- ✓New marketing features
- ✓enhanced point-and-click development interface
- ✓new design tab for detailed customisation
- ✓Dreamweaver support
- ✓links to Sage and QuickBooks
- ✓secure online payments
- ✕Lacks dynamic database links
- ✕no self-registering of customers
Question: you’re a small business looking to start trading on the Internet; do you (a) shell out thousands of pounds to a developer for a custom e-commerce site or (b) try and do it yourself? If your answer is (b), then Actinic Business 8 should be high on your shopping list of tools that can save you both time and money.
UK-based Actinic was one of the first companies to come up with an e-commerce application and its software is very popular both with professional Web developers and self-builders. This is primarily because it provides just about everything needed not only to design an online store but also to run it on a day-to-day basis. And you don’t need expensive hardware or dedicated servers -- just a Windows PC and an ordinary Web site will do the job.
If you’re a sole trader you might want to start with Actinic Catalog (£379 ex. VAT). However, we tested the £799 (ex. VAT) Actinic Business package, which is aimed at larger organisations needing to service more customers. This lets you create and run a single e-commerce site; a £1,249 (ex. VAT) multi-site version is also available, along with implementations for developers looking to develop branded sites for customers.
The key to understanding all of the Actinic products is that, branding apart, e-commerce sites are pretty much alike. Goods and services are displayed in an electronic shop, customers choose what they want, pay by credit card, and then you arrange for delivery, invoicing and so on. The underlying processes are all pretty straightforward and easily programmed -- in the case of Actinic, using static HTML pages plus Perl scripts to handle things like shopping carts and payment processing.
Load the Actinic software onto a Windows PC and what you get is a sample online store pre-seeded with a couple of products that you can then customise and alter to suit your exact requirements. Click a button or two and it’s all turned into the code needed to run the site, which you then upload to your Web server. It’s as simple as that.
OK, maybe it’s not quite as simple as that, but the development process is very straightforward, with the site content organised in a familiar tree-format with a preview window alongside to see the effect of any changes straight away.
Click on the content tree and you can add new items, move things around, group items together in sections and generally manage what you want to display, with a separate window to edit selected items in more detail.
Naturally it takes a while to get to grips with how it all works, but there’s a useful tutorial and good supporting documentation. Using these it took us just a few of hours to configure our own site with new sections and products complete with images, descriptions, prices and so on. We were also able to sell intangibles such as music and software downloads. Plus it’s possible to import existing product lists (for example from a database or a spreadsheet), although this has to be done offline; there are no facilities to create links to online databases in this version.
Tools to brand and change the look and feel of the site are provided in quantity, including an extensive collection of pre-configured themes that can be applied simply by selecting from a list.
New in this release, you can also open a separate design window and change the underlying code directly, simply by pointing at what you want to alter. Some HTML knowledge is required, but you can still do quite a lot even if you're not an experienced programmer. And if you're a Web developer, Actinic 8 now lets you customise sites using Dreamweaver.
However, this program doesn’t stop at Web site design. Supporting the site is a complete order processing system, including the ability to accept payment via a variety of commercial payment services, accept vouchers and apply discounts. Stock control and invoicing options are also provided, along with links to Sage and QuickBooks accounting packages. Plus you get that all-important SSL support, enabling even the smallest of businesses to trade securely online.
Other useful features include enhanced marketing tools, such as the ability to automatically generate and display new product and best seller lists. You can also associate products together for cross-promotion and create 'also bought' lists based on previous choices. Other tools are available to generate mailing lists, labels and envelopes and to allow registered customers access to special offers and site areas not available to the casual browser. However, users can’t register online in this version.
Generating the necessary scripts to run the site and uploading them to the server is very easy, with facilities to trial the site through Actinic itself or upload to your own host at the click of a button. Updates are equally easy to apply, and overall Actinic Business is a comprehensive e-commerce package with lots of useful features in this new release. It's well worth evaluating whether you're a DIY merchant or seasoned e-commerce developer.