Online Catalogs and Orders, Made Easy

Thursday Jul 1st 2004 by Wayne Kawamoto
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Small businesses unfamiliar with HTML can do well with Actinic's Catalog and Business editions, comprehensive shopping cart programs that easily and painlessly create professional online catalogs without a lick of code.

Small businesses are finding that they can make as many sales through the Web as in brick-and-mortar stores, if they can master the intricacies of the Internet shopping cart. Fortunately, by relying on Actinic's Actinic Catalog and Actinic Business, two comprehensive shopping cart programs, even non-technical business owners can create professional online catalogs.

Actinic Catalog creates e-commerce sites that can showcase about 10,000 products with images and descriptions, while also effectively processing orders and payments, calculating shipping and taxes, and handling quantity-based pricing.

For larger businesses, Actinic Business is designed to process large order volumes and help businesses offer personalized service to customers. Actinic Business offers all the features in Actinic Catalog and adds customer-based pricing, repeat-order wish lists, UPS Online Shipping Tools, customer logins, dynamic links to external spreadsheets and databases, and QuickBooks integration.

The company released Version 7 of its Web-based applications, incorporating a handful of very useful new features -- although little in the way of major changes.

Some Things Old and Some Things New in Version 7
Among the improvements in Version 7, Actinic Catalog includes a much-needed multi-channel order-processing feature allows you to enter telephone and fax orders into Actinic's order processing system. An improved interface offers a moveable toolbar and a helpful real-time preview panel.

You can now record sales information using new order lines, color-codes and comment fields. A new feature encrypts e-mail addresses that appear on the Web site to discourage harvesting by spammers. And, an editable page titles feature lets you modify pages, so your Web site may potentially receive more hits from popular search engines.

Actinic Business now offers advanced merchandising features that let you apply a wide variety of discounts and surcharges to individual products or groups of products. You can configure discounts to expire after a certain length of time, or to be restricted by payment methods. With this feature, you can also create offers such as "three for the price of two," or "buy one, get one free."

Web-Sale Connections
From your Actinic Web site, you can download orders to your desktop PC and use Actinic to print packing lists and invoices, create reports and manage back orders. With an add-on, Actinic Business can be used to sell downloadable products such as software, music and images.

So customers can make purchases with their credit cards, Actinic offers optional add-on merchant account services through a company called Sure Solutions (which also handles Actinic's distribution in the U.S.) With these services, your Web site can accept credit cards in real-time and approve transactions. Actinic also offers an optional Shared SSL service that provides space on a shared secure server to process orders from your Actinic store.

For business that want to link sales data from their Web sites to their accounting backend, the Actinic Link add-on for Actinic Business lets users export orders from Actinic into their accounting application, which updates customer account information, stock levels and product information. Small businesses that rely on Intuit's QuickBooks will want to consider Actinic Link for QuickBooks Pro / Premier 2002 & 2003, which creates a two-way data link between Actinic Business and QuickBooks 2002 & 2003.

Continued on Page Two: Taking Version 7 for a Test Drive.

Continued from Page One.

Test Drive
I encountered no problems downloading and installing Actinic Catalog and I quickly created a professional-looking Web site without any HTML codes or references. The program offered a good choice of attractive, professional-looking layouts that could be changed by simply browsing through design templates, selecting one and applying it.

Once I had a layout that I liked, Actinic made it equally easy to modify color schemes. The new preview panel lets you immediately see changes to your Web pages. Most small businesses should be happy with the Web pages that they create with Actinic.

Throughout, the program makes excellent use of tabbed interfaces to help you review settings and modify them. The main tabbed interface lets you choose between viewing and working with sales content and orders. A general-details tab offers unambiguous options for working with layouts, stock, links and more. I particularly liked the business settings menu that served up clear options for configuring taxes, shipping/handling, terms & conditions and order processing. Simply select the settings that you want or fill in the blank fields.

I found it easy to define terms and conditions, configure shipping charges based on quantity, order value or weight, and to set the system to calculate taxes based on geography. The program also serves a screen that lets you completely reword the default messages that your Web page displays.

Actinic's 'Explorer-style' tree is intuitive to use and let me quickly create a product hierarchy. I could simply drag and drop products to rearrange or move them. To add new products, I only had to right-click, which revealed a page to enter product data and links. As you would expect, the program offered lots of flexible options for adding product images and product descriptions. Actinic also provided an easy wizard that walked me through the process of uploading catalog items via comma and tab-delimited text files.

A QuickStart Tutorial offers eight basic screens that briefly talk about building a site and provide links that take you to the actual functions. The tutorial glosses over details and could offer more information. Perhaps in the future, Actinic could offer the option of a detailed walkthrough that would be more useful to novices.

While I was impressed with the attractive and functional site that I created using Actinic Catalog, I can see how the program's tools can be limiting to those who understand HTML and for businesses that want to create more sophisticated Web sites. For these users, Actinic comes in another flavor, Actinic Developer, a tool for Web designers that supports Macromedia Dreamweaver and offers features for managing multiple sites.

A major Actinic competitor is ShopSite, a server-based product that is sold mainly through partners that bundle the product with Web hosting at various price points, but can be purchased for a one-time charge. ShopSite (reviewed here) can easily build basic sites and offers powerful features that appeal to developers. You can evaluate ShopSite for free through a 24-hour demo version that is available on the company's Web site. I recommend that you take advantage of this, as well as Actinic's free (and better) 30-day evaluation policy to compare the two and determine the one that best meets your needs.

The Bottom Line
Actinic Catalog and Actinic Business are excellent programs for creating attractive and competent online stores. Both are worth a look. Actinic Catalog has a retail price of $499 while Actinic Business has a retail price of $1199.

Wayne N. Kawamoto is a contributor to eCommerce-Guide.com.

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