In order to trade online you’ll need a Web site capable of displaying your wares, together with a shopping cart, the means of downloading and processing orders and, of course, a way of accepting payments and generating invoices. One way of doing all that is to spend time and money developing a custom e-commerce solution from scratch. Another is to buy a ready-made ‘shop in a box’ and customise it?as with the Actinic family of Windows-based products, which come with everything needed to both design and build an online store and run it on a daily basis.

What is it and who is it for?

One of the first developers to offer a packaged e-commerce product, Actinic addresses a wide segment of the market, from sole traders all the way up to businesses looking to process hundreds of transactions each day. Actinic Enterprise addresses the volume end of that spectrum?the key differentiator being support for a SQL database in which to store product, order and other data, compared to the flat-file Access database used by the other Actinic editions.

Pricing & setup

A far from cheap solution, Actinic Enterprise pricing starts at £4,000 (ex. VAT) for a 2-user setup, with each additional user adding a further £500 (ex. VAT) to that figure. Most Enterprise customers will also opt for help with installation plus on-going support, the associated premium support contract being calculated at 22.5% of the software licensing cost per year, subject to a minimum charge of £1,000 (ex. VAT).

The starting point for the majority of customers will, as a result, be £5,000 (ex. VAT). A lot more than the £799 (ex. VAT) for the single user Actinic Business package or even the multi-user equivalent, Actinic Business Plus which can be had from as little as £1,249 (ex. VAT). Added to which you need to factor in the cost of the Microsoft SQL Server database, whereas the Access database on which Actinic Business and Business Plus rely, is included in the price.

Of course, you’ll also need a Web site, with Actinic able to host the site for you if needed?a dedicated server starting at £540 (ex. VAT) per month. Again, that may seem expensive, but it’s reasonable for what you get and pretty competitive, plus there’s the added benefit of guaranteed compatibility with the Actinic software. However, if you don’t want to put all your eggs into the same provider basket, you’ll find the Actinic product widely supported and, if preferred, you can always use a Web server of your own.

Other than that, all you really need is a Windows PC on which to run the Actinic desktop software from which you design the store, add products, process orders and so on. Enterprise customers will, typically, install this onto several PCs, all linked to the same SQL database with the option to manage multiple sites, each with its own database, from the same install.

And that’s about it. Load up the Actinic software and what you’re presented with is a sample store pre-seeded with a few products which you can then customise and alter to suit your exact requirements. Click a button or two and it’s turned into the code needed to run the site which you then upload to your Web server, again, from within the Actinic package?it’s as simple as that.

Okay, maybe not quite as simple as that, but the development process is very straightforward with lots of easy to use design tools plus the ability to import existing product details as well as manually add items, add photos and so on. A full order processing system is also built in complete with stock control and invoicing facilities. Support for a range of payment services, including Actinic’s own, similarly comes as standard, as does the ability to integrate the software with Sage 50 Accounts and Actinic EPOS for businesses with a physical shop and tills to manage.

Does it do it well?

The big selling point of Actinic Enterprise, and the main reason for considering it over its cheaper stalemates, is the SQL database support. The Access-powered Actinic Business and Business Plus products can’t grow their data stores beyond 2GB, which means having to archive off old orders and histories rather than having them readily to hand when needed. More than that, the SQL database adds extra stability and performance, particularly compared to the multi-user Business Plus package.

Other advantages include additional granularity in terms of user access rights with, for example, the ability to restrict users to just processing payments or picking and packaging orders. Speaking of which, there’s also a warehousing facility, to print out consolidated picking lists ready for shipment, plus a mechanism to handle date-related customer requests, such as specified delivery dates, automatically.

Behind these features, what you get is the same easy to use Actinic product with all the tools needed to build and run your online store. Indeed it’s much the same as other editions, based on the latest Actinic 10 technology, able to handle more than 20,000 product items and process, not just online transactions, but phone and e-mail orders too.

Now with real-time stock control and the ability to suspending online ordering when stocks fall below pre-set levels, the latest implementation also features a much more modern and streamlined checkout procedure. Customer feedback and review facilities have also been added through links to the third party Feefo service, with specially discounted rates compared to what other, non-Actinic, users are charged.

Where does it disappoint?

If anything is going to put customers off considering Actinic Enterprise it will be the cost. Not only is it a lot more expensive to licence than the Business Plus alternative, you also have to factor in the price of SQL Server. And that can be substantial with no support, at present, for the free SQL Server Express edition, which means a full SQL Server 2005/2008 license costing hundreds of pounds. Plus, of course, you’ll need server hardware to run it and a Windows Server OS to host it, all adding to what you have to pay to get started.

Another consideration has to be the lack additional functionality compared to the much cheaper Business Plus edition. Added to which it’s important to understand that the SQL database is only used to service the offline Actinic desktop. There are plans to, eventually, link the Web site direct to the database, but that’s a long way off. In the meantime, you have still to generate pages and upload them to the online store, in much the same way as with the other editions.

Would we recommend it?

Those looking for an off-the-peg e-commerce solution will find a lot in the Actinic line-up to interest them, with much the same core functionality across the whole portfolio. The Enterprise version, however, is the one to go for if you’re intending to handle large numbers of transactions processed by multiple users, the SQL database adding the scalability and stability needed to handle such deployments.

It’s certainly not cheap, but if you’re looking to run a large online store the budget is likely to be a lot larger anyway and it’s not extortionate. Neither is it the only solution around, with both commercial and open source alternatives able to rival what Actinic can do. It is, however, a well proven and popular product with a thriving user community plus plenty of support both from Actinic and third parties, making it a good choice for buyers looking for a scalable, British-based e-commerce solution. [8]