is apparently ~35% faster then other themes out of the box. All merchants and brands should expect Dawn to become the new base for custom themes imminently.

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Source: Shopify

Storefront API Updates

We should also expect a range of improvements to the data that is accessible via the Storefront API. This is an area where Shopify has been weaker than other platforms, particularly when it comes to implementing a headless approach, so this is a good step in the right direction to fix that. Included in the additions here are new capabilities around cart, international pricing, delivery methods, subscriptions, metafields and more.

Checkout Updates

Shopify’s checkout has long been a double edged sword - whilst it has been proven to be best in class around UX and reliability, the complete lockdown of ability to customise has been a major pain.

These announcements mean that as well as ongoing improvements around performance and scalability, the checkout will now be opened for; new app integrations and extensions, more styling options, splitting functionality for different stages of the checkout, a range of new APIs.

The post-purchase experience - currently completing payment and being redirected to the generic thank you page - will now be customisable, which will have a range of benefits from customer experience to more detailed tracking setups. Lastly, Shopify Scripts have been rebuilt to be more efficient and allow Merchants to update without the need for touching any code.

Hydrogen & Oxygen

It sounds like very early days for this combination of new products on Shopify, so this is more of a teaser than anything to expect to use in production in the coming weeks - but interesting nonetheless. These are essentially the bricks & the mortar to put together custom storefronts using React JS components. This is again a step towards making Headless approaches more feasible on Shopify.

Store Setup

Online Store 2.0

The announcement of Online Store 2.0 was arguably the biggest and most exciting thing to come out of Unite. The restructuring and rearchitecting of how fundamentals of stores work, in combination with customisations and themes, is a major change.

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Source: Shopify

Amongst the points listed below, this means the long awaited Sections Everywhere has now become available - to build out rich content across the site using Sections on any template. Unfortunately, this is not just a feature that can just be switched on and used within minutes as hoped. It will take some major development to existing stores in order to use - and so any projects in planning or very early build stages may want to pause and consider this now.

Metafields

Metafields are being improved to be more flexible in the data and formats that they can hold. Images & PDFs can now be used here cleanly. Managing metafields natively through the Shopify admin is long overdue, but these changes are the first step towards this being the case.

Managing Files and Assets

Changes in the way files and assets are managed from Settings means these will now all be accessible via the APIs which means Apps and complex custom functionality has the potential to do more, or be built more cleanly if they require connection to file(s).

My Opinions

How do we think these announcements could potentially shape the future of Shopify users and the ecosystem:

  • These new changes are definitely beneficial for merchants being less restricted in what they can do, and restricted by how their theme has been built. Adding apps, managing content, complex offers, upsells etc will all increasingly require no development effort.

  • Longer term, I think these changes could see a significant change in the agency market - particularly for development agencies doing smaller theme builds. Input from agencies may become less essential, and simpler in terms of complexity. Agencies may focus time on making visual tweaks to a commercial theme. I could certainly see a world where the “Theme Store” becomes a “Sections Store” and the trajectory continues to move towards a Squarespace style ‘no code page builder’ for new merchants and the lower end of the market.

  • Meanwhile, the higher end of the market will still be in custom theme development - possibly with a bigger focus on the creative side (and advantage for creatively strong agencies) to create much more unique experiences. This is ultimately gearing up for headless builds to become the norm, and for Shopify to be a better option for this market than BigCommerce or some of the other API first platforms.

If you have any questions about the announcements from Shopify Unite, feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn or email me at liam@vervaunt.com.