Whether you are an established offline business and now need an online presence or a start-up looking to trade purely online, you need to make sure that your Web-based business is up to scratch so you can turn browsers into customers. The advantage of using a professional Web designer and/or Web developer is that you’ll get a professional-looking site that is – hopefully – standards compliant, providing a relatively smooth entry into the world of online retail.

However, paying someone to design your site and set up the all-important shopping cart can be pricey. If you are comfortable with Web design packages such as Adobe’s Dreamweaver you could set up the store yourself, but this will mean that you’ll have to set time aside to maintain and update the site once it is up and running. Again, you’ll have to make sure your site is standards compliant so its works in all the major browsers and that it is secure – especially if you intend to accept online payments and manage customers’ details.

The most cost-effective and easy-to-use option is to use a hosted Web store such as Actinic Express v2.0. There are others in this space, including the excellent Mr Site Beginner (£23.49 for first year, £1.69 per month thereafter), which cater for the very small business selling a few specialist items to those selling thousands of products. Each product is, of course, very different to use, but they are all basic in functionality and often it’s just a matter of uploading your product details and any other relevant information onto the host site.

Unlike its bigger brothers Actinic Catalog (£399) and Actinic Business (£799), Actinic Express v2.0 (£49.99 setup, £19.99 per month) is a Web-based application (no disc or printed manual provided). This means that from a single log-in screen the service provides all the core elements you need to start selling: site design (templates), product management tools, order processing, and customer details. Weirdly, Actinic Express doesn’t let you purchase a domain name (a Web address). Unlike Mr Site, it doesn’t even come with a free .COM domain name (or subsequent e-mail addresses). You can, critically, switch the default Actinic Express URL (i.e. http://shop3.actinicexpress.com/shops/shop10/index.php) to a registered domain name. Bear in mind that it can take up to 48 hours for your domain name to propagate once the URL has been redirected from within Actinic Express, so to minimise downtime you should get onto this as soon as you start developing your site.

Another issue is if you intend to take payments online; you will further need to set up a third-party processing and payment account (Actinic Payments, PayPal Pro, Protx, Secpay or Google Checkout), which will likely incur small surcharges for each transaction. Actinic Payments, for example, can handle and automate the payment process, but costs a yearly £100 (plus a one-off set-up of £20) for up to 800 transactions per year. If you exceed this amount the fee is a costly 39p per transaction. PayPal on the other hand is free to setup and doesn’t charge a subscription, but takes a cut of on all sales generated from your business. Thankfully, implementing either of these payment processes is a snap once you have an account, simply requiring you to enable (one click does it all) the payment gateway from Actinic Express’s toolbar.

The major benefits of a hosting package such as Actinic Express is that it has been developed by e-commerce specialists. What this means is that you don’t have to worry too much about your site’s compliance, security and usability. If you are designing a Web site from scratch using HTML you need to ensure visitors to your site don’t lose interest by making sure that each page loads quickly, the site is easy to navigate and that all costs (including delivery charges) are transparent. A recent survey by Marketing Sherpa has shown that 60% of online orders are abandoned at the shopping cart stage, often because the customer isn’t aware of all the charges earlier in the purchase. With Actinic Express, all these headaches are taken care of.

There are twelve store themes to suit your site’s content. While none of these themes will win you any awards, they are all reasonable and get the job done. You customise a theme with you your company logo, different fonts and colour schemes so that your site has its own look and feel compared to other sites developed using free templates. The design options for the product pages also provide a choice of displaying products in multiple columns on a page, which is ideal for site owners with a range of up to 20,000 products. Once you start to populate your online store you’ll be pleased to know that Actinic Express gives you compete flexibility over the product items in your shop. You can create as many product sections and categories as you wish, and add images, descriptions and product options with choices such as small, medium and large. You can also define a range of options and choices for each product, selectable by radio buttons or drop-down menus.

As well as making your online store user-friendly for your customers, Actinic Express makes it simple for you to update products and manage orders. There is no versatile system in place that alerts you when new orders are received (no SMS or e-mailing facilities), but the order processing screen lets you see quite clearly what actions are required. Sadly, you can’t export customer details or process orders to another application (such as Word or Excel), but you can at least makes notes online and print them. The order filtering options are reasonable too, allowing you to set date ranges and payment status (received, rejected, refunded etc).

There’s so much to consider when setting up an online store that it can seem overwhelming to a would-be ecommerce entrepreneur. From the little details to the bigger ones, you as the owner are responsible for all of it. Actinic Express takes away a lot of the stress and leaves you with the hardest part of all – marketing. There is no point have the best products in the world if no-one knows you site exists. Unfortunately, this is where Actinic Express bails out. Once you have created your store and you’re ready to open its doors to the world, you will need to think about ways to build a dialogue with customers (introducing user ratings or a comments facility), creating an e-newsletter, mailshot or brochure with special offers and details about new ranges to encourage customers to visit your site again. Actinic Express offers none of these important marketing features, leaving you high and dry to face the world of e-retail on your own. I can’t be too critical, however, as no other software in this space offers these features either. I’m just giving you a heads-up that there’s a lot more to consider when setting up shop online than the ‘nuts and bolts’.

Actinic Express should be taken for what is: an entry-level, Web-based shopping cart that provides start-up Web retailers with a quick and cost-effective way to start trading online. It’s not an all-encompassing e-commerce solution that takes control of everything you need in order to be successful, but it does let you create and manage your own online shop very easily, all via a Web browser without requiring the expense and complexity of a weighty software package or a developer.

The biggest benefit of Actinic Express is that is enables quick store setup and provides the flexibility to customise with your own company and contact information and shopper terms and conditions. The ‘Quickstart’ wizard walks you through the initial site set up and the software automatically creates a standards-based store with features such as automated site navigation (menu bar, section list, site map and ‘breadcrumb trail’) and product search facilities (keyword or price range). A shopping cart content summary is also visible on every page, which is a neat usability feature.

The biggest criticism I had with the software is that it is expensive over the long-term thanks to the monthly charges. Actinic Payments is also expensive compared to PayPal and Google Checkout. Other issues to bear in mind are that you need to register a domain and sort your e-mail accounts outside of the software. The more experienced you get with working on the Web, the more frustrated you will get with the inability to edit your site’s HTML pages. This is especially true if you want to add community-type features such as a blog, forum, comments area, real-time chat or user reviews. Perhaps the biggest bugbear is that once you have created a store in Actinic Express you’re stuck with Actinic – the company only provides export options for upgrading to its weightier and costlier e-commerce solutions. For absolute beginners looking for a solid solution, Actinic Express is excellent and will get you online and running a complete store in a couple of hours. If cost is an issue, Mr Site is the way to go.