Founded in 1996, Actinic is a British company that has consistently produced reliable and feature-rich 'shop-in-a-box' solutions that help UK-based small businesses trade online. There will always be cheaper and more usable packages (such as the excellent Mr Site), but few offer such a complete package that takes control of the whole e-commerce process with such confidence.
Actinic lets you create an online store, and then receive and process orders from that store. It works by taking all your product data and turning it into a set of web pages, based on the design options you have selected. It also manages all the functionality to control the shopping cart, search and security at your online store. It even handles back-end processes like stock levels, payment and shipping.
Actinic Business v9 isn’t a massive upgrade, but the addition of new Start-up and Design Wizards should enable new users to get up and running quicker, while the revamped context-sensitive help function is now accessible from every screen. For existing users, the Product Option Wizard speeds up new product creation, while a completely new Tax Module provides extra flexibility for setting tax options. Store creation is quicker than before, thanks to a Start Here panel that's designed to take you through the most important areas of the software — setting your company details (name, tax rates, payment methods, delivery charges etc) and applying a basic design to your store where you can set the layout and colours.
New Startup and Design Wizards should help new users get up and running quickly with Actinic Business v9.
There’s a new entry form for orders via mail and telephone that's fully integrated with the e-commerce side and should speed up order processing, providing postcode validation and direct credit card payment options. There's now support for Actinic Payments, a recently-launched and competitively-priced payment processing service that offers tight integration with the software. Google's freely-available Analytics utility has also been integrated to improve site management, enabling merchants to track visitor behaviour and marketing campaigns.
Building a store is done the same way as always using the Content Tree on the left-hand side of the program screen. This shows you the section, products, pages and information items in your store. Clicking on any item in the tree lets you see more details in the Details panel to the right. You can also click on the Page Preview panel to see how the item you have clicked on will look in your online store. Each separate section (and each brochure page) in the store will eventually become a single web page in your online store. The Page Preview panel is especially useful because it shows you what the page you have selected in the content tree will look like online. If you find the panel too small, or you would like experience more of how your customers will see the site, you can always do an offline preview. This allows you to check out your store design in a web browser.
There are two other main tabs along the top of the Actinic screen. The Design tab is where you can change the look and feel of your store pages (although this won’t be there if you are using a Client version of Actinic), and the Orders tab is where you manage and process the orders received at your store. The preview panel on the Design tab is different from the one on the Content tab as it is interactive. For instance, if you click on something in the preview the HTML code for that item will appear in the Layout Code panel within the tab, which is great for seasoned developers looking for the ultimate in control. You can even design in Dreamweaver and import your code back into Actinic if you prefer.
When it comes to the most important part of running a business — taking money — Actinic offers a wide range of options. You may choose to use a payment service to process your customers' card details, but you'll need to sign up to a Payment Service Provider (PSP). Actinic supports a wide range of PSPs, including its own Actinic Payments service. If you have an existing business and already have the ability to process credit card numbers, then you may simply need a way for your online customers to send you their card details.
If you want to work in this way, you'll need SSL, which is a method for sending information securely over the internet. You can purchase your own SSL certificate for your site, and Actinic will work with it — you might want to talk to your web hosting company about this. Alternatively, Actinic (and others) offer a Shared SSL service that will allow you to take credit card numbers securely for an annual fee without needing your own SSL certificate.
To retrieve any orders placed at the store, the Retrieve Orders button on the toolbar connects to your store and reports any orders waiting to be retrieved. It then downloads them and lists the orders within the Orders tab. You can view the details of an order by double-clicking on it. If you're not expecting many orders to be placed at your store, you can simply check your email inbox for New Catalog Order Received notification emails. You can set up customer accounts for your regular customers, allowing customers to log into the store with a username and password, and have their name and address information preset in the checkout. You can go further and create Customer Groups who can be assigned discounts, or only have access to certain products.
The list of features goes on and on, and there's little that Actinic v9 doesn't cover. As your online business grows, you can modify your site design in a matter of minutes — developing various marketing schemes to drive business such as adding Best Seller, New Products and Related lists. You may even want to create a mailing list set by filtering your customers' contact details, set up free shipping for specific products, or create a discount based on order value.
Actinic Business is effectively an enterprise-level product with an SME-level price tag. It's ready to use out of the box, unlike many of its enterprise competitors, and offers plenty of room for customisation as your online store grows. Our only criticism is that it could be overwhelming for newcomers and overkill for sole traders (you really need to be shifting lots of products to hundreds of customers to get your money's worth). If you're a sole trader taking your first steps into e-commerce, Actinic probably isn’t the right choice, even though the simpler Actinic Catalog (£399 ex. VAT) is available. But if you have delusions of e-commerce grandeur, jump right in.