Actinic Online is the UK company's second go at a cloud-based e-commerce solution, this time in collaboration with Oxatis, a leading French provider of e-commerce products. The signs are good, with Actinic Online a much more complete solution compared to the Actinic Express it replaces. That said, it is a work in progress, with one or two shortcomings still to be addressed.
Actinic Online is an entirely hosted service — store, design software, product database, order-processing tools and all
All in the cloud
It's worth contrasting Actinic Online with the company's popular desktop family — Actinic Catalog, Business and so on, which can be installed onto a Windows PC and used to both design and build an online store and process the resulting orders. The store itself can be hosted by any commercial provider, including Actinic, but the database of products, orders and customers is held locally on the PC, the Actinic software pushing updates to the store on a regular basis to keep it up to date.
With Actinic Online, however, everything is hosted — not just the store, but the software used to design and manage it, the databases it uses and the tools to process orders, market the store and so on.
The advantages are pretty clear. Rather than needing to purchase and install software and find a provider to host the online store component, Actinic Online requires nothing more than a browser. Moreover, the only up-front investment is one-month's subscription, with no minimum contract tie-in either.
The pricing will appeal to small businesses, starting at £19 per month (ex. VAT), for which you get a basic store with support for up to 100 products, 10,000 page views a month and one administrative user. A number of other plans are available, culminating in a Platinum service with support for up to 10,000 products, 200,000 page views and the ability to define up to 10 delegated management roles, all for £149 (ex. VAT) per month.
The same functionality is available regardless of the subscription chosen, and all plans include hosting plus telephone and email technical support (for which Actinic has a good reputation).
The admin console is web-based, so you can tend your online store from anywhere with an internet connection
As well as requiring no major up-front investment, with Actinic Online the product database is continually kept up to date, addressing one of the biggest issues of the desktop implementation — managing stock levels.
Store management can also be done anywhere, rather than solely from PCs dedicated to the task. There's even a mobile-optimised management tool. Plus it's a lot easier to share the management with Actinic Online — for example, by having separate user profiles for designers and order-entry staff.
On the downside you're totally reliant on Actinic and Oxatis to deliver what you need, although they do lay claim to a very robust supporting infrastructure and we found the service very responsive during our tests.
It's worth noting that, rather than reinvent the previous Express product, Actinic has opted to rebrand the Oxatis service for the UK. We were logging onto what were clearly Oxatis servers, although there are UK-specific modifications from Actinic.
All this takes time, but the good news is you don't have to do anything when new features are added. Support for Actinic Payments, for example, was added recently, followed by the ability to automatically tailor the store interface for mobile customers — a feature that was implemented as a simple tick-box option.
The SmartSkins visual editor allows freedom of expression while ensuring that you don't make basic design errors
Online in practice
The Actinic Online store is configured and managed via a web console which, although simple enough to navigate, takes a while to get to grips with. The translation from the original French doesn't help, and the way it works can be confusing in places. For example, there are screens with both Modify and Customize buttons, each with their own specific functions; there's also a fair amount of jargon which, at times, we found a bit too 'programming-speak' for our liking.
Tutorials and videos help here, but more work is needed to guide new users. Moreover, one of the problems with hosted services is that it's easy to add new features and options without first ensuring that the help and training materials have been updated.
As with the desktop product, a sample Actinic Online store is created for you when you sign up, so there's very little to do here. In fact, all that's required is to customise your store's look and provide the details of what you want to sell — which can be products, services or a mix of both. You can also sell intangibles — typically in the form of downloadable files such as apps, MP3 tracks, movies and PDF documents.
The design is template-driven, which is somewhat limiting, but there are lots of standard templates to choose from and customisation options to help make your online store stand out. We particularly liked the SmartSkins visual editor, which allows freedom of expression while ensuring that you don't make basic design errors.
According to Actinic you can also edit the HTML code and style sheets that make up the templates (just like WordPress templates), but you do need to know what you're doing and are advised to get professional help if you want to go down this route. Actinic will also do customisation for you, albeit at a price.
Logos and header images can be imported to further personalise the site, and images also added to product descriptions. We found the image options quite limited, with no facilities to zoom or pan product images, for example.
We configured half a dozen products in our test store and categorised them for easier navigation, a process that took a few minutes to complete. Uploading the details of a typical store, however, could be very time consuming, so there's a separate tool called the Oxatis DataPlug for importing product and user account data in bulk. This can significantly shorten the setup process, and is also recommended when migrating from Actinic Express or the desktop product.
Actinic Online offers plenty of choice of integrated payment services
Another nice feature is for products sold using eBay or Amazon to also be integrated and orders processed through Actinic Online. Unfortunately there's no support for the MOTO feature, found on the desktop product, to integrate and process orders taken by mail order or over the phone, although this is due to be added in the next month or so.
There's plenty of choice when it comes to integrated payment services, including PayPal, Moneybookers, Barclays ePDQ, SagePay and Actinic Payments. Actinic also told us that if customers provide details of other services it will consider adding them to the list. It's also good to see built-in merchandising tools to highlight new products, best-selling and recently viewed items, together with plenty of discounting options, including coupons.
Actinic's mobile-optimised store is currently in beta, and only displays the product catalogue
The mobile angle
Finally, there's that support for mobile customers. Currently in 'beta', but fully supported nonetheless, this automatically switches you into a mobile-optimised store interface when connecting via a smartphone or other mobile device. No extra design work is needed, but only the product catalogue is displayed, other store ephemera being omitted altogether. You're also limited to PayPal for payments, with customers switched back to the full interface if they want to pay by another method.
More work on the mobile interface is clearly needed, but we found it usable even in its current limited format.
Overall we were impressed by Actinic Online. You'll need plenty of time to get to grips with it and build a usable store, and it lacks some capabilities of the desktop products, such as MOTO (Mail Order/Telephone Order) support. However, features are continually being added, and as a hosted small-business e-commerce solution, Actinic Online shows great promise.